CAO’s Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench article series – Black History Month 2024
“If you want something badly, and you keep working hard, things have a way of working out for the best.”
By David Grossman
For Tristian Reid, a good chunk of his life has been fixated on willpower and determination.
Nothing has come easy for him including the arduous task of tackling frustration after frustration that involved repeated cases of him being the subject of rejection. Reid knows he’s not alone and, just like others, he has found ways to persevere.
While repudiation is something that can turn a person off, Reid has dug deep and moved on. After re-examining several turndowns, he has used each of them as a form of stimulation and a desire for achievement.
Articulate and well-spoken, Reid is aware that life can be full of challenges. Creative and focussed, the 33-year-old has embarked on a journey of accomplishing some incredible things.
Academically strong, stemming from those early years at Toronto’s Albert Campbell Collegiate, Reid has put together an educational resume that includes two degrees, a diploma, and a certificate.
First, it was a Bachelor’s degree in kinesiology at York University followed by a Masters in sports management and leadership at the University of Western Ontario. Tack on a diploma from Durham College in sport business management, and a certificate in project management from the University of Toronto.
His academic excellence far exceeds the educational accomplishments of the average Canadian.
As the second oldest of six siblings, Reid was raised in a family household. He remains inspired by the wishes of his mother to stay fixated on a career that utilizes his knowledge and experience while also contributing to society in a positive way.
“My mom always said to keep my name clean, avoid hanging with the wrong people and to work hard,” said Reid. “As a young person, I made some poor decisions – and I also learned quickly. I can remember there were times when my mom pushed me the right way – and I am grateful for that.”
For Reid, his values remain a priority.
As a youngster, he had dreams of working in sports medicine as an athletic therapist. They were replaced by a desire to further enhance his experience and leadership as a Director of Athletics at a Canadian post-secondary institution. Three times he didn’t get the job but remains steadfast and strong-willed that his time would come.
“Never give up,” said Reid, who is being featured by the Coaches Association of Ontario (CAO) during Black History Month. “If you want something badly, and you keep working hard, things have a way of working out for the best.”
Sports is something he enjoys. While his journey as an athlete started by playing community volleyball at the Milliken Park Community Recreation Centre, he still has disappointing vibes after coaches made decisions about rosters – that didn’t include him – on high school and university teams.
That didn’t stop him from enjoying the sport, adapting, building strong social skills, and meeting people. He went on to play recreationally at York and, at the age of 26, took the advice of friends to consider trying something different – coaching.
“Coaching started for me in 2016 at the Premier Volleyball Club,” said Reid. “I learned a great deal, moved on and now I am with the Phoenix Volleyball Club as a head coach. The focus is striving for excellence. It’s about developing world class athletes, scholars, and citizens.”
Most young people dream for the top, tinker with aspirations of college athletic scholarships, and one day competing for Canada on the international scene. Reid continues to emphasize that achievements happen in many ways.
“Success can just be learning with teammates, something that occurs in a game, a practise and not always amount to a championship,” said Reid, who has coached teams to numerous Ontario Volleyball Association (OVA) club medals. “For me, academics are a pillar of success, and the building moves on from there.”
Reid is also aware that sport has the power to change the world. For him, it’s also an opportunity to be an effective leader.
As a coach for some 10 years, Reid says there is no secret on what he can control as a team leader – and that includes emotions, negativity and commentary from parents, officials, players, and fans.
“I’ve seen coaches fly off the handle, parents who want more playing time for their children,” said Reid. “I see myself as a passionate and dynamic person and try to regulate my emotions. I’ve learned a lot about active listening. That words can impact people in many ways, and I remain mindful of how I communicate and how we treat people.”
Reid believes in goal-setting – for his players and himself.
“It’s important – and so is being accountable,” he said. “I want people to understand that I work hard and am empathetic. There was a time when I didn’t think I had the power to change things. Now, I have been empowered to open doors, vocalize opinion on actionable change, and be a person people go to for advice.”
Inquisitive and all about learning, Reid is always looking to improve his knowledge. He benefitted from coaching courses conducted through a legacy program available during the last Pan Am Games held in Toronto.
In the summer of 2022, Reid had an opportunity to work with the Team Ontario beach volleyball program. Reid also devoted time, while working at the University of Guelph, to practising with the Gryphons men’s volleyball team. During the summer, he would be at Toronto’s Woodbine Beach, competing in beach volleyball, to push his skill set to the next level.
As for free time for Reid, it’s rare for him.
In addition to coaching, he’s an account director for a Toronto-based company called Live Gauge, whose website claims is a “leading authority in real-world marketing data solutions”.
Ask Reid for a better definition and he says it’s about bridging the gap between the digital and physical world as well as helping organizations make better decisions through consumer and marketing data.
He’s also on the Board of Directors for Inclusion in Canadian Sports Network (ICSN) – an organization that believes in racial equity in sports and in empowering Black, Indigenous and people of color in sports across the country. Somehow, Reid also finds time and the energy to offer consulting services to a variety of sports organizations across Canada.
This story, part of a series launched by the CAO, highlights coaches from across the province, salutes their achievements and dedication while committed to educating and bringing out the best in athletes of all ages.
Called “Empowering Coaches from Behind the Bench”, coaches – like Reid – are highlighted for their ability, commitment and loyalty in sport, social skills and so much more.
“I’m not a person to give up,” said Reid. “As a coach, I keep pushing and always looking for ways to make others better. Loyalty is important and I work with people who are part of my values, and we are building things together.
“Winning is great, you’ll never find a coach who is not out to win, but for me – long term character development and being a team builder of world class athletes and citizens are also very important.”
David Grossman is a veteran multi award-winning Journalist and Broadcaster with some of Canada’s major media, including the Toronto Star and SPORTSNET 590 THE FAN, and a Public Relations professional for 45+ years in Canadian sports and Government relations.
“Winning is great, but for me – long term character development and being a team builder of world class athletes and citizens are also very important.”
“For me, coaching is a partnership with athletes … It’s not them and me. We work together on a common goal.”
When hearing her name, there are people who believe Faye Blackwood is just another average Canadian.
Those same people, when taking the time to explore through copious files and acknowledgements, will find Blackwood to be an extraordinary individual who fits the description of one of a kind.
Blackwood was impressive as an athlete, then as an awe-inspiring coach, and for years, has encouraged and motivated young people. Her motive was giving them hope and helping to achieve more than what were just dreams.
Simply put, she has used her talent, knowledge and so much more to bring out the best in others – and that includes people with physical and intellectual disabilities.
Born in Toronto, Blackwood competed for Canada on the world scene as a sprinter and hurdler. Many who have watched her ability to guide, say Blackwood is saluted as an admirable and elegant leader. Nothing short of a gift to many, she is the recipient of an explosion of praise.
Her pinnacle of success goes far beyond any personal athletic awards, citations, or medals – including a variety of Hall of Fame inductions as well as the 2018 spotlight of being added to the Toronto Sport Hall of Honour. That tribute, located at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre, is more of an appreciation of a select group of people for their exceptional accomplishments through sport.
Blackwood’s generosity and contribution to society is far more than mediocre. She is not one of those individuals who likes to tick boxes of achievements or brag about success in life. Those actions, many believe, are just part of human nature. For Blackwood, that kind of boasting is not in her character.
There are individuals who just do what needs to be done on a day-to-day basis – and especially as it relates to the well-being of others. That’s more like Blackwood. She has helped many set goals and then glow with praise when they accomplish what was thought to be near impossible.
With Blackwood, there is no spectacle. No ego or celebrity notoriety. No boom of fame.
There is no mystery either. She has a comfortable streak that thrives on life’s joys and challenges.
For the past 30 years, Blackwood has been devoting time to what many know and understand to be far greater than personal accolades. Her attention has been, and continues to be, helping individuals with disabilities and developmental barriers try to achieve goals.
No, Blackwood is not just another Canadian. Try portraying her as someone who cares quite a bit more than others.
Back in those younger years when she was focussed on the Commonwealth Games and trained indoors at Variety Village (that’s the Toronto facility that “empowers children with disabilities to be seen, participate, and feel included”), Blackwood saw an opportunity to make an impact other than on the competitive track.
It was as a coach.
“There were physical education instructors coaching kids and I wanted to be one of them,” recalled Blackwood. “I have always said that sport is a way of life – for life. If I can help someone through sport, that’s great.
“And for a younger athlete, I explain to them that it’s never about winning – but achieving and trying to help others to be the best they can. I learned that pushing yourself through sport is transferable in so many other ways.”
As a youngster, Blackwood was spotted by a coach who was impressed at her talent. His name was Thian “Sy” Mah, a Canadian long-distance runner who was listed in the Guinness book of world records for competing in the most lifetime marathons. Mah also went on to teach at the University of Toledo. He passed away in 1988, at the age of 62, from leukemia.
It was Mah who convinced Blackwood to join an organization he had started – the North York Track Club. After graduation from Silverthorn Collegiate, where Blackwood was dominant on the high school track scene, it was off to the University of Waterloo. She earned a Bachelor of Science (Honors) degree in Kinesiology. And, yes, she found time to train, keep fit and compete.
Blackwood had also admired the American sprinter Wilma Rudolph, who overcame polio to win Olympic gold medals in the 100 and 200 metres as well as being a member of the 4×100 metres relay team at competitions in 1960 when Rome hosted the global event.
Outside the academic classroom, Blackwood had displayed her talent by winning six gold and eight silver medals in Ontario University Athletics (OUA) events. She was No. 1 in the 60 and 100-metres hurdles in the 1986 Canadian National championships.
Performing on the track was her destiny. Interest had also been rising while training at the Kitchener Waterloo Track and Field Club.
Like everyone who has ups and downs in their lives, Blackwood experienced a time she’ll never forget. It was 1984 in Winnipeg, at the Trials to select a Canadian team for the Summer Olympics. Blackwood didn’t make the cut. It was at the ninth hurdle of the race when she fell. What resulted was a broken left wrist, and personal devastation.
“It was horrible,” said Blackwood, feeling uncomfortable while recalling the episode. “You never expect something like this. It’s life, everything happens for a reason. For me, I had liked to run. It always gave me joy.”
After her university graduation, Blackwood again set her vision on competing at a major global event. This time, it was at the Commonwealth Games where she made the Canadian roster for the 1986 event in Edinburgh, Scotland.
What may have been her biggest accomplishment on the international circuit, came a year earlier with a silver medal as part of Canada’s 4 x 100-metres relay team at the Pacific Conference Games held in Berkley, Calif. Making up that foursome were Esmie Lawrence, Angela Phipps, and Carol Galloway.
You’ve likely heard the phrase “live long and prosper” from motion picture fame. That can be said about Blackwood and her role as a coach.
“For me, it was the natural thing to do,” said Blackwood. “There were youngsters, with all kinds of abilities, and I wanted to make them believe in themselves and build confidence. As a coach, I tell my athletes it’s all about patience, perseverance, believing in yourself and not giving up.”
For nine years, Blackwood was on the staff of Sport for the Disabled, now known as ParaSport Ontario. Then, it was off to Athletics Canada managing paralympic programs and for the past 20 years has been a Sport and Recreation Consultant with the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport.
Blackwood was selected as a staff coach for several World Para as well as Paralympic Championship teams and was given the responsibility of working with sprinters and jumpers who had a variety of physical and intellectual disabilities.
The CAO’s series “Empowering Coaches from Behind the Bench” shines the spotlight on individuals, like Blackwood, who have exhibited strong coaching fundamentals. Blackwood’s approach to coaching, and that included trying new things, emphasized that a disability was not something that prevented people from trying to excel at the sport.
“For me, coaching is a partnership with athletes,” she said. “It’s not them and me. We work together on a common goal. I was fortunate to not only travel the world through sport, but it was me living my life, doing what I enjoy and being there to help others. Dreams are meant to be pursued.”
“I was fortunate to not only travel the world through sport, but it was me living my life, doing what I enjoy and being there to help others. Dreams are meant to be pursued.”
CAO’s Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench article series – December 2023
“I’m truly blessed to be able to help athletes faced with challenges.”
Just mentioning the word, and the simple pleasure of exceptional feelings that often follows and leads to a sense of purpose, can have a powerful effect on the life of a person.
Renée Stewart knows. Better yet, she has that marvelous gift of inspiration and confidence that includes making people feel wonderful.
She’s also never given up on hope.
In fact, every day Stewart reinforces her own personal behaviour therapy in dealing with the dynamics of life’s challenges. For her, it’s about changing the way people look at things and also providing positive energy to enrich their lives.
If you’ve never met Stewart, you’re missing out on a charismatic and energetic individual who has devoted a remarkable 50 years to the world of coaching. It may be in sports, but it encompasses so much more. Lots of volunteering with the intention of bringing pleasure to people with intellectual disabilities.
Born Renee Weiler in Toronto, her mother was a former Canadian gymnastics champion. Her uncle was the recipient of the Order of Canada. But for Stewart, now 65 years of age and living with her husband, Mike, in Arnprior, a picturesque community about one hour west of Ottawa, she’s not big on the spotlight of personal gratification.
Her award, for the past five decades, is using her vigorous experience and dedication to make others better – and, in some cases, it hasn’t been easy.
“I love sports, it has been part of my life,” said Stewart, who many would say is a multi-gold medal recipient when it relates to training, counselling, and developing skills that enhance performance and confidence.
“(Coaching) has been a life-long fascination for me and the pride and joy – and the greatest pleasure, is coaching Special Olympians. Mentoring and instructing are both memorable experiences for me – and so much more enjoyable when I see a person achieve something that many thought was not possible.”
The Coaching Association of Ontario series “Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench” shines the spotlight on individuals, like Stewart, with strong coaching fundamentals and dedicating their time to help people often reach what may have seemed to be unbelievable goals.
As a youngster, she moved with her family several times. That’s because her father was in the Canadian Armed Forces and stationed in Alliston, then off to Germany, back to Calgary and finally, Kingston.
Also referred as the “Limestone City” because it has many heritage buildings constructed using local limestone, Kingston is where she attended LaSalle High School and was a multi-sport participant and winner of the prestigious Athlete of the Year award. LaSalle is also where she began to enhance her coaching experience in different sports at the intramural level.
Rather than pursuing post-secondary education, she opted for a retail sales job in a local mall.
One thing remained crystal clear, her desire to help others.
Whether it was operating a daycare for 36 years, helping others in palliative care, or coaching individuals whose ability to learn at an expected level and function in daily life was hampered, Stewart has always made herself available. She’s also organized functions in memory of her daughter, Caitlin, who died in a car accident in 1998.
“I thoroughly love what I do – helping people,” said Stewart, a wife, mother of three and someone who tries to walk between eight and 12 kilometres each day with her dog, Stella. “I just can’t imagine not being busy.”
Stewart was a gymnast, participated in club competitions and had hopes of competing in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. She made a personal decision to pass on it after tiring of constant training.
She then made a major decision and transitioned from athlete to coach and began to coach many different sports at the intramural level at.
“I wanted to help and teaching someone to get better at what they were doing, and it brought smiles to them and me,” said Stewart, who has credentials gained through the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP).
Her lust for coaching started at the age of eight. It came while observing her parents, guiding others during countless gymnastics competitions. Coaching took off when she taught a six-year-old with special needs how to swim.
Focused, confident and determined to continue her magic, Stewart exhibits a contagious enthusiasm that skyrockets – especially after she shares one success story after another. Those great moments coaching Special Olympics includes numerous memorable times in the gym.
There were many including the time Scottie, one of her athletes, launched a basketball through the net. It weas something he had tried to accomplish for two years.
“What a moment that was,” she recalled. “How can you not give these individuals a chance – they are people. They need us, and I need them.”
With unlimited encouragement, Stewart has been with Special Olympics for an astounding 24 years and has many stories of athlete success.“Doug and Scott were competing for Arnprior at a track meet in Ottawa,” recalled Stewart. “During the 100-metre race, Scott had fallen. Doug stopped running to help him up so they could both go on to finish. I remember being so emotional and so proud of the two.”
Stewart has not escaped accolades.
In 2023, she was the recipient of a Petro Canada Coaching Excellence Award from the Coaches Association of Canada. As well, Stewart was honored with the Coach of the Year award from Special Olympics Ontario. The Township of Arnprior also presented her with the Volunteer of the Year award in 2017.
“I’m truly blessed to be able to help athletes faced with challenges,” she said. “There is so much mutual respect, watching the daily accomplishments. My biggest award is being there to help them achieve success.”
“(Coaching) has been a life-long fascination for me and the pride and joy – and the greatest pleasure, is coaching Special Olympians.”
CAO’s Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench article series – November 2023
“One of the most rewarding things in our lives is the opportunity to coach. Positively impacting a child, emphasizing the importance of self-behaviour, encouraging, and emphasizing that hard work does pay off in many ways” – Coach Mona
There is something to be said about a partnership. Some might call it a relationship between two individuals who work together on so many things.
For Mona Beera and Antonio Rodrigues, their daily lives involve employment at one of the world’s finest hospitals – Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. Their responsibilities include communicating with people, who in many cases are challenged with a variety of health issues.
There are days when things become exhausting and times are arduous, but they persevere because of a genuine affection that involves helping people.
Beera and Rodrigues are not physicians or nurses, but professionals in data management in the areas of cancer research and clinical trials. It might not sound important, but they meet with patients and are tasked with compiling additional information to share with other members on the medical team.
All of what they do, at the Odette Cancer Centre, leads to an emphasis on treatment and prevention. Beera works in radiation oncology and Rodrigues is in medical oncology. The goal: to improve the standard of care and quality of life for patients.
They are special people.
At the end of an exhausting day, Beera and Rodrigues continue their objective – one of devotion to others. For them, it means switching from a hospital environment to supporting and encouraging in another way. This time, it’s coaching soccer.
Young and driven, gifted with an enthusiastic ambition of being there for others, you will find these two coaching youngsters between the ages of four and 16 at the Cherry Beach Soccer Club.
It’s a 12-month commitment that has them at the Cherry Beach Sports Fields during the warmer weather and switches, off-season, to the dome at Monarch Park Stadium. They’ve been doing it for years.
In almost everything they do and touch, their optimism is relentless. Thinking pessimistically makes it very difficult for the positives to shine. So, Beera and Rodrigues focus on the good things and doing what they can to make them even better.
When visionaries are creating new ways for young people to experience tomorrow, what becomes evident many times, is that something tends to be lacking. That’s usually people who know how to deliver. Not the case with Beera and Rodrigues. They excel and do what they can to avoid the limelight.
“We want to highlight kids and give them meaningful opportunities,” said Rodrigues. “It’s also about helping a soccer club that has made a massive impression on our lives. Coaching is an important way of giving back.”
As youngsters, Beera had hopes of a career in medicine as a doctor. Rodrigues was focussed on teaching. Beera studied Kinesiology at York University and Rodrigues was educated at George Brown College and Seneca College at York University in liberal arts and sciences.
The two have something else in common other than making eye contact a fair bit while they attended R.H. King Academy in Toronto, then working at the same hospital, and coaching soccer. They are husband and wife – and married in 2022.
Beera was born in India and came to Canada, with her family, at age 12. Rodrigues is a native of Toronto. Those high school days were important, they both claim, for providing not only a sound education, but the opportunity to grow their life skills and participate in a variety of sports. For the record, Beera was a two-time school Athlete of the Year while Rodrigues only became serious about sports in his graduating year.
Learning to be happy, healthy, and kind are words Rodrigues holds dearly – and that goes for coaching, too.
“Giving children confidence is critical in their development as young people,” said Rodrigues, who continues to play competitive soccer when it doesn’t interfere with his time coaching. “Our responsibility, as coaches, is to show, teach and provide a positive mindset. We’re helping youngsters find a love for the sport, adapt it to their lives, meet new people, and take what they can and get better.”
Beera started working at Sunnybrook at the age of 19 while Rodrigues started at age 21 – and never left.
“I was the kind of individual who needed to be occupied, kept busy and working at Sunnybrook was a great start,” said Beera, who was at Sunnybrook while attending university classes. “I was a porter moving patients from appointments throughout the hospital or from the operating room and emergency. What I was doing, I found to be very rewarding – helping others.
“I enjoyed the interaction with patients – who may have been going through a lot. I wanted to lend an ear, even if it was just for a few moments. If I could make their day just a little better, make them smile, that meant the world to me. That’s what I loved about it and why I wanted to find a way to come back to Sunnybrook.”
In 2018, Beera returned to Sunnybrook, accepting a position as an administrative clerk that involved also helping people who required cancer treatment or a variety of medical tests and examinations. Prior to that, she had worked for a marketing company that was involved with World Vision, the March of Dimes, and the Hospital for Sick Children.
As for coaching soccer, Beera and Rodrigues have been at it for 13 years. Their inauguration came with an all-girls club at Scarborough United. Then, the North York Cosmos, FC Barcelona Academy and now Cherry Beach.
“One of the most rewarding things in our lives is the opportunity to coach,” said Beera. “Positively impacting a child, emphasizing the importance of self-behaviour, encouraging, and emphasizing that hard work does pay off in many ways.”
Youngsters always need an extra push to know how to work through adversity and failure – and how to overcome it.
Beera and Rodrigues have benefitted from the Canada Soccer C andNational Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) training, also know a fair bit when it relates to dealing with stress and anxiety.
“It’s in our everyday lives, but coaching has helped,” said Rodrigues. “There was a time when I didn’t think that I had the capability to coach. Now, I am a better person. We learn from each other, but (Beera) is much better coaching and has so much more confidence.”
“My first exposure to soccer was at elementary school and I had no clue about the rules,” said Rodrigues. “There was, and still is, lots to learn. My first time as a coach – it was (Beera) who had motivated me to step forward and I got hooked. I saw that I could make a positive difference.”
While there are some who will debate that awards, trophies, recognition, and financial gain are important at the amateur sports level, others see success as simple as being available, helpful, and useful to others.
For Beera and Rodrigues, it has never been about winning or losing.
For them, priorities have always been about instructing kids to use what they learn in a soccer environment, as a reference to everyday life. It’s about working to achieve a common goal of respect, even when a score may not be flattering.
There are times when failure is the greatest opportunity to improve. Earning something through hard work will come with its own rewards.
“We learn from each other, but (Beera) is much better coaching and has so much more confidence.”
CAO’s Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench: Truth & Reconciliation Edition
“Having a sense of your (Indigenous) culture, helps me identify with my past, and also have the freedom today, to be who I am, be recognized for what I do, and be proud and able to contribute.”
There is a saying that the mark of a champion is having the ability to combine superior performance, under demanding circumstances, with a quality of personality that captivates an individual.
Meet one of those champions – Amy Wilson.
Start with a gleaming personality and an abundance of charm, Wilson is a brave individual who is far from apprehensive and more like a lightning bolt of enthusiasm and dedication.
Born in the small lumbering town of Fort Frances, in northwestern Ontario, Wilson remembers always being one who wanted to be around to help others. There were several in her family, who chose to work in the medical field. Wilson would follow the same professional route and graduate with a Nursing diploma from Northern College.
Sports were always in her life. At Fort Frances High School, she was active in almost every activity, from soccer to volleyball, and the list goes on. In her case, she did it all with grades that portrayed academic honors. Wilson was offered a full scholarship to study and play soccer at a major university – but turned it down for personal reasons.
Volleyball would become her sport of choice. These days she is an assistant coach at the University of Waterloo as well as developing volleyball camps for youngsters in remote First Nations communities. From being an athlete, and she excelled at that, to taking time to shine as a superb coach, was an interesting move.
At the age of 25, and while working as a nurse at a home for the aged, she took a telephone call from her father. She remembers it well. It was a September afternoon in 2006, when her dad had called to say that a local Catholic elementary school needed a coach – or the team would not be allowed to continue.
Minutes later, and with no previous coaching experience, she accepted the challenge. But Wilson also wondered why her father would call his daughter – the oldest of three siblings? She would soon find out. Asked about that launch of her coaching career, Wilson didn’t hesitate with a reply.
“My father (Terry Wilson) had seen my passion and the gift of wanting to help people whenever I can,” said Wilson, who is an Anishinaabekwe and from Rainy River First Nations. “He saw an opportunity that he thought would fit for me.
“That coaching experience turned out to be one of the best decisions that I had ever made. The start of something real big for me – and it has led to wonderful opportunities and so much more in my life.”
In Canada, September 30th marks the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. It’s a time that honours Indigenous children, their families, and communities. Wilson is one of them. Her father was a survivor of Ontario’s residential schools.
A day devoted to Canada’s Indigenous community is also a time to reflect on culture, self-esteem, and freedom. Wilson knows that, too.
“Having a sense of your (Indigenous) culture, helps me identify with my past and also have the freedom today to be who I am, be recognized for what I do, and be proud and able to contribute,” said Wilson, who is a mother of five. “In sport, winning is exciting and important. Beyond sport, having a day to reflect on our Indigenous past is crucial, and understanding that there is so much more to be done.”
Wilson remains in close contact with her family after moving to the Greater Toronto Area in 2017. It was several years later, on a return home for the festive season, that things didn’t go well. About one hour outside of Fort Frances, the vehicle she was riding in as a passenger, was hit head-on by an impaired driver – who was later charged by police.
Her persistence and fortitude were too strong for setbacks – and especially having that lust and eagerness to comfort, support, and guide people. Wilson, like everyone, also has her values and dreams.
High up on the list is one day becoming the first Indigenous coach of a Canadian National women’s volleyball team that moves on to compete in international competition. She has had a taste of it. Wilson has coached Ontario teams at the 2017 and 2020 North American Indigenous Games (NAIG).
“Young people need to realize there are opportunities to learn, stay disciplined, stop making excuses and respond in a positive way,” added Wilson, who has her Level 3 accreditation in the National Coaches Certification Program. “There are so many young people in Indigenous communities who never get seen and we need to encourage them to continue to get active and have fun.”
Wilson has many stories of her days as an athlete, which include the moments of success and frustration as a coach, but there is so much more about her than winning medals, awards, and championships.
When it gets down to coaching, her battle plan is simple, sincere, and straightforward. It’s based on 17 years of experience, honesty, and integrity. To those she coaches, she repeats a game strategy lesson of past.
“I believe in you – and I know you can do this,” Wilson has said time and time again. “We are not going to look ahead. We are going to stay calm and leave everything that we have out there”.
Personal gratification is not big with her, but she has received special honors as a recipient of the Aboriginal Apprenticeship Coaches award at the 2017 Canada Games held in nearby Winnipeg. In 2021, the Ontario Volleyball Association selected Wilson “Coach of the Year” for her work with the 18-and-under girls’ team at the Pakmen Volleyball Club of Mississauga. Now, another time to shine as a recipient of the 2023 Coaching Excellence award from the Coaches Association of Ontario.
There would have been more opportunities, but the pandemic shut down a trip to train and coach with the Youth National team in France. Also closed was a summer to train and coach with the Team Canada Next Generation (Senior ‘B’ team) women’s volleyball team.
With challenges galore, and not having a female Indigenous coach to look up to as a mentor, Wilson recalls a social media message that she had received in 2021. It came from an individual she had coached many years back and had a huge impact on that person.
Wilson gets emotional thinking about it.
“She wrote to me and said she had been having a tough time and that, while coaching her, I had changed her perspectives on life,” Wilson said of the note from that athlete. “She said that I had given her love, was always there for her, saved her life and that she was here today because of me.”
Wilson’s story, and what she has done for athletes as a coach, is another example of the need to remind all levels of government in Canada to provide extensive public education that share the history and national story of Aboriginal athletes. Wilson’s story highlights the importance of having a Truth and Reconciliation Day. In support, the CAO strives to share the stories of Indigenous coaches and sport leaders.
Look for her in August of 2025 at the Canada Games in St. John’s, Nfld. Wilson has been appointed an assistant volleyball coach for Team Ontario’s women’s squad.
“There are so many young people in Indigenous communities who never get seen and we need to encourage them to continue to get active and have fun.”
“(Coaching) was very rewarding – especially knowing that I was teaching kids about life-long skills outside of the normal classroom.”
It was not one of those charming times in his life that Jarod Milko recalls being discouraged and baffled.
That was when, as an exuberant 11-year-old competing in sport, things just weren’t working out the way most youngsters would have predicted.
For Milko, he was losing – one judo match after another.
His parents, very supportive in getting their sons active in physical activity, had introduced him to the sport because they knew he needed something stimulating in the down time outside of school.
Milko liked baseball, soccer, and volleyball, but judo would turn out to be the perfect fit providing a combination of mental and physical challenges.
“I started judo at eight years of age and lost all of my matches for the next three years,” recalled Milko. “I wanted to quit. I’ll never forget the time when my parents and judo coaches encouraged me to just keep working hard and good times would come.”
They were right – and he would see it.
That frustration would change when after three years of Milko struggling to find the winners podium, Milko started winning over and over. The confidence and success became infectious. His first win came on a vinyl-covered foam mat at the popular J & M Judo Club in Kenora. It may have just been an eye-opener to what would become a remarkable personal journey through life.
“There was a period of not doing very well in judo to working hard and becoming extremely successful,” said Milko. “I owe a great deal to my parents, and coaches, for their huge contribution in giving me the tenacity and assurance to work hard and never give up.”
Making a difference can be huge.
Milko was born, raised and resides in Kenora – a city of some 15,000 people in the stunning beauty of the Lake of the Woods area of northwestern Ontario. It’s about 200 kilometres east of Winnipeg.
He is of Métis ancestry. Métis are people of mixed European and Indigenous genealogy, and one of the three recognized Aboriginal peoples in Canada.
Some people know Milko by the nickname – “Milkman”. It’s a moniker given during his rewarding professional and amateur career in mixed martial arts. Others know him for 11 years in the school classrooms as a teacher, coach, and advocate for the development of physical literacy for all young people.
He’s also a role model proving that education – including 11 years of post-secondary studies – amounted to more than just knowledge and prosperity. For him, it was that anything is possible with a strong and focussed work ethic.
After his student elementary and secondary school days, Milko earned bachelor’s and master’s Degrees at the University of Lethbridge and the University of Winnipeg, respectively. Tack on the Doctorate from the University of Western Ontario in London. His teaching certification was at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.
Yes, you can call him by his formal title – Dr. Jarod Milko.
A multi-sport high school athlete in his younger years, his focus on judo came outside of school time. As for career time, he would go on to teach, for eight years, at Beaver Brae Senior Elementary – the school he once attended.
“Tenacity applies to everything in my life,” said Milko. “The ability to persevere in all challenges goes back to those early days in judo. You can be exhausted, but you can also dig deep, don’t ever give up. In life, the rewards come in many ways.”
These days, Milko pivoted from the formal classroom to tackle a variety of personal interests and challenges. He has his own company and works in software, enjoys landscaping, still finds time to teach, coach his two daughters as well as research and write in the field of developing physical literacy in young people.
For relaxation, you’ll likely locate him golfing, hunting and scuba diving.
“I’m a busy guy, but always available to help,” said Milko, now 36 years old and eight years into retirement as a competitive athlete, where he twice finished in the top three in Canada and had an overall mixed martial arts record of 18-6. Breaking it down, 9-3 as an amateur and the same record as a professional.
He has his prized possessions – the medals, trophies, and championship belts. But for him, coaching was special. That first job as a mentor started in his rookie year of teaching.
“(Coaching) was very rewarding – especially knowing that I was teaching kids about life-long skills outside of the normal classroom,” he said. “I had wanted to coach because I saw what it did for me. Coaches were extremely influential in my life.
“They were very important to my development, and I know that sport is a great way to get through to young people. When I taught physical education and coached school sports, I saw it firsthand. Every kid is different. The growth in their self-confidence and leadership both inside and outside of the classroom is what stands out most.”
Milko is a huge advocate for grassroots programming in schools.
“The 11-13-year-olds age range is really important to focus on when it comes to providing opportunities in sport and encouraging kids to participate,” said Milko, quoting data from ParticipACTION. “This is when we see the greatest dropout rate of kids quitting sport. By 16 years of age, one of every three girls have dropped out of sport compared to just one in 10 boys.”
Milko said it was “amazing to see our programs flourishing with enthusiastic middle school students and all it really took was providing opportunities along with great coaching”.
“Getting young people involved early is critical,” he said. “There are kids not sure of sports – but they need to be involved. It’s important for them to build confidence early and realize that they, too, can be successful.”
September 30 is National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
“Talking about youth sport is really appropriate for this day as both Indigenous and non-Indigenous coaches can provide a platform for coaching young people to play, compete, learn and grow through sport together,” added Milko. “We can all be part of the solution and supporting young people in sport. This is certainly a key component highlighted in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.”
It’s also learning about the rich and diverse cultures, voices, experiences and histories of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. It’s a day for all Canadians to commemorate the history and legacy of the residential school system. A time to honor the resilience, dignity and strength of survivors and remember the children who never came home.
“For parents, one more nudge for their child. You never know what that will lead to. Winning in sport is the small picture, the bigger one is we’re building character development, skills and doing it through sports.”
The Coaches Association of Ontario strives to share the stories of Indigenous coaches and sport leaders – and encourages all levels of government, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, sports halls of fame, and other relevant organizations, to provide public education that tells the national story of Aboriginal athletes in history.
“Winning in sport is the small picture, the bigger one is we’re building character development, skills and doing it through sports.”
CAO’s Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench article series – September 2023
“The objective has always been to get kids active, healthy, and focussed on building strong life skills.”
When Mark Peltier had an opportunity to impact the lives of young people in a positive way, he went right to work. There was no hesitation.
A modest guy, extremely focussed on always wanting to meet challenges with overwhelming success, the rewards started to show. In time, achievements and prosperity continued to shine.
For Peltier, what is acutely gratifying is watching it all happen in a place where it all began for him – his home on Manitoulin Island.
Known locally in Ojibway as “Spirit Island” and in the heart of the Great Lakes, it’s a place recognized for having the largest freshwater island in the world. Tack on some breathtaking sunsets.
Also shining, is the character, dedication, and work of Peltier.
His enthusiasm and energy clearly are evident in his ability to find positive ways to achieve a boom in success. That can be tough when the microscope is on individuals between the ages of nine and 15. Pushing for participation and engagement in a variety of activities can be arduous, but also intriguing.
Peltier chose sport as a way of attracting youngsters. His primary objective: getting them to benefit from physical health and exercise.
“Sport was so important in my life,” said Peltier. “It helped me learn, create relationships, become physically fit and strengthen my social and emotional skills. Now, what makes me feel even better is providing a form of enjoyment to youngsters in the community – and giving them the same opportunities.”
This September, Peltier was recognized with an Ontario Coaching Excellence award given out by the Coaches Association of Ontario (CAO) in partnership with Hydro One. It’s presented to a group of coaches, honoured during National Coaches Week for exemplary work along with the integral role they implement and achieve with their athletes, sport, and community.
As part of the award, CAO and Hydro One is presenting Peltier with a $500 award to purchase new equipment and tools from local Ontario or Canada businesses.
There are periods in life when growing up in smaller communities can sometimes feel like living in isolation – especially for a vulnerable age bracket. Peltier is quite aware that same age range is also hooked on what he calls “small screen devices”. You know of them as being cell phone games and computers.
“It makes my job, as a coordinator or a coach, that much more important,” he said. “I have to find positive ways to attract them to participate so they see it’s all meaningful.”
Peltier grew up on a farm in Wikwemikong First Nation located in the eastern peninsula of Manitoulin Island. For him, there were family responsibilities, which included baling hay, rounding up cattle, and a variety of other chores. Peltier understood his duties, but he also wanted some variety, too.
“My dad wanted me to work on the farm – to do real work,” recalled Peltier. “Sports was a waste of time to him. But when I became successful in school and sports, he changed his viewpoint and said he was proud of me – and I’ll never forget that.”
So, when was the break-out period for Peltier?
It may have been at Pontiac Elementary when Peltier showed the early signs of a fond interest in academics as well as a desire to experience taking part in a variety of athletic activities. He participated in every sport offered by the school.
But badminton was not one of them. For some reason, he explained, the school board just didn’t offer it and factors could have been a lack of funding or having someone to coach. That would change in time.
It was as a seven-year-old, while taking a break from duties on the farm that his ingenuity kicked in. With help from his sisters, he tied string between two trees and launched his own version of a badminton net. Confidence also became huge for him.
A multi-sport athlete, Peltier would go on to excel in the track and field obstacle event known as steeplechase. He went on to become the Nipissing District champ and competed at the Ontario high school track and field championships. It wasn’t the Olympic Games, but for him it was a huge personal accomplishment.
With a post-secondary education always a priority, Peltier went on to attend Toronto’s George Brown College, but would graduate with a diploma in fitness and leisure management from Cambrian College in Sudbury. Worth noting, was that he did win back-to-back gold medals at the Ontario colleges championships in cross country running. As for badminton, he was awarded the men’s singles intramurals badminton title during his time at George Brown.
“After College, the love for badminton remained and it was all for recreation,” he said. “The focus would switch to coaching. I had so much fun that I knew the responsibility shifted to help others, young people back home, and try to bring out the best in them.”
What would come next for Peltier would be huge for the community.
As the coordinator of healthy living youth programs for Noojmowin Teg Health Centre, which services First Nations communities on Manitoulin Island and the District, Peltier was looking for additional funding to launch programs.
In 2021, it came.
The federal Government’s Sport for Social Development in Indigenous Communities provided a two-year grant of $80,000, which included in-kind contributions from Noojmowin Teg Health Centre.
Peltier would tap into the allotment to form Badminton Warriors of Mnidoo Mnising (the Ojibway translation for Manitoulin). It was, and still is, the only badminton club on the Island and serves eight communities. Friendly, encouraging, and a positive role model, Peltier also fit the role of coach.
“The objective has always been to get kids active, healthy, and focussed on building strong life skills,” said Peltier, who is a benefactor of the National Coaching Certification Program.
He knows that the impact of the Sport Canada project is measured in a variety of ways that include participation numbers and physical literacy assessments. Another huge moment came in April of 2023 – the inaugural Manitoulin Island elementary school badminton championships took place.
Peltier couldn’t help but recall his younger years when the sport was not offered. Now, badminton is a school sport event across Manitoulin.
“It’s such a wonderful time,” said Peltier. “Kids love it, parents are happy, and I see everyone as a winner.”
“I had so much fun that I knew the responsibility shifted to help others, young people back home, and try to bring out the best in them.”
“We keep them occupied, teach them to learn to defend themselves, steer them in the right direction, make friends and keep them safe”
There have been times when he stood in a boxing ring, either training or just prepping for a bout, and there were flashbacks of his younger years – especially learning about the basics on how to defend himself.
Ibrahim Salah El-Din Kamal has come a long way since then. His journey of remarkable toughness and resilience may very well be a formula for success for others who have dreams and desires to also strive for excellence.
Kamal was born in what was then known as the Toronto suburb of East York. When his dad – a university professor and national swim coach – had a job opportunity in Libya that was too good to turn down, the family moved to Tripoli for what turned out to be about 10 years.
Sports, according to Kamal, were banned in that North African country at the time. As a five-year old, his parents were adamant that he should learn and understand how to defend himself when there was a need for it. So, with a pillow and a piece of plywood used as a punching bag, came his introduction. That first lesson in boxing had started – and with no gloves.
There was an incident in a school in Libya, where Kamal was bullied. But that never happened again.
“I remember it well, I was just a little kid trying to absorb everything including being in a new country,” recalled Kamal, who is from a mixed background of Egyptian and Guyanese parents. “But I also thought about one day having a career that involved working with kids in the sports sector.”
Kamal would return to Canada at the age of nine, grew up in a public housing complex and two years later would join the Scarborough Boxing Academy and later the Unitas Boxing Academy. His first fight, as an 11-year-old, did not go over well. It was a loss, but there was much gained involving strategies and more.
As for his academics at Pringdale Gardens and John McRae Junior Public Schools, Kamal was a very good student. That continued at the high school level where he would go on to graduate from R.H. King Academy.
In the boxing ring, Kamal became a winner in 1998 at the age of 13. It was a gold medal, his first, and it came at the Ontario Winter Games in Peterborough. A realization that hard work would lead to achievements and triumph had hit home.
As a teenager, for him there was very little time, if any, for participation in school sports as Kamal made Canada’s National boxing team at age 16. The Cabbagetown Boxing Club, where his rise to fame really took off, had become his home away from home and people were taking notice of this rising star.
“Looking back, I was a carded athlete while studying sociology at the University of Toronto,” he said. “But I should have taken education more seriously – especially since I had always wanted to become a teacher.”
Strong, both mentally and physically, he was always confident in the ring and often referred to as “Firearm” Kamal because of his hand speed and quickness. He became a Canadian National boxing champ eight times, with the goal of becoming the best boxer in the world. Kamal was once quoted as saying “the ring is where I belong – it’s my destiny. I am in complete control. The outcome is up to me.”
While he was unable to achieve his two primary goals, winning at the Olympics and World championships, he came away with an even bigger prize.
“I was crushed and devastated at not reaching those goals, but for me one door closed, and another had opened resulting in something much greater,” he said. “I got married to a wonderful person and we were committed to helping kids who needed assistance – some who were angry, some might be part of the youth justice system, others might live in foster care and the majority are dealing with systematic barriers. They needed positive reinforcement – and that was us.”
It was also the launching of the boxing-based youth charity called the Mentoring Junior Kids Organization (MJKO) in 2010. His co-partner is his wife (Miranda). A fighter in her day, cut short by a serious injury, she went on to be a Team Canada and International Boxing Association (AIBA) coach, and with her National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) status, became a facilitator and official.
“She is an outstanding woman – and we do our best to motivate and mentor vulnerable young people from marginalized areas of the city,” he said emphasizing their hard work.
“There is no greater award than helping young people. Kids in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the city, who are often confronted by gangs, poverty, and various forms of bullying. A good coach can change a kid’s life. That is what coaches did for me.”
Programming is free and the club, located in the basement of a Parkdale building, has 200 members – boys and girls between the ages of eight and 18.
“We keep them occupied, teach them to learn to defend themselves, steer them in the right direction, make friends and keep them safe,” said Kamal. “It’s about building a different kind of champion. Saving a life, seeing kids grow and get better, is more than a gold medal.”
Kamal is a member of the Coaching Association of Canada’s professional coach designation program and graduated from the Advanced Coaching program through the NCCP and holds AIBA certification. There’s more. He was inducted to the Ontario Boxing Hall of Fame, is also a Boxing Canada learning facilitator, evaluator and was a mentor for the Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) coaching program and a former head Coach of Ontario at the Canada Games.
Kamal was one of the recipients of a 2023 Ontario Coaching Excellence Award, presented by the CAO in partnership with Hydro One. The awards are being presented in September as part of National Coaches Week. Kamal also receives $500 to be used on equipment purchases for the MJKO club from local and Canadian businesses proudly provided by Hydro One.
While Kamal may have his share of accolades and awards, his focus has always been on ways to help athletes find ways to achieve their goals. The CAO’s series “Empowering Coaches from Behind the Bench” shines the spotlight on individuals, like him, with strong coaching fundamentals.
“It’s about building a different kind of champion. Saving a life, seeing kids grow and get better, is more than a gold medal.”
“As a coach, they always know that I am there for them. I’ve had kids come back and share great memories and the friendships that last a lifetime. It’s a remarkable feeling.”
There was a time when the legendary Canadian country and folk singer/songwriter “Stompin Tom” Connors created a song back in 1971, that gave notoriety to the small Southern Ontario town of Tillsonburg, about 50 kilometres southeast of London.
Hold on, there’s another individual in this community at the junction of Highways 3 and 19 that, although not as popular in the world of music, has certainly gained notoriety by producing a form of beauty, harmony, as well as various expressions of emotion in a different way.
Rebecca (Becky) Turrill has never been one for receiving personal awards. That will now change.
For the past 30 years, there has been a commitment by her to helping many boys and girls get an early start on learning about things like mutual trust and friendship – all while having fun. For her, doing what she does for several decades, is all about happiness.
Within the Tillsonburg Ringette organization, Turrill devotes long hours of volunteer work with one of the many teams. For her, it’s with the Tiny Twisters – and she’s the head coach.
For those not familiar with ringette, it’s a sport that has been around for some 60 years. Played on an ice surface, skates, sticks with drag-tips, and a blue rubber ring are part of the game. It’s as close as you get to hockey, but it isn’t. In fact, the next World Ringette Championship takes place later this year in Calgary.
For Turrill, known to many in the community as “Coach Becky”, her audience has had as many as 53 boys and girls on the ice at one time. All are under the age of six and they gather twice each week at the local community centre.
Looking on are a slew of parents who, day-by-day, see their own anxiety get replaced by watching children have fun and benefitting from a woman who thrives on success and enjoyment.
When she was a youngster, Turrill didn’t know much about ringette. She grew up in the community of Springford. Check a map, and you’ll see it’s that dot located slightly northeast of Tillsonburg.
For her, it was quite common seeing cows stroll through the family backyard. Softball was something she enjoyed, but so was playing the saxophone in the school band at Glendale High School.
As a teenager, she worked at the recreational centre. She was a youth leader and dreamed of one day becoming a teacher. Instead, after graduation, Turrill started working in customer service and is now a Program and Facility Registrar, which focuses on entering programs in the software system. She knows all about multi-tasking responsibilities with bookings for a variety of facilities, entering seasonal contracts and getting people signed up for recreational programs.
Married, a mother of two, a fulltime job, Turrill still finds time to also coach – something she started at age 16.
“Back then, it was coaching co-ed softball, then it became baseball and when my daughter played ringette, it looked like fun, so I got involved,” said Turrill, who has her Level 2 in the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP). “Ringette looked intriguing, I didn’t know much about it, so I did my research and went on to realize that I could coach the basics for little kids.”
Always finding ways to stay inspired, Turrill is an individual emboldened with patience and enthusiasm. Skates need tying. Helmets require buckling. Try it for several dozen kids. Good coaches develop skills and Turrill is clearly on top of her game building confidence and character with her group of, well, wobbly skaters.
She even thinks of ways to continue encouragement and motivation. There’s always a special bonus after the practise for those reaching levels of success. That’s when Turrill digs into her bag and adds stickers to helmets.
“As a coach, I treat each kid as if they were my own kids,” said Turrill, who has coached all levels of ringette in Tillsonburg at both the Regional and Provincial Levels. “There are times when I feel like I’m a mother of 50.
“You become that extra level of support and it’s a wonderful feeling seeing them learn and show respect. As a coach, they always know that I am there for them. I’ve had kids come back and share great memories and the friendships that last a lifetime. It’s a remarkable feeling.”
Remember those younger years of wanting to become a teacher? Turrill certainly has contributed to educating youngsters in other ways. She even booked a week of vacation from work to run a summer ringette camp – and did it as a volunteer.
Her work did not go un-noticed by the Coaches Association of Ontario, as Turrill became one of the recipients of a 2023 Ontario Coaching Excellence Award presented to an exemplary group of individuals in celebration of the integral role they play with individuals and teams. They are being honored during National Coaches Week in September.
“I received a phone call with the news (of the award), and I froze,” recalled Turrill. “Oh my gosh, I was flabbergasted and couldn’t speak and got extremely emotional. It hit home, my head started to spin, and I am truly honored. I don’t do what I do to get recognized, I do it to watch kids develop. I coach because I thoroughly love it.”
Turrill will also receive a $500 prize, from event sponsor Hydro One, to be used for equipment and supplies for the Tillsonburg Twisters organization. Purchases are to be made from local, Ontario or Canadian businesses.
Alysha Armstrong said Turrill has coached her daughter, Sophia, for three years and “constantly provided confidence and encouragement” leading to remarkable success in her ability to skate.
Chelsey Durham, in her letter acknowledging the great work by Turrill, said she was impressed with the “appropriate skills and activities (used) to help the wide range of skaters (Turrill) was working with to progress effectively”. Her daughter, Quinn, was almost four years old, when Turrill outgoing friendly personality helped her learn to skate.
While the accolades just keep coming for Turrill, the mentor of so many has no intentions of stopping what she has done so well for years.
“I don’t do what I do to get recognized, I do it to watch kids develop. I coach because I thoroughly love it.”
“We are honored that our athletes felt comfortable coming to us with concerns regarding their mental health and then we try to connect them to available resources.”
Those early morning arduous practices, rowing on calm water, can sometimes create illusions, lead to many moments of grinding physical exercise, a plethora of great expectations and oodles of enjoyment.
Myma Okuda-Rayfuse has lived that life as an athlete, now a coach and is an embodiment for others. As a role model, it also goes beyond sports – it’s helping people, in her career of occupational therapy, regain their independence.
Various items become quite evident in a conversation with this bright and intellectual young woman. Clearly standing out, is her determination, willingness, and ability to comfort and guide people, and not on any one given day, but over a long period of time.
The traits of inspiration and encouragement may very well have come about in her teen years. That’s when she was eager to compete and take the rookie challenge in a variety of sports. She took learn-to-row programs at the Ottawa Rowing Club and the Kennebecasis Rowing Club in Rothesay, N.B.. There was also playing saxophone in the high school band and joining the choir at Glebe Secondary in Ottawa, where she was born, that showed her desire to learn.
But it was much more than becoming part of a group focussed on achieving success.
Hearing her elaborate about those early years in life, which included a brief stint with the high school rowing team. But that didn’t last. By her own admission, being one who liked to stay up late, night owl was the term she used, didn’t mix well with the concept of early to rise for rowing practices. Her parents also, didn’t think it was a good idea.
Yet, times have changed.
Eagerness and a lust for the sport of rowing re-surfaced in her first year of studying nursing at McMaster University in Hamilton. It was a break from assignments and studies, even though she had graduated from high school with academic honors. Others would get a glimpse of Okuda-Rayfuse being one of those gifted individuals – and it would become more evident in the years to come.
“I had something to prove, maybe there was a touch of jealousy, too,” she said, when asked about her novice season in rowing at McMaster. “I was put in the B boat but convinced that I was good enough to make the A boat. I was upset, but determined to show that I was better than some (had) thought.”
She was bang on. A minor personal setback became a major comeback. It wasn’t greed, but a hunger to excel – and mixed with the passion and devotion to reach for the top. Okuda-Rayfuse would take advantage of opportunities – and do well. She would go on to make the McMaster varsity team, and joined the Ottawa Rowing Club, during the summer months, to stay up with her physical exercise, row recreationally and strengthen her love for the sport.
The spotlight became very clear in 2017.
“My first big achievement came after finishing first in a competition of 36 boats at a Henley event that year,” she recalled. “It was my third year (at McMaster), and it was in the under-23 lightweight women’s singles (event). That was huge.”
Okuda-Rayfuse wasn’t done. That same year, at the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) rowing finals, and again competing on the world renown Royal Canadian Henley course, she caught more attention. This time, she finished second in a race won by Jill Moffatt, who is now a member of Canada’s Olympic team.
However, she was on Canada’s team that competed at the Fédération Internationale du Sport Universitaire (FISU) World University championships in Shanghai, China. Joining her was Alanna Fogarty in the lightweight women’s doubles competition. They finished ninth.
Okuda-Rayfuse never did make it to the Olympics or World championships. For her, there would be a bigger stage to shine – and it was not in the sports world.
Also in 2017, she accepted an offer to coach the Learn to Row program at the Leander Boat Club – a community club with an assortment of programs and located on the south shore of Hamilton Harbour. Enthusiastic about rowing and the club, she would also be appointed to the club’s Board of Directors.
“It was a great opportunity for me, I enjoyed it and strengthen my ability to learn more about the club, the sport, the athletes and share my experience,” she said, while also acknowledging that she found time to help with the coaching the rowing team at Hamilton’s St. Mary Catholic Secondary School.
Then, a bit of a shocker after receiving her degree at convocation. She would spend the summer working at a grocery store because the 12-hour nursing shifts would have interfered with rowing practice. Her focus was on trying to make the Canadian roster for the World University Games and then see “where life would take me”.
Again, Okuda-Rayfuse knew there was some additional unfinished business. That resulted in her adding to the academic resume by completing her Masters in occupational therapy.
These days, she is on the staff of the Hamilton General Hospital and works at the location that is home for several key regional referral programs offered by Hamilton Health Sciences.
“My values had changed and there was more interest in quality of life,” she said. “I had worked part time as a nurse, worked in a rehabilitation unit and graduated in November of 2021, I was focussed on my future and enjoy helping people regain independence. I see my job as being very person focussed.”
Busy and focussed, Okuda-Rayfuse is also a co-coach of the rowing program at McMaster and when asked about her proudest moment outside of being an athlete, she highlighted the coaching effort in McMaster winning a gold medal at the 2022 OUA championships. It was the first gold by a women’s team in the past 20 years.
In addition to coaching at McMaster, Okuda-Rayuse is responsible for the senior competitive program at Leander. That involves a group of 30+ athletes from nine different universities across North America. She, primarily, coaches the under-23 and senior women. In July of 2023, each athlete in her program won, at least, one medal at the provincial championship.
In recognition of her overall coaching experience and community support, Okuda-Rayfuse was chosen as the 2023 recipient of a special award presented by Hydro One, in partnership with the Coaches Association of Ontario (CAO) at the recent Ontario Coaching Excellence Awards. It’s called the Hydro One Safe Play award given to an individual who is committed to practicing positive, inclusive and safe sport through their leadership role.
The CAO “supports coaches by ensuring that all sport participants are physically, emotionally, and mentally safe, with accessible and affordable tools and resources”. The Safe Sport 101 partnership between the CAO and Hydro One gives coaches the tools they need to make sports safe, fun, and inclusive for all.
“I look at the legacy of coaches and for me it has only been a couple of years,” said Okuda-Rayfuse. “As a coach, I always promote fun and the community. Rowing is a tough sport and there are lots of athletes who quit because times can be very challenging.
“Mental health has always been a problem in sport, especially amongst student athletes. We are honored that our athletes felt comfortable coming to us with concerns regarding their mental health and then we try to connect them to available resources.
“I was overwhelmed to receive this award and it validates the work I am doing. I coach with others, and we know we are making a big impact in peoples’ lives – also in my life.”
“I was overwhelmed to receive this award and it validates the work I am doing. I coach with others, and we know we are making a big impact in peoples’ lives – also in my life.“
CAO’s Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench article series – August 2023
“I had learned a great deal and wanted to coach. There was so much to share, and I figured it was the right thing to do.”
One life to live and she is making the best of it.
As a youngster, Gail Simmons grew up in Cramlington, a small town known for its architecture and landscape in northeast England near the border of Scotland. With a storied past of history and heritage, that same area would one day also be known as home to a pair of movies chronicling the life of that young wizard, Harry Potter.
Yet, fascinated with the world of graphic design, with a relative having already chosen that career, she would go on to maximize her interests by earning a diploma from a prestigious British school known as York College. The ambiance of a building would eventually get shelved as she would go on to explore something vastly different.
Big on imagination, creativity, and having an astute passion for learning, little did she know back then, that one day she would also be a strong candidate as one of those notable figures born in that English community of Northumberland.
In her case, the winds of change would lead to her becoming a World champion. But, at what?
At the age of 21, while examining leisure opportunities in fitness and self defence programs, she took an interest in the sport of taekwondo – one of the oldest forms of martial arts. It was something that would involve a variety of hand and kick techniques. Hold on, there would also be cardio conditioning that became an effective way to burn things like belly fat.
Society had, and still has, its share of people who view kickboxing as something not appealing – especially to the female crowd. Times have certainly changed as women continue to get engaged in a variety of sports and recreational programs that, at one time, would never even have considered.
Having earned a third-degree black belt eight years later in taekwondo (her initiation to martial arts), and then getting married to Gary King, the two had taken a trip to Canada. Not sure if it was for business, family visits, or vacation. One thing was for certain: it would also lead to immigration in 2008. For King, the ingenuity and inspiration was continuing to grow in martial arts.
Curiosity pursued along with the eagerness to get involved in strength and conditioning programs. That would initially come at a small gym in Guelph. King would get her first Canadian glimpse of Muay Thai – a combat sport that uses a variety of clinching moves and stand-up striking.
It wasn’t long before she would pivot to kickboxing – the full contact combat activity that involves kicking, punching, and clinching. She also saw it as an opportunity to expand on various aspects of fitness training. Others just described kickboxing as a glorified form of boxing.
“For me, it all started with fitness and then, after my first fight, I knew it was an activity that I wanted to grow in and learn,” said King, who is fond of some great memories in an athletic career that has included numerous awards at the Ontario, Canadian, and international levels.
A glimpse of what was up and coming may well have occurred in 2015 at the World Kickboxing Federation (WKF) Provincials in Ajax, a community located just east of Toronto. That’s where King had won her first award – and it came in the form of a championship.
“It was the first fight that I had ever won,” recalled King. “I can remember it was something that I had lots of fun.”
Jubilation would grow for King as one heralded event would stand out above all others and it came a year later in the Adriatic port city of Bari, Italy.
With the stakes much higher and the competition tougher, King would find her way to the winner’s podium and leave with a gold medal, along with a pair of silvers, at the 2016 WKF Championship. Happiness isn’t a strong enough word to explain her feelings. Also rewarding would be the role model she had become for younger girls and women across the country.
Things happened quickly for King, and after winning a silver medal at a World Martial Arts Games event in Arbon, Switzerland, she chose to retire from competition at the age of 39. Always a difficult decision for any athlete, King had devoted countless hours and a commitment to excel. But she was not done with the sport.
Excellence continued for her in one of the most popular combat sports around the world. With the International Olympic Committee recognizing kickboxing as an Olympic sport on July 20, 2021, King made another judicious move.
This time, it would be as a mentor.
“I had learned a great deal and wanted to coach,” she said. “There was so much to share, and I figured it was the right thing to do.”
Educating and mentoring others. That was her next move. So, she formed Valhalla Mixed Martial Arts in Cambridge, located about a 45-minute drive from her home in Rockwood. It’s a facility that offers classes for every age group and level. She is the Head Coach and owner.
Worth noting, King is also a WKF Referee and Judge.
“Kickboxing builds confidence, discipline and helps with mental health,” said King, who has Level 2 certification by the World Association of Kickboxing Organizations (WAKO) and Boxing Canada.
“I love the sport and want to do whatever I can to grow it, push for more females to get involved. My dream is to be associated with someone, who will represent Canada at a future Olympics.”
King knows that many people can get the wrong impression of kickboxing and view it as a violent activity that conjures up images of people knocking each other out. Some also see it to be no more violent than sports like basketball, football, and hockey, that statistically have large numbers of injuries, while wearing protective equipment
In fact, the National Safety Council, located in Itasca, Ill., reported that more than three million people in the United States were treated for sports injuries in hospital emergency rooms in 2021.
“(Kickboxing) is not brutal”, said King, who has coached individuals between the ages of six and 50. “Yes, it hurts to get kicked and punched – but it’s a sport where you’re also building up endurance and power training. Competing in kickboxing, is not just something people do for major competitions. It’s an activity that involves enjoyment, recreation, and physical fitness.
“My goals as a coach are to continue to grow the sport that I love and encourage more females into the sport whether that be as recreational or a competitive athlete and hopefully that leads to more female coaches and leaders in the sport.”
While there are all sorts of qualities and characteristics that make up a good coach, King draws from her knowledge and experience to endorse enthusiasm, development of goals and a great deal of patience. Her gym is one for all abilities and fitness levels.
“My expectations for my students, that depends on the student and age.,” she said. “For the juniors, (it’s to) learn kickboxing but have fun doing it. If they are learning kickboxing recreationally, then I want them to enjoy it, push themselves and smash whatever goals they have set. If they want to be competitive, it’s all of the above.”
Mariam Lami knows what it’s like to work hard and enjoy success.
She started kickboxing in her teens, took a break, and then returned to the gym at age 25 after complaining how much she missed the sport. Benefitting from great coaching from King, Lami went on to win the 2022 National kickboxing championship in the women under 60 kilos category held in Niagara Falls, Ont.
“There was a time when I wasn’t sure if I would compete again, but knew there was always room for improvement,” said Lami, who works in the medical device industry for FluidAI Medical in Kitchener.
“My club had closed, but I knew about (King), shad seen her fight and I may have even sparred with her once. Then, found out she had opened a gym. She is a fantastic coach, made me a better fighter and I wouldn’t have been able to win a title without her.”
Through the Coaches Association of Ontario series “Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench”, features like the one on King focus on individuals who find opportunities to enhance the use of strong coaching fundamentals for training, guidance, and improvement.
“Kickboxing builds confidence, discipline and helps with mental health.”
CAO’s Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench – July 2023
“I have really come to enjoy (coaching) – and seeing the growth by my teammates, means a great deal to me.”
There were times when, like so many others, he was stuck in a rut.
Imagine having a hollow feeling, confidence had slipped, self-esteem was absent, and toss in plenty of aggravation and frustration.
That was John Azlen, in his teenage years, growing up in Windsor. Some might call it a form of depression. For Azlen, those feelings had to do with a variety of factors.
As a youngster, he had dreams of always wanting to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces. But he would learn that it wasn’t going to be possible because of physical pre-requisites that Azlen would not be able to achieve.
Azlen was born with a birth defect and, at six months of age, became a double amputee above the knee.
In time, he would adjust to prosthetics. Eventually, he would make the call to give way to a wheelchair.
As a graduate of Riverside High School, Azlen then needed time to ponder his future. He chose a temporary path of factory work. It was also easy to get bogged down while losing sight of what matters most. Along with various forms of barriers, he would learn quickly that a lack of post-secondary education was not in his best interests.
Confidence was starting to kick in. He was able to see a different way of living. Then, change hit home. The days of life being empty and dull would be replaced by chosen qualities, and him focussing on his deepest desires.
Azlen had enough of feeling sorry for himself and was determined to do what was necessary to make his life better. He was beginning to understand what his new needs would be in order to build the most meaningful life possible.
“I was 27 years old, not very happy, and I needed to do something with my life,” he said in a telephone conversation from his home. “Enough of the wandering, I had to try do something positive with my life and, of all things, watching a movie gave me that extra inspiration and motivation. It was a huge turning point in my life.”
Azlen liked what he saw in the 2008 movie “Yes Man”. It was a comedy about an individual who supported the ideas and opinions of another person to try and earn that individual’s approval.
For Azlen, he figured that would be a time to say farewell to his negative feelings and replace them with a variety of positive opportunities and good things.
“The power of saying “yes” took over for me,” he said. “I returned to school and earned a diploma from St. Clair College in Business Administration and Marketing. For years, I was the guy who didn’t want to be social – but now, things would be different going forward. I’ve also always honored my commitments and I felt different.”
Robust and eager to take on a new role, Azlen examined opportunities and acted upon them.
In 2012, while at St. Clair, Azlen met John Boyko – a man passionate about wheelchair basketball. Boyko also started project called Wheel Living, later changed to the LaSalle Lightning basketball club. Fun, inclusiveness, and a positive social environment were priorities and that’s where Azlen learned to play the sport.
“I heard him talk about the sport, the club, and decided to get involved – there was accessible transit, too,” added Azlen. “But I really didn’t know much about basketball. I also knew there was a time when (Boyko) figured his time coaching was limited and in 2016 the club folded.”
Azlen got together with Rob Bahry, a former teammate, and decided the time was right to bring wheelchair basketball to Windsor.
“There was nothing around, nothing,” said Azlen. “So, as co-founders, we re-started the program in 2018 as the Rose City Riot Para Sports Club and it gave me an opportunity to learn more about the sport, coaching – while also getting an opportunity to play and have fun.”
Trying to stay humble, Azlen also felt the self-awareness really kick in. Along with it, came an urge to help others. His knowledge of coaching received a huge boost – but, he claims, only from one key organization.
“A lot of what I am doing is because the Coaches Association of Ontario (CAO) had a peer mentorship program that helped me a great deal while there were some professional development modules available through the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP),” said Azlen.
“I have really come to enjoy (coaching) – and seeing the growth by my teammates, means a great deal to me,” he said. “Since I started coaching, I’ve made friends with coaches across the province and the recognition, from others, has meant a great deal to me along with improving my knowledge.”
No longer one who is withdrawn, miserable and discouraged, Azlen is doing something that is lacking across the country – a coach in a wheelchair.
“I really feel good about myself and very proud of what I have achieved,” he said. “I look around and there is a lack of information for people to go on-line and learn about what it’s like to coach from a wheelchair. Everything is for those who are not physically challenged.”
James Murphy is Executive Director of ParaSport Ontario – an organization that supports the disability community connect with, and participate in, competitive and recreational adaptive sport programs and activities of their choice to enhance physical function and quality of life”.
Across Canada there appears to be a limited number of people with disabilities coaching others with impairments. Same is true for Ontario with supports, resources and training being some of the key factors.
“It’s very unfortunate and the same is true for the lack of variety parasport opportunities for participants with disabilities especially outside of major population hubs in Ontario,” said Murphy.
“There are not a lot of John Azlen’s, who put in effort each day to run, coach, arrange and even play while still having to work through many barriers including locations to practice, and adaptive equipment costs – and he hasn’t waivered because he cares so passionately about what he is doing and why.”
Murphy, and others, realize that Azlen is a very dedicated person from a coaching perspective and wanting to give back as well as help (the disability community) in the Windsor area. There may come a time when even Azlen is limited in what he can to keep the basketball club functioning with these barriers in place.
Azlen has been using a rental basketball wheelchair that isn’t properly fitted for him. In need of something new, that wish came true as he was recently a recipient of the ParaSport Ontario Play to Podium Fund that awarded him a new basketball wheelchair. According to Murphy, it is valued at more than $8,000.
Through the Coaches Association of Ontario series, “Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench”, focus on individuals – like Azlen – who find opportunities to enhance the use of strong coaching fundamentals for improvement, guidance, and training.
“Since I started coaching, I’ve made friends with coaches across the province and the recognition, from others, has meant a great deal to me along with improving my knowledge.”