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Mentoring the next generation

Colette Bourgonje shares her wisdom with Brittany Hudak

Although Colette Bourgonje's days of competing are over, she has found a way to stay involved in the sport: mentorship. Encouraged by Pat Prokopchuk and Jeff Whiting to search for new athletes and help them grow from her experiences in the sport. Colette has found that by working with up-and-coming athletes, she is able to help them not only reach their potential, but enjoy the full benefits of sport.

Bourgonje officially retired from competing in 2014 at a banquet held in Canmore where she had been training. Her retirement will spell the end to a legendary career for the Porcupine Plain product, one that includes 10 medals in 10 Paralympic appearances in the sports of para-nordic skiing and wheelchair athletics.

"I couldn't be convinced to do another year," said Bourgonje. "It's physically tough and it involves a lot of hours of training. I have had amazing opportunities because of sport and I will always be active."

Bourgonje was a national-level cross-country runner growing up, but was forced to switch sports following a car accident in 1980 that left her paralyzed from the waist down. After a transitioning period, she tried sit-ski for the first time and her reaction was, "Wow this is awesome." Thanks to some hard work and dedication, Bourgonje soon became a star competitor in para-nordic skiing and wheelchair athletics.

One of the highlights of her career came at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver. Bourgonje won silver and bronze medals in para-nordic skiing, becoming the first-ever Canadian to win a Paralympic medal on home snow after she claimed the silver in the women's 10-kilometre sit-ski race. At the closing ceremonies for Vancouver 2010, she received the prestigious Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award, which recognizes individuals who conquer adversities through the pursuit of excellence in sport.

"I found cross-country skiing in '91, and it just made winter come alive for me again," said Bourgonje. "It was very much a part of our lives growing up. We had that balance between winter and summer, and then when you're in a chair, that balance is gone and snow becomes more of a challenge and not as much fun."

Bourgonje credits a lot of her success to the support system for athletes in Saskatchewan.

"Being from Saskatchewan is so amazing because if you have any questions or you need help, there's always somebody there to provide that support," she said. "All you have to do is ask the question and it's amazing the support you get in our province."

Bourgonje is looking forward to being part of that support network for new athletes.

"I think it's important to be a mentor because you can make a younger athlete feel comfortable with what they're doing and just giving them the motivation to succeed," said Bourgonje. "Amateur sport can provide so much and everybody should be physically active. I have a physical education degree and I know that physical activity and quality of life are just hugely related."

One athlete Bourgonje has been mentoring is Brittany Hudak. It began a couple of years ago, when Bourgonje first witnessed Hudak's athletics talents. She had one thought, "Wow!"

"I told people, 'I found this great athlete,' " Bourgonje said. "She had an engine, you know? She had cardio. And that to me was like, 'Ok, we can build on that.' "

Bourgonje introduced herself to Hudak, encouraged her to get involved in the sport of para-nordic skiing and offered to mentor her.

"I remember thinking, 'Why does this girl want me to ski? Should I try skiing?' " said Hudak, a native of Prince Albert. "I loved the outdoors, so I thought it would be something that I would really try. Colette's attitude really stuck with me. She has such a positive attitude that matches mine."

The training began slowly, as Bourgonje took the time to learn Hudak's tendencies and help her adjust to the strict training regimen of a professional.

"She would provide all of these little carrots along the way, telling me all the ways I could improve," said Hudak. "I remember the first time skiing with her. I thought, 'Colette's got two arms; I've got two legs and an arm. We should be able to ski at the same pace.' She would be way ahead of me and she'd be carrying on a conversation. I'd be at the back flopping around. It was an inspiration to me that everybody is still able no matter what your ability."

In 2013, the pair spent a month together in Canmore, Alt., kicking things up a notch by spending some time training with the national team. Bourgonje said Hudak quickly became "the perfect student."

"We would be in the hotel room and it's all quiet. I would look back and she'd be writing notes about all the things we talked about," said Bourgonje. "Brittany became the perfect example of putting the work into it. She has a great work ethic, so that's why it worked. There's only been one time in 20 years I've seen an athlete who could work like that."

For Hudak, who had initially approached the sport as a recreational hobby, the training really set her on a new path.

"I think that's when I realized I do want to commit to this," said Hudak. "I had done a year of racing in the province and that was fun. Now I needed to get things in order if I really wanted to start handling races at the top level."

The result of Hudak's dedication and Bourgonje's membership became evident at Hudak's first competition.

At the 2013 IPC World Cup, she placed fourth in the 5 kilometre standing race. As the top Canadian in the event, Hudak qualified for the 2014 Sochi Paralympics.

"It was such a huge improvement for me. I had such great races and a fun experience," she said. "That was definitely the highlight of my year for sure."

At the Paralympics, Hudak didn't win any medals. She finished fourth in the 4X2.5km Relay Open, sixth in the 1km Sprint Standing, 10th in the 15km Standing and 12th in the 5k standing. While she didn't medal, it's clear that Hudak is quickly emerging as a rising star in the sport. And she gives a lot of credit to Bourgonje.

"I didn't know what training was at a high performance level. And that's where Colette really helped speed up the process," Hudak said. "She knew all the tools that I would need in order to get myself where I wanted to be. She's always been such an inspiration for me that it always made me want to be better."

For Bourgonje, the end of one career has led to a new, but equally fulfilling, opportunity.

"When I made the commitment, I was like, 'Let's see if we can get Brittany to Sochi,' " Bourgonje said. "That transition was interesting. It's definitely been a great experience with Brittany."

Profiles - Brittany Hudak
Canadian Paralympic Committee

Profile - Colette Bourgonje
Canadian Paralympic Committee

Saskatchewan Ski Association



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