Supporting Canadian Athletes

Ohenewa Akuffo

As the youngest woman in Canada to make the senior national wrestling team in 1997 at the age of seventeen, Ohenewa began an amazing journey which would include nine national championship titles, a World Championship medal and an Olympic Games. Today, she is working diligently to represent Canada at the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games in wrestling; the first time female wrestling will be part of the Commonwealth sport program.

Ohenewa was born in North York, Ontario. At the age of three her parents moved back to their native country of Ghana, Africa, where Ohenewa spent the next five years of her life getting in touch with her roots. “It was an amazing experience”, says Ohenewa. “It allowed me to experience two very different cultures – where my parents grew up and where I was born”. Her family returned to Canada when she was eight years old and eventually settled in Brampton, Ontario.

While she was growing up, there wasn’t necessarily an emphasis on sport in her family, but there was an emphasis on excellence. “My parents stressed the idea that everything you do, you do with excellence”, explains Ohenewa. “I didn’t realize at the time that I was being trained as I grew up – it was just ingrained in us that everything we did, we did well.” While living in Ghana, it was always very warm so all the kids played outside, and even though it was not organized physical activity, Ohenewa had the opportunity to be very active. “Enjoying life was also important; everybody was interested in sport and a healthy lifestyle in Ghana”. Physical activity was part of the school mandate as well, and when she returned to Canada, sport was always part of her academic life as she learned to balance her participation on many sports teams with school work.

In her first year of high school Ohenewa discovered the sport of wrestling, which was very uncommon for females at the time. She found it fun and challenging, motivating her to continue with the sport. Ohenewa won her first senior national championship and represented Canada in the 75kg division at the 1997 World Championships. She continued her career by winning 4 OFSSA wrestling championships in consecutive years, the OUS in 1999, CIS University championships in 1999, and two Junior National Championship titles in 1998 and 1999. “I was very successful at a young age which is uncommon in the sport – I believe that the sport picked me!”

Some of Ohenewa’s greatest achievements to date include a silver medal at the 2003 Pan American Games; gold in the 1st ever University World Games for female wrestling held in Turkey in 2005; silver at the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and a bronze medal at the 2008 World Championships in Japan. Ohenewa then took the next step in her career by representing Canada at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games where she placed 10th. Ohenewa has also won numerous awards recognizing her accomplishments including the 2005 Most Outstanding Female Wrestler for Dave Schultz International; the 2003 Canada Cup Most Outstanding Canadian Female Wrestler; the 2003 Outstanding Women’s Wrestler for the Canadian Senior Championships; and in 2009 she was a Brampton Hall of Fame Inductee.

With her success at such an early age, Ohenewa felt pressure to sustain it. “I was still a junior at that time, so I had to catch up to my skills”, she explains. Her journey was challenging as she had to live up to the expectations that everyone had of her talent. Ohenewa states that she did have the much needed support of her family, even though they were not familiar with the sport when she first started, “Wrestling was very foreign to my family and friends. They thought it was the WWF and wondered why I was doing it!” laughs Ohenewa. Her dad often had to explain to friends why his daughter was a female wrestler.

2010 will be the first year that female wrestling is included in the Commonwealth Games and she is looking forward to participating in the competition. “Since my parents are from Ghana and I was born in Canada, I was always aware of the Commonwealth”, says Ohenewa. In 2002, wrestling was still not an Olympic sport, and in 2006 the competition was not strong enough to be included in the Melbourne Commonwealth Games. These are the only Games that Ohenewa has yet to participate in and she is looking forward to the opportunity, adding that the success and strength of the male wrestlers is encouraging and motivates her ‘to join their ranks’ on the Commonwealth stage.

Ohenewa first became involved in athlete leadership many years ago as she saw it as a responsibility of being a member of the national team. She has a strong belief that it is important to give back to the community and volunteers her time wherever and whenever possible. “I give to receive”, she explains. “As an athlete you look to the community to help you compete at the national level and being the athlete rep and volunteering my time is a great way to make sure they know what I need”.

Former senior national team wrestler and President of AthletesCAN, Michael Smith introduced Ohenewa to AthletesCAN at the 2003 Pan American Games. As he informed her of the programs, services and benefits of being a member, she became fascinated to learn more. She found it motivating to hear that she would have such an organization on her side if any issues arose in her sport, supporting her outside of her discipline. She was excited to pass along the information to her teammates.

Attending her first AthletesCAN Forum in Whitehorse, Yukon in 2007, Ohenewa found it was an amazing experience to get to know athletes in other disciplines and to hear that they are facing the same problems in their sport. “I got to learn how others have become successful in solving those problems and how to apply them to my own sport”, she explains. “It gave me a chance to use those sports as a benchmark to determine which direction we should be moving”. Attending as the athlete rep for wrestling, she also learned how other athletes act as a liaison with their sport organization and communicate the needs of their competitive athletes.

As an athlete representative for her sport, Ohenewa focused on ensuring the athlete voices were heard and relaying their needs to the national sport organization. She acted as the rep from 2004-2008, until she decided it was time to give somebody else the chance to take on that role and offer a different set of skills. “It was an amazing experience to get to know the back end of your sport, and I am always willing to help the current rep, but I thought it was time for someone else to take on the responsibility and they may even offer something I don’t have”, she says.

Ohenewa is also part of the RBC Olympic program which hires both Canadian Olympic and Paralympic athletes as community ambassadors who bring messages of excellence and leadership to Canadian communities. She is also an athlete ambassador for KidSport Ontario, an organization which helps overcome the financial barriers that exist in families so that all kids have the opportunity to participate in organized sport and experience the benefits of active living. As an ambassador, she advocates on behalf of KidSport to help ensure all kids have the chance to play. Last year she also worked with the ChangeTheWorld: Ontario Youth Volunteer Challenge where she made a video blog explaining why it is important to volunteer and to challenge the world to help our youth. “I am very passionate about youth as they are our future”, she says, “they remind you where you were before you figured out what you were good at”.

Ohenewa believes that her leadership roles balance her out as an athlete. “You always take – from your coach, your sport organization, training centres – so you need to give back and remember why you do what you do and that it is not all about you”, she says. She strives to always live in the moment and give back while she is still passionate and capable. As one of the ‘older ladies’ on her team, she takes it upon herself to be a role model for the other athletes and to help them with any challenges they may experience.

On top of her career as a full-time high performance athlete and her athlete leadership initiatives, she is currently a part-time student at York University, pursuing an Honours Degree in Marketing with a certificate in sport administration and management.

In order to prepare for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Ohenewa is focusing on defending her title as number one in Canada, so that she may qualify for the World Championships in 2010 followed by the Commonwealth Games. Her goals are simple and focused – to always perform her best and to keep getting better! She continues to pursue excellence in everything she does as she strives to be the best female wrestler in the world.

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