Supporting Canadian Athletes

Lori Johnstone

When former national team Raquetballer Lori Johnstone became chair of AthletesCAN in 1997, she felt compelled by what she saw and heard from other athletes to move it into unchartered territory.

Confident that former Chairs Ann Peel and Ed Drakich had made successful inroads in establishing AthletesCAN’s position within the sport community, Lori felt it was the right time to work with similar minded people in sport and “build on the momentum”.

“AthletesCAN had made a forceful entry and after fighting for the right to be where we were, it was time to look for common ground to continue to make progress,” says Lori, who has often been called a bridge-builder. “We had banged (the sport community) on the head quite a bit in terms of athlete-centeredness. Many people were open to ideas and wanted to be engaged in constructive ways. They were talking-the-talk but it was time to walk-the-walk.”

Lori was born in Oromocto, N.B., and grew up in various cities in Alberta. Moving frequently as a child, Lori says it was her involvement in sport that helped her integrate into new communities. Her dad encouraged her to try racquetball as a way to train for the other numerous sports she was competitive in and she immediately fell in love with it.

“In the 1980s, racquetball was an exciting sport with a lot of promise and many opportunities. I was immediately drawn to the speed and the freedom,” Lori recalls. “I loved the creativity you could bring to the game and the intensity of the sport. And I loved the rhythm of hitting balls – I really enjoyed practicing, just being on the court and hitting the ball hundreds of times.”

Lori won gold at the 1982 Alberta Winter Games soon after she took up the sport and narrowly missed out on going to the Canada Games in 1983. At the time, the pool of racquetball players in Alberta was very strong and the stiff competition lit a fire inside her. “It made me really hungry,” she says. “I really wanted to compete nationally and beyond.” Lori became part of the national team development program when her perseverance and strong backhand led her to a national doubles championship with partner Linda Ellerington in 1989 at the age of 21. At the 1990 national championships, the final event in the selection process for the world championships, Lori and her partner at first appeared to win, but then lost a controversial 11-10 tiebreaker in the finals. Despite a highly successful season, Racquetball Canada’s subjective selection policies did not give Lori a spot on the team going to the world championships. While there was an appeal process in place, it was not considered a “wise” move to question the decision, as noted when another athlete did appeal. It was this injustice that first put Lori in touch with the “other side of sports’.

“It was at that point when I first saw beyond the passion of sport and the pursuit of excellence to see a whole other world,” she says.

She eventually made the national team in 1991, winning a silver medal with Team Canada at the World Cup event. By the 1992 national championships, she was playing well enough to threaten the singles world champion (Canadian Heather Stupp), losing in a closely contested tie-breaker. Chosen as the alternate for the 1992 World Championships, Lori was impatient for more but willing to bide her time as an apprentice of the sport. Unfortunately, throughout her national team career, Lori constantly battled injury. Her motto in those days, “no pain, no gain”, literally led to the end of her career as over-training resulted in the growth of a bone through her elbow. She underwent surgery in 1994 and in an attempt to continue her racquetball career, temporarily switched to playing with her left hand. After two years of rehabilitation, it was painfully obvious that her right arm would not recover so Lori decided it was time to retire.

Lori’s passion for athlete leadership was fueled by her upbringing. Being taught that you need to be accountable and responsible, she came from a mind set that getting involved was important. “I don’t believe in a sense of entitlement,” says Lori. “Athletes need to be real contributors to decisions that are impacting them. If not, we’re letting others make decisions for us. There are few who are better positioned than an athlete who is informed, prepared and passionate about sport.”

Lori began her first major representative role in 1991 when she was named the athlete representative for Racquetball Canada on the former Canadian Sport Council. Training, working and studying in the national capital at the time, Lori was able to stay well-connected with the Ottawa-based council to bring the athlete voice to the table. Her introduction to AthletesCAN came when she attended the first ever AthletesCAN Forum in 1993 as the racquetball rep. She loved the sense of belonging she felt being with a group that understood what it was like to have such lofty goals.

“I didn’t have to justify my choices to be an athlete, willing to forgo financial security, stability and time with family and friends, in the pursuit of my dreams. They just got it.”

Lori was inspired to be a part of this dynamic new organization and quickly became caught up in its vision, plans and objectives. She ran for the Board of Directors that first year, but wasn’t elected. She ran successfully in 1994 and was vice-chair from 1995-1997 and chair from 1997-1999.

“It was a lot of work but I have never regretted it for a second,” says Lori of her time with AthletesCAN. She recalled how, when sidelined by injury and fast approaching an unplanned retirement from the national team, AthletesCAN helped her cope during this period in her life. “Being involved with AthletesCAN really helped with this difficult transition and gave me a place to transfer my love of sport and work ethic. I went from being an athlete with a lot of promise, getting where I wanted to be, to having an injured arm that didn’t work properly and being really disappointed and disillusioned. It was painful to let go of my dream to become world champion but I was able to redirect my energy to supporting others in their journeys to excellence.”

When Lori took over as chair of AthletesCAN in 1997, expectations were high, but she wasn’t intimidated. “I believed so strongly in what AthletesCAN was working for, I really respected the individuals who had built its foundation and I felt that I had the skills and experience to move the organization forward,” she says.

The “partnership” approach that Lori took was met with some criticism, but she stands by the strategy, saying that it is important to understand the environment and to consider opportunities and contributing factors when deciding what approach might be most effective at any given time. She believed that several key people and organizations had reached common ground and so, as a Board, they chose to work cooperatively and with mutual respect to move several key issues and projects forward.

“Sometimes you have to ram at the door and sometimes the door is open and you’re invited in,” she says. “You need to be aware of the environment and to determine which approach is necessary. And you may need different people for different approaches. AthletesCAN would never be where we needed to be without our initial approach—people were not listening. But just as the system was evolving, we needed to change in order to build on our credibility and progress.”

And change they did. During her tenure at AthletesCAN, Lori improved the organization’s relationships with others in the sport community, including members, NSOs, MSOs, coaches, and aboriginal athletes, engaging many in constructive discussions, projects and initiatives; implemented the 20% solution (having 20 per cent athlete representation on all sport boards); implemented Canada Games outreach, increased support, tools, resources, technologies and communication to and from athletes; worked on the athlete toolkit; continued to revise the Athlete Leadership Manual originally developed by founding Chair Ann Peel; increased NSO accountability to athletes by creating a report card concept where athletes and NSOs could assess their relationships; and developed an Athlete-Coach Relationships project in partnership with the Canadian Professional Coaches Association. She followed in the footsteps of the former chairs in forging direct links and relationships with the minister(s) responsible for sport and her work to make that connection eventually led to a job as special advisor to Secretary of State for Sport Denis Corderre. The appointment resulted in Lori giving up the chair position in 1999.

“It was an opportunity to keep athlete rights and issues front and centre on a daily basis,” Lori says of her position (1999-2001). Lori’s influence in that role was evident in the many changes in amateur sport at the national level, starting with the development of a national dispute resolution system; additional funding for athletes, coaches and for Olympic and Paralympic Games preparation; and the development of a national sport plan to create the optimum environment for Canadian athletes.

What Lori is most proud of during her time with AthletesCAN is the cumulative results. “We were able to achieve many things through our work—increased funding, increasing the credibility of AthletesCAN and the partnerships we created to work towards common goals,” she says, unwilling to take the credit herself. “This is what WE accomplished.”

As for her hopes for the future of AthletesCAN, Lori says the organization needs to stay very informed and work to consistently influence sport community decisions and policies. “AthletesCAN needs to be relevant and credible and powerful,” says Lori. “They can not and should not be complacent. The work has to matter and have an impact on present and future athletes and the sport system as a whole. It needs to have a pulse on athlete issues and come up with innovative solutions. AthletesCAN needs to be on its game.”

But looking to the future is not all Lori thinks AthletesCAN should be doing. She believes that the organization should take advantage of the past as well. “There are so many individuals who have made a difference in this organization. There were critics who didn’t believe AthletesCAN would last five years, let alone 15. Today it is an organization that continues to have an impact and make a difference. It’s good work and there are a lot of people who have contributed to that success – AthletesCAN needs to do a better job at tapping into those people (alumni) and keeping them involved.”

She feels that it is particularly important for athletes who have achieved greatness in competition to give back. Such athletes don’t always realize the impact they can have, especially if it means stepping outside their comfort zone into the world of advocacy, representation or social activism. “But they are really inspiring and naturally attract attention and respect,” she says. “Athletes can make a tremendous difference in the world, especially when they use their ‘powers’ for good! Having said that, athletic achievement alone is not sufficient to be an effective athlete representative. All of us can channel our experiences to positively contribute to improving the lives of others, whether we’re talking about high performance sport or social development.”

Currently, Lori lives in her hometown of Oromocto, N.B. and is the Policy Analyst for the Wellness Branch, NB Department of Wellness, Culture and Sport. She previously developed the GO NB bilateral program between the Province of New Brunswick and federal government to advance sport in the province. She was formerly the Athlete Services Manager for the Canadian Sport Centre – Atlantic and the National Program Coordinator for Racquetball Canada.

Lori currently serves on the True Sport Foundation Board of Directors, as a Member-at-Large with Commonwealth Games Canada, and as a Sport NB Board Member. She was the recipient of the 2006 Bruce Kidd Award, the inaugural recipient (along with Lilo Ljubisic) of the AthletesCAN Leadership Award in 2005 and the recipient of the 2000 Johnny F. Bassett Memorial Award. In 2000, she was named one of CAAWS’ Most Influential Women in Sport.

Lori is married to former national team judoka and former AthletesCAN Board Member Jean Pierre Cantin. They have two children – Melina and Zachary.

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