They are high-performance athletes, businesswomen, community leaders, and in one case, a PhD candidate. They are also four of Canada’s greatest athlete leaders within Paralympic sport.
Jennifer Brown, Ina Forrest, Erica Gavel, and Alison Levine are all members of the Canadian Paralympic Athletes’ Council, comprised of seven elected athletes tasked with representing Canadian Para athletes and advocating for the best interests of the Paralympic Movement.
The four accomplished athletes agree women’s voices are needed to raise awareness on the pressing issues in Para sport both in Canada and internationally. They want to be one of those voices.
“We’re definitely seeing a shift with more and more women in higher positions,” said two-time Paralympian Levine. “When a female athlete sees a woman that’s part of the decision-making process it’s a comforting factor.”
“Women bring a slightly different view,” added Brown. “What I’ve seen in working with other women is they bring the proper amount and balance when needed and provide a bigger picture. That has really inspired me.”
Levine competes in the sport of boccia and is currently the No. 1-ranked player in the world in the women’s BC4 category. The 31-year-old, who last summer competed at the Tokyo Paralympic Games, has an idiopathic neuromuscular disorder that causes weakness in her muscles. She joined the council to reinforce issues for high support needs athletes like herself.
“My life has been so shaped from Para sport that I was really looking at what I could do to give back,” said Levine. “I think I can bring a perspective to the council that perhaps hasn’t been there and give the feedback that is needed when thinking of the broader Para community.”
Brown, the discus throw champion at the Lima 2019 Parapan Am Games, has previous leadership experience from Athletics Canada’s athlete council. The 2016 and 2020 Paralympian says there is a major difference between a single sport and multi-sport council.
“There are a lot more considerations for sure and the learning curve was fairly steep,” said Brown, 41. “There are core challenges through each sport and a lot of intricacies. But I like problem-solving and trying to make scenarios work. It’s a natural progression for me because I wanted to be able to help beyond the sport of athletics.”
Wheelchair basketball player and Rio 2016 Paralympian Gavel says Canada has been a leader in pushing for gender equality, but more representation is needed across the globe at all levels from coaching to sports science to administration.
“In Canada, for me, to strive for leadership positions seems normal,” said the 30-year-old PhD student. “I can thank the great Canadian female leaders who came before me for that. I never feel I’m at a disadvantage.”
Forrest, one of Canada’s best-ever wheelchair curlers with three Paralympic medals, including gold in 2010 and 2014, says the opportunities for female participation to rise at the Games start at the grassroots level. The 59-year-old, competing at her fourth Paralympics this year in Beijing, noted events like the Canadian Paralympic Committee’s Paralympian Search as the type of initiatives needed to get people with a disability participating in sport.
“When you start out on your own, it takes a lot of time, effort, and resources,” said Forrest, who also runs her own commercial leasing business in B.C. “That can be discouraging especially for women who can have work and family responsibilities tied around that.”
Gavel agrees solutions need to be found to keep young women with a disability in sports.
“It’s a big issue,” she said. “We need to put them in an environment to succeed, particularly in those early years of involvement.”