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Strong female leaders at all levels of Canadian swimming

By Clarissa Andersen

It’s no secret that Swimming Canada has a strong team of female athletes. They have won medals, been featured on national television shows, graced the covers of major magazines, and set Canadian and world records. While the swimmers themselves are often the ones in the spotlight, there is an entire team, including many women, who work behind the scenes. Keeping all of the parts moving, these women support the athletes in many different capacities so they can do what they do best.

From the board of directors to the national team coaching staff to senior managers in the national office, Swimming Canada has many strong women leading the organization and it starts at the top.

“It is a complete joy to be the president and chair of the board of Swimming Canada because I love the sport and the people involved,” says Cheryl Gibson, an Olympic silver medallist, accomplished accountant and tax lawyer.

“I am pleased that my background as an Olympic swimmer and my professional skills can be combined to help today’s athletes achieve their goals.”

Today is International Women’s Day. As defined by the Department for the Status of Women Canada it is “an opportunity to celebrate the contributions of women and renew our efforts in achieving gender equality – in Canada and around the world.” Considered a national holiday in many countries, International Women’s Day has been celebrated for more than 100 years and means something different to everyone.

“I think it is more a day to celebrate how far we have come and how much more we can go,” says University of Toronto Varsity Blues assistant coach Linda Kiefer, who has been a member of the national team coaching staff for the past two years, including the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

“It is always interesting to just watch … when you see the achievements of women around the world. All aspects – cultural, ethnic, political, education, sport, social.”

Knowing the trials some women face when trying to advance their careers within the sporting community, female leaders within Swimming Canada hope they can help open doors and make the path a little easier for those coming behind them. Suzanne Paulins, a longtime swimming official and now Senior Manager, Domestic Operations, believes an important part of this is mentorship.

“Working up through the officiating ranks, there was always the perception of ‘the old boys’ club.’ It was important to find great mentors, in both women and men, that supported my goals and helped me achieve them,” said Paulins.

A master official, Paulins has been involved with swimming for more than 40 years, but only recently transitioned from her 20-year financial career with BMO Bank of Montreal to a full-time leadership position with Swimming Canada.

In addition to finding a strong mentor, Paulins encourages both women and men, to keep sight of their dreams and passions.

“A change in career path or your journey is always possible. I always wanted to work in sport, and as a volunteer I was fortunate enough to do that for over 15 years,” says Paulins.

“That led to the full-time job with Swimming Canada in a sport I am passionate about. Never lose the passion.”

Paulins is one of four of Swimming Canada’s female senior managers that include Erin Moore (Marketing and Promotions), Kirsty Hahto (High Performance Administration), and Emma Van Steen, (National Para-Swimming Programs).

Many of Swimming Canada’s provincial partner organization leaders are also women, including Cheryl Humphrey (Alberta), Marj Walton (Saskatchewan), Isabelle Ducharme (Quebec), EeVe Stever (New Brunswick), Bette El-Hawary (Nova Scotia), Nicole Manual (Prince Edward Island), and Corina Hartley (Newfoundland).

While International Women’s Day is meant to highlight the accomplishments and success of women, many female leaders just want to be recognized as a leader in general. Leave gender out of it.

“I am an influential woman in the sporting community? Do I need to have that definition?” asks Van Steen, who along with Janice Hanan will serve as team manager for the upcoming 2018 Commonwealth Games.

“Can’t I be an influential person in the sporting community?  Doing a really good job regardless of my gender? That is equality that women are fighting for.”

Although many advances are being made in gender equality within sports, there is still work to be done.

“I would like the silly small comments and muted conversations due to different genders to disappear,” says Van Steen.

“Comments like ‘you run like a girl,’ or even when a strong powerful female gets described as looking like a man. Comments like that need to be noted as offensive and die off.”

While Swimming Canada’s strong women leaders view themselves as a leader for both men and women, they do recognize the inspirational role they may play in the lives of other women and have the following advice for them:

“I encourage young female athletes to take a leadership role in their own careers within the sport and beyond. Accept all the assistance coaches, parents and volunteers are prepared to provide, but ensure you stay in control of your present and future,” – Cheryl Gibson, President and Chair of the Board of Swimming Canada.

“You can do it…it starts somewhere. Some pool at 5:30am; some ice rink; some ski hill; some baseball diamond. You have to start somewhere. But my big thing is you have to ENJOY it. To succeed you have to like what you are doing. I would say to athletes, do lots of things at a young age. Try different sports. Try different things. But have fun. Smile.”- Linda Kiefer, University of Toronto Varsity Blues assistant coach, national team coach.

“Be willing to volunteer in something you are passionate about and that volunteerism may turn into the career you have always wanted.”- Suzanne Paulins, Senior Manager, Domestic Operations.

“Females face terrible issues with self-confidence at a young age. However, to succeed in this industry you need to be fearless and not step down in the face of challenge.   On International Women’s Day we pause to celebrate the value of women, however taking the time to value your self-worth is something that needs to happen every single day.”- Emma Van Steen, Senior Manager, National Para-Swimming Programs.