CAO’s Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench article series – March 2022
“To see people, with a disability work hard at what they want to achieve and stay focused on participating, means more than any physical award.”
By David Grossman
There is a great English playwright and poet, known for his distinct classical opening phrase of a soliloquy in the theatrical play Hamlet.
With respect to William Shakespeare, I am going to modify that historical expression to reflect the world of sport. To be more specific, the key role of a dedicated individual, who has devoted more than 30 years to facilitating active lifestyles, and promoting fitness and sport for individuals with physical impairments.
To coach, or not to coach, that is the question?
It’s an easy answer for Gwen (Slater) Binsfeld, a para-alpine coach and a truly sensational individual whose family history may have been somewhat of a factor in her commitment to health, wellness, and fitness of people with disabilities.
An astute human being, Binsfeld is the next person to be recognized in the impactful series “Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench” put together by the Coaches Association of Ontario.
For Binsfeld, and like many others, to be a great coach, you don’t have to be a distinguished athlete. She has made it quite clear that coaches are the experts in motivating and communicating with athletes. Also, critically important, is the coaches’ function of leading athletes through ideal behaviours.
But that takes more than just words. Try leadership.
Back in her high school days, Binsfeld was quite active in a variety of sports, and was selected Athlete of the Year at Toronto’s York Memorial Collegiate, before going on to pursue a degree in Recreation and Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo.
“I lived for sport and if it wasn’t for all the opportunities to compete, I’d likely never have finished school,” she said in a telephone conversation from her cozy home on picturesque Manitoulin Island, located on the north shore of Lake Huron, and about a two-hour drive southwest of Sudbury.
“In those days, you could play all sports, not have to be restricted to one, and it was amazing.”
As a youngster, Binsfeld would remember the times she would visit Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, with her grandfather, a World War I veteran. She would carry his wooden leg when it was time to go swimming.
She also taught her niece, born without a hand, to ski, cycle and be active in various sports. Her hemiplegic son, was the next family member to embrace inclusive sport, and excel at para alpine skiing.
Those may have been early indications of her eagerness, ambition, and devotion to helping people with disabilities. But it was at the age of 19, that she had made up her mind to be a coach.
“I had some wonderful coaches, very special people and tremendous in what they did,” she said. “They were strong figures, encouraged and facilitated. You knew that they cared about you.”
Sport, coaching, leadership, commitment – it was contagious to her.
There was a time when Binsfeld had also wanted to become a teacher. She’s been instructing, cultivating, and guiding people in her own way through the world of adaptive skiing.
Coaches have been good at telling athletes that it’s not whether you get knocked down, but how you deal with it, whether you get up, and the importance of not giving up.
For more than three decades, Binsfeld has been a para coach. Ontario Track 3 and Canadian Adaptive Snowsports, are organizations that were formed by a group of volunteers dedicated to providing people of all abilities, the opportunity to experience the joys of skiing. Since 2008, Binsfeld has been involved in instructing and coaching the Provincial para alpine team.
There were 19 years with Para Alpine Ontario and some 25 coaching and volunteering with the Ontario Track3 Ski Association for the Disabled – an organization formed by a group of volunteers dedicated to providing young people of all abilities, the opportunity to experience the joys of skiing.
Not one to accumulate or brag about awards, Binsfeld was the recipient of the Canadian Adaptive Snowsports Coach of the Year award in 2020.
“That (award) had a great deal of meaning to me – to be recognized by your peers,” she said. “I do what I do, because I enjoy it and it’s meaningful to me in so many ways. To see people, with a disability work hard at what they want to achieve and stay focussed on participating, means more than any physical award.”
Binsfeld may have been somewhat of a pioneer for encouraging people with physical disabilities to strive for the top, always emphasizing to live very day to its fullest. She saw athletes with potential and chose to “get aggressive and build a pathway for them to the Paralympics”.
For her, the goal is not always reaching the podium or the world showcase for athletes with disabilities. There are winners in other ways, too.
“I’m dedicated to helping people of all ages reach their dream, their goal and that may very well be to get them out of a wheelchair and to adaptive skiing – giving individuals a way of enjoying adventure,” she said. “That’s a gold medal.”
Catching her on the ski slopes, you may very well hear that sound of music. That’s because she loves spiritual melodies and singing, what she calls uplifting, and has been in several choirs before the pandemic.
“I often sing when I coach,” she said. “You need to have rhythm and I tell athletes to do the same and have fun. Everything else is a bonus.
“The joy of seeing young participants become skilled and develop, watch their self-confidence soar and life skills go up – that’s all very important to me. The pay cheque is the smile of seeing people reach their goal. It’s contagious and I go home feeling engaged.”
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.
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