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HIGH ACHIEVERS: Future CU Ravens rugby player Ella Dunn helps Woodroffe special needs students in sport, wins OFSAA Character Athlete Award

By Martin Cleary

The COVID-19 pandemic was a major disruptive force in people’s lives over the past three years.

Woodroffe High School student-athlete Ella Dunn fully understands that. But she also was able to find a huge positive from that troubling time and it changed her life.

“During COVID, I learned to be super independent,” Dunn, 18, said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It allowed me to be able to handle things myself. I could think about what I wanted. I’m in Grade 12 and I’m open to much more than when I was in Grade 9.”

When Dunn entered Grade 9 at Woodroffe, which was six months before the Ottawa arrival of COVID-19, she was quiet and reserved.

Three years later and after two years of non-classroom studying and no high school sports, Dunn entered her senior year ready to take charge and become a leader.

She touched the lives of many of her peers as captain of the girls’ rugby 7s and curling teams and played a key instructional role for a group of special needs students in Woodroffe’s ongoing partnership with the Special Olympics Ontario school program.

While being an active leader as well as an honour-roll student with an 87-per-cent, first-semester average, she was building an incredible resume. Woodroffe phys-ed teacher Tegan Bradshaw noticed and thought enough of Dunn’s volunteer work in the Tigers’ sports community to nominate her for the OFSAA Character Athlete Award.

In May, Dunn learned she was one of four student-athletes selected from more than 90 submissions to earn the prestigious honour along with a $500 bursary from Jostens and a commemorative plaque.

The Character Athlete Award “celebrates the efforts of the exceptional student-athletes in Ontario, who best exemplify the characteristics that OFSAA is founded on.” OFSAA, the governing body for Ontario high school sports, prides itself in leadership, respect, integrity, equity, diversity and resilience.

Dunn was the last person to learn she had won the award. OFSAA contacted Bradshaw to share the good news and she informed Dunn’s parents, but asked them to keep it a secret.

Bradshaw broke the news to Dunn by showing her a specific page of the OFSAA website, which announced the names of the winners. Dunn was shocked to see her photo and the story naming her as one of the award winners.

“That was crazy,” Dunn said, recalling that moment of surprise.

Crazy might also be an appropriate word to describe the time and effort she invested in the Woodroffe sports community in 2022-23.

A rugby player in the Barrhaven Scottish system and a former Eastern Ontario player, Dunn was keen on playing girls’ rugby 7s last September, after the pandemic cancelled the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

“Ella has captained the rugby and curling teams because she is able to command respect from her coaches and teammates through her lead-by-example leadership and dedication,” Bradshaw wrote in her nomination letter to OFSAA.

“As a student-athlete, she understands the commitments that her teammates, coaches, opponents and officials make to run sports.”

Dunn was the lone Grade 12 student on the team and her friend Drew Barker recruited many Grade 11 girls to join the squad.

“I knew I had to take charge. I knew I had to take a leadership role because we needed leaders on the field,” Dunn said. “(Leadership) was a whole new thing for me. I was quiet and reserved (before).

“When I was in my last year of high school, I said ‘let’s do it.’ What’s the worst that could happen? When I was in Grade 9, I wouldn’t do this at all. I would have let other people take the leadership role.”

Woodroffe Tigers girls’ rugby 7s MVP Ella Dunn. Photo provided

Dunn practised five hours a week for rugby 7s and participated in multiple tournaments in the fall schedule.

“On the field, I remember yelling at everyone and telling them what to do,” said Dunn, who was recently named the girls’ rugby 7s MVP at Woodroffe’s athletic banquet. “But I would tell them, ‘when I’m yelling at you, it’s nothing personal, I’m only telling you what to do.’

“I really enjoyed that, but at the same time it was a lot because I’m a full-time student. Next year, I’m at university and I hope to help again with Drew.”

Dunn will attend Carleton University to study psychology and was recruited to play for the women’s Ravens rugby team by head coach David Luong. Her academic marks will allow her to receive some scholarship money.

When the rugby 7s season ended, she transferred to curling, where she had four hours of games or training sessions each week.

The honours student also had to miss academic classes to be part of the Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) program, which was dedicated to helping special needs students understand a sport, its rules and drills. She hopes to receive her SHSM certification in Sports and Recreation during her June 27 graduation.

She brought her leadership skills, toned down her coaching approach and was co-team captain of a unified student basketball team. During lunch hours, she organized basketball practices for the General Learning Program students, who had a range of intellectual and physical abilities.

For a two-month period last winter, she helped coach the players in 3-on-3 basketball. She was asked by Bradshaw if she would like to do it, and since she knew all the special needs students, it was a no-brainer.

“Why not,” she enthused. “Sounds like fun.”

“This involved teaching students skills and tournament rules through play-based activities and assessing player abilities and social behaviours to create teams that were inclusive and allowed for maximum success,” Bradshaw added.

“Ella and a fellow unified student co-captained a unified team, while attending a city-wide tournament. This responsibility involved helping teammates stay organized and ready to play throughout the day, while ensuring that teammates stay hydrated, promote fair play (and) good sportsmanship in all games, and socialize with teammates to promote inclusivity within the school.”

Dunn thoroughly enjoyed working with and developing the athletic skills of the special needs students.

“I would yell at my (rugby 7s) teammates, but there are so many different approaches with special needs students,” she added. “There’s a different way to teach them.”

Bradshaw has been impressed by Dunn’s ability to ensure “all participating students have the tools and support to be successful and have an enjoyable experience through sport.”

“This experience is helping to decrease the segregation between academic programming at the school and has further promoted inclusion among more students,” she added.

“Ella’s confidence and decision-making skills have grown stronger over the years and this is evident in the trust her coaches and teachers put in her regarding her leadership roles within the programs she participates in.”


Ottawa’s Kimana Mar has boosted her medal count to six at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Berlin.

After winning the women’s all-around Level 4.1 gold medal in rhythmic gymnastics, Mar added three individual and one group gold medals as well as one silver medal. Her medal collection from three World Summer Games stands at 19 – 17 gold and two silver.

Mar won gold medals in bar at 14.95 points, ribbon at 14.30 points and club at 14.15 points. She joined Canadian teammates Rebecca Birss of Manitoba, Patricia Colgan of Quebec and Jodi Klukas of British Columbia to earn first place in the group exercise on floor at 14.38 points.

In the combined rope and hoop event, Mar placed second at 14.763 points and missed the gold medal by 0.074 points.

Read More in our 2023 High School Best Series, presented by Louis-Riel Sports-Études, as we tip our caps to top local student-athletes at:

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at

Martin can be reached by e-mail at and on Twitter @martincleary.

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