Supporting Canadian Athletes

Michael Smith

Michael Smith was so keen to be on the AthletesCAN Board of Directors in 2000 that he paid his own way to the Athletes Forum in Calgary, Alta., and slept on the floor of a buddy’s hotel room.

Eight years later, after three as president of the organization and one as past president, Michael has stepped away from AthletesCAN, but has nothing but fond memories.

“If you really want to do something, you do what you can to make it happen,” says Michael of his Calgary adventure. “Looking back on my time with AthletesCAN, I am really proud to have been a part of it.”

A former national team wrestler and currently a partner in the law firm of Langevin Morris Smith in Ottawa, Ont., Michael was first introduced to AthletesCAN in 1999 when he was sent to the Forum in Alliston, Ont., by the Manitoba Athletes Association. It was this experience that made him want to become more involved.

“I was impressed,” he says. “There were athletes doing some really great things and it was a good time. It was a really good environment.”

Michael was elected to the board in 2000 and immediately assumed the role of secretary. He went on to become AthletesCAN’s first president in 2003 (formerly a position titled chairperson).

“It seemed like a natural progression,” he says of becoming president. “I was passionate about the work we were doing and I felt my background and legal skills boded well for the position. I also wanted to help move the organization ahead and I felt I’d be able to do that with the great team (board and staff) we had. It was also about personal development. It certainly wasn’t because I had nothing else to do!”

Born in Georgetown, Guyana, Michael came to Canada at age six. He attended St. Pius X High School in Ottawa where he was a track and field and football athlete until a teacher urged him to try wrestling. At first, Michael objected.

“I told him I didn’t want to get hurt,” he says. But with a little encouragement, and a few words of wisdom that stayed with him throughout his career, Michael gave wrestling a shot. “(My teacher) said as long as you stay in shape you won’t get hurt and that is so true. Any time I got hurt wrestling it was because I wasn’t in shape.”

Soon after he began competing with his school team, Michael joined the National Capital Wrestling Club and was later recruited to the University of Western Ontario. He was named to the national team in 1995 and won a silver medal at the Canadian championships that same year. He was an alternate for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, placed fourth at the 1998 Pan Ams, and competed in three World University Games.

Taking a year off from school after completing an undergraduate degree in sociology, Michael worked and coached before heading to the University of Manitoba for law school. He says he knew from age 14 that he wanted to be a lawyer.

“It was because of L.A. Law,” he says. “Everything seemed so cool. They had nice cars, they spoke well and they dressed well.”

Originally planning to be a divorce lawyer (because the main character on L.A. Law was one) Michael was drawn into criminal law after working with Oxfam and the Ontario Anti-Racism Secretariat, and volunteering with legal aid during law school. He also excelled in his mock trial club—winning the prize for oral advocacy—and realized he liked the courtroom while articling for a civil law firm.

“I liked fighting for social justice and I figured I wasn’t bad at the whole courtroom thing,” he says.

Michael’s plan was to take some time off after law school, but at a chance meeting in 2001 at Lewis Langevin (now Langevin Morris Smith) he was offered a job on the spot and took it. He became a partner in the firm in February 2007 at age 34.

Outside his busy law career and his involvement with AthletesCAN, Michael has stayed very active in other areas of sport. He was Team Canada’s Athlete Advocate at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, 2003 Pan American Games and Canada Winter Games, 2004 Olympic Games, 2005 Canada Summer Games and Francophonie Games, and 2006 Commonwealth Games.

“It’s my passion,” says Michael, who used vacation time to travel to the above Games. “Being a former athlete and with my legal training, it is my way of giving back.”

He also gives back as head coach of the National Capital Wrestling Club.

“I had a wonderful experience as a wrestler and I am where I am today because of it,” he says, adding that his coaches taught him valuable skills and helped give him direction. “I want to pass on those experiences. And it is fun and a great way for me to keep in shape.”

As he steps away from AthletesCAN, Michael says things have definitely changed throughout his time with the organization.

“Athletes were more enraged back when I started,” he says. “They had fire in their bellies and I enjoyed that. It had a whole social justice feel to it.”

Eight years later, Michael says AthletesCAN’s relationships with the government and with other sport organizations have shifted from “us versus them” to “let’s work together”. He says he’d like to see the organization continue to bring controversial issues to the forefront.

“As an athlete you want to know there is an organization fighting for you,” he says. “Athletes need to know AthletesCAN is out there.”

Some of the highlights for Michael were working to have AthletesCAN involved in the athlete advocate process for major Games and successfully lobbying for an increase to Athlete Assistance Program in 2004.

“It was an acknowledgement by the government that there is value in what we do as athletes,” he says.

Since September 2007, Michael no longer has a direct role with AthletesCAN, but he intends to stay involved with athlete advocacy.

“I’ve built some pretty good skills over the last eight years and as long as there are issues to be eradicated, I intend to put those skills to use,” he says.

As for what he envisions for AthletesCAN, Michael hopes the organization can extend what it currently does for Canadian athletes to the international realm. He says AthletesCAN’s current connection with the British Athletes Commission is a great start and he hopes the relationship can enhance AthletesCAN’s efforts domestically.

He also encourages current athletes to get more involved in athlete representation and athlete leadership.

“Athletes can, and do, make a difference both on and off the field,” he says. “If we, as athletes, are to be effective as leaders and advocates, we must apply the same level of tenacity and heart as we do in competition.”

Overall, Michael looks back on his time with AthletesCAN with a great sense of pride.

“The experience has allowed me to give back to the sport community that took such good care of me when I was competing as a national team wrestler. In addition to establishing some strong personal and professional relationships, working on the Board of Directors has been a wonderful journey of learning to push myself to the “administrative limit” rather than the “physical limit” I became accustomed to as an athlete. AthletesCAN is an exciting association that does great things for Canadian athletes. I look forward to seeing AthletesCAN evolve and prosper in the future.”

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