Best of 2023: Team Canada athletes create impact on and off the field of play

Team Canada fans know that Canadian athletes are stars on the field of play, but many athletes are making meaningful impact in their communities as well. 

Here are some of the great social impact moments of 2023 by athletes demonstrating true Olympic values within and outside of sport.

Park family shines on and off the mat at Pan Am Games

It’s hard to talk about taekwondo in Canada without talking about the Park family. The family boasts 16 (!!) black belts and siblings Skylar, Tae-Ku and Braven Park all represent Team Canada, having been coached to the elite level by their father, Jae. 

Skylar Park of Canada celebrates after winning the gold medal in the Women’s Kyorugi 57kg semifinals during the Santiago 2023 Pan American Games on Sunday, October 22, 2023. Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/COC

The Parks had an action packed competition schedule at the Pan Am Games in Santiago, Chile where Skylar came away with a gold medal and Tae-Ku with a bronze. 

Santiago 2023 was particularly meaningful for the Park family, who have Chilean and Korean backgrounds. Just after they finished competing, they took the time to visit a local taekwondo club to run a workshop for young Chilean athletes.

Members of the club in Santiago got hands-on coaching from some of their athlete-idols. Skylar said that “the opportunity to connect with fellow Chileans and share the sport we love my first time visiting the country my mom was born in has truly been so special.”

READ MORE: Our favourite feel good moments from the Pan Am Games

Sydney Pickrem models importance of protecting one’s mental health

Olympic medallist swimmer Sydney Pickrem surprised some of her teammates and fans when she opted out of competing at the World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka, Japan this past July. In making this decision, Pickrem joined a new cohort of athletes like Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and fellow Canadian swimmer Maggie Mac Neil – elite athletes modelling the importance of not risking one’s mental health in the name of athletic performance by withdrawing from or limiting their participation in major events as needed.

A crucial part of this movement has been honesty on the part of the athletes about the rationale behind these decisions, opening up the broader conversation about mental health in high performance sport, and setting an example for younger athletes that taking care of yourself is vital.

Pickrem has been open about her experience with anxiety and depression. She has dealt with both in the past and knows that her mental health is something that she will have to be mindful of throughout her life. Somewhere along the way, “I was just thinking about the outcome for Sydney the swimmer, not Sydney the person,” Pickrem said. 

After taking a breather and leaning on her community for support, Pickrem was back in competition. At the Santiago 2023 Pan Am Games she took home a pair of gold medals in the 200m breaststroke and 200m individual medley, setting a Pan Am Games record in the latter. Her experience was all the sweeter from being able to enjoy the success fully with her mental health in a more stable place.

Andre De Grasse clears the path for future champions

Andre De Grasse is one of Canada’s best known athletes for his talent on the track, but the six-time Olympic medallist is equally passionate about giving back to his community.

De Grasse was raised by a single mom and growing up, money for sport was tight. During his youth, he benefited from the generosity of people in his community who offset the cost of his participation in athletics. 

With his success, De Grasse wanted to pay it forward and help provide access to training for youth athletes. In 2018 he launched the Andre De Grasse Family Foundation. The foundation administers the Future Champions scholarship program, which provides financial support and mentorship to student-athletes based on a combination of athletic potential and financial need – creating a blueprint similar to De Grasse’s own path through sport. 

In October, the foundation announced the 21 student-athletes who will receive support for the coming year. Andre De Grasse Family Foundation was also the recipient of a $24,000 grant this year from the Athletes for Good programme, a grant programme developed by the IOC, IPC and Worldwide Olympic Partner P&G.

Liam Gill’s “Liam & Friends” project

Olympic snowboarder Liam Gill is working to enhance accessibility in his sport and inspire the next generation of Indigenous snowboarders. Gill is a member of the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation and proudly represents the Dehcho Dene of the Northwest Territories. 

Gill remembers what it felt like to have financial obstacles to full participation in sport in his own youth. He vowed that if he ever made it big, he would help kids who can’t afford access to snowboarding. After the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games, he started “Liam & Friends” as a passion project to remove financial barriers and get Indigenous youth on the slopes.

  • Six young Indigenous snowboarders pose with the boards they were gifted
  • Liam Gill is hugged by a young child

Through hard work and assistance from an OLY Canada Legacy Grant, Gill was able to bring more than a dozen youth from Fort Smith and Fort Simpson to Sunshine Village Resort in Banff for a life-changing snowboarding experience, highlighting the importance of representation and accessibility in sport, combined with fun.

READ MORE: Indigenous snowboarder Liam Gill makes life-changing impact on northern youth and himself through inspirational passion project

Nickolos Farrell thinks boxing is for everyone

Like De Grasse and Gill, Olympic boxer Nickolos Farrell is also passionate about accessibility and representation in sport. Farrell leads an inner city youth program in Hamilton, Ontario that teaches self-confidence and empowerment along with physical fitness, through the development of elementary boxing skills.

Farrell was strategic with the program’s location to maximize access for marginalized communities, including youth of varying abilities. With funding from the OLY Canada Legacy Grant, Farrell will be moving the program to a bigger space to expand access to more youth.

Olympians lead in the race to zero

Throughout his career on the Canadian men’s field hockey team, Oliver Scholfield has witnessed the amount of waste that large sporting events can produce. To try to change the sport sustainability landscape, he started working with Racing to Zero, a non-profit organization with the goal of reducing the environmental impact of sporting events.

The Racing to Zero team is composed of five Olympians, including founder Oluseyi Smith, Donna Vakalis, Melissa Humana-Paredes, Martha McCabe and Scholfield. The organization offers services including strategic sustainability planning, sustainability accounting (including calculations of carbon emissions and water consumption), as well as educational workshops. 

Scholfield was nominated for an IOC Climate Action award this year. He was also awarded a $24,000 grant from the Athletes for Good programme. The grant will go towards furthering the operational capacity of Racing to Zero.

Marion Thénault’s journey to become a climate-neutral Olympian

Freestyle skier Marion Thénault is a role model on and off the slopes. Thénault has set the goal of not only making it to her second Olympics in 2026, but doing so while becoming one of Canada’s first carbon-neutral Olympians.

Throughout this journey, Thénault has learned about calculating one’s carbon footprint and how to make decisions around travel, accommodation, and other lifestyle elements to lessen her impact on the planet. Her efforts are a learning opportunity for all Team Canada fans to engage in climate-conscious decision making in order to protect the environment (and the sports we love!).

Thénault was also nominated for an IOC Climate Action award.

Team Canada freestyle skier Marion Thenault competes in the women’s aerials finals during the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games on Monday, February 14, 2022. Photo by Leah Hennel/COC

READ MORE: Marion Thénault shares updates on her carbon neutrality journey

Brenda Taylor wants to decarbonize rowing

Two-time Olympic gold medallist Brenda Taylor is also committed to protecting the planet through cleaner sport.

While one may think of rowing as a low emission sport, given that human strength powers the boats, this isn’t true when it comes to safety and coaching boats. Taylor is leading a project with the goal of empowering rowing clubs across Canada to switch from gas outboard motors to electric ones.

Brenda Taylor rides in a coach boat while rowers train on a lake
Photo supplied by Brenda Taylor

Taylor’s project involves the purchase of six e-outboards, spread out among four to six rowing clubs, and the tracking of data on fuel consumption, performance, user experience, and costs over a year. She also hosted demo days to provide clubs with information about transitioning to electric outboards.

READ MORE: How Olympic champion Brenda Taylor is powering rowing towards a carbon-free future

Olympian Julie-Anne Staehli gives running shoes a second life

Olympic track athlete Julie-Anne Staehli knows that runners go through a lot of shoes. And while those shoes may no longer be fit for high-level training, they still have plenty of life left in them for recreation. This observation was the impetus for the ReRun Shoe Project, which collects lightly used shoes and donates them to local organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs of Canada, so that they can have a second life full of dodgeball, basketball, tag and so much more.

With drop off locations across the country, ReRun has already helped give over 5000 pairs of shoes a second act within communities of need.

Olympians inspire on Olympic Day

To celebrate Olympic Day, six schools across Canada received an Olympic Day grant to support their goal of empowering students to play and stay in sport. 

Canadian Olympians Abigail Strate, Jacqueline Simoneau, Cynthia Appiah, Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Soerensen, René Cournoyer and the Park family visited the various schools to help inspire the next generation.

The winning schools and programs included: 

  1. Bert Church High School (Airdrie, Alta.) – Empowering the school’s women’s lacrosse team and educating on Indigenous culture.
  2. Centre Wellington District High School (Fergus, Ont.) – Empowering girls and gender-diverse students through the introduction of powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting programs.
  3. École Nuvviti (Ivujivik, Que.) – Promoting a healthy active lifestyle by increasing access to sport while providing the necessities to participate (i.e., healthy food and drink).
  4. École Parkside School (Altona, Man.) – Improving outdoor infrastructure to increase school and community access to outdoor volleyball.
  1. École secondaire des Sources (Montreal, Que.) – Increasing access to an afterschool triathlon program for students.
  2. Sussex Regional High School (Sussex, N.B.) – Developing a bike repair program and offering specialized biking opportunities for students with disabilities with physical therapists

READ MORE: Team Canada Olympic Day Grant