Supporting Canadian Athletes

Sonja Gaudet

Born and raised in North Vancouver, British Columbia , Sonja Gaudet’s childhood was filled with sports including basketball, volleyball, swimming, tennis, biking, skiing, and softball. Considering her active childhood, it is not surprising that Sonja grew up in a family that valued sport. “I was definitely encouraged by my family at a young age to try any and every sport out there” she says.

Experimenting with different sports was not just limited to Sonja’s childhood years. When she was 31 years old Sonja suffered a T-56 spinal cord injury as a result of a fall from a horse. “The biggest challenge was raising 2 children while being paralyzed from the bra-line down,” she says. On top of raising her 3 and 6 year old children, Sonja had to learn how to accomplish the tasks of everyday life all over again. It was only three years after her accident when Sonja decided to challenge herself further and pursue what she now calls a “part-time career in amateur sport”. She began participating in adapted versions of her favorite sports including wheelchair basketball, but it wasn’t until the age of 37 that Sonja began wheelchair curling and ultimately her Paralympic career.

Because wheelchair curling was a new sport at the time, Sonja began participating at the grass roots level with clinics and local competitions. Her participation quickly turned into national championships and finally individual athlete selection for Team Canada to compete at the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino, a first for wheelchair curling. Sonja, after only 3 short years in the sport, and with the help of her teammates, claimed the Paralympic gold medal. Her other accomplishments include a silver, bronze and gold medal in 2004, 2005 and 2006 respectively at the national level; and a gold medal in 2006 at the international level.

When asked about the Paralympic experience and representing Canada, Sonja responded, “It was a humbling and proud experience – definitely very surreal and overwhelming. It was an experience of a lifetime, no doubt about it. I was just proud to be competing for family, friends, and for Canada.” She added that it was extra exciting due to the fact that her team did so well and the stands were filled with cheering fans. “We did not expect that people would be so enthused about Paralympic athletes, but they were.”

Despite a grueling training schedule which most would deem a full time job on its own, Sonja has always made family her number one priority. “I got a lot of support from my family, both when I was recovering from my injury and while pursuing a part-time career in amateur sport” she says. According to Sonja, raising her family is her other part-time job. Sonja’s current training regiment to prepare for Vancouver 2010 includes daily physical strength and cardio training due to the lack of ice in her area. On-ice training will recommence in mid July but the search for ice time will still be an ongoing process. Sonja adds, “I spend a lot of time doing physio and preventative injury exercises. I also spend a great deal of time on my hand bicycle, playing tennis, doing weights at the gym, and swimming when the weather is warm enough.”

All of Sonja’s training is done with the following goal in mind. “Individually I aim to be at my best performance level so I can help the team with its own goal of winning each game one at a time and hopefully finishing on the podium; but we can only get to the podium by playing our best game shot by shot.”

Overcoming all the challenges of her injury positively changed Sonja’s outlook and approach to life. “I now have the outlook that everything is possible,” says Gaudet. “Positivity is the best way to get through any negative situation. Never give up. Focus on ability and not disability. Instead of looking at the negative sides to a situation, I look for the positive. I look for what I still have the ability to do. This is the way that I will approach any challenge from here on out.”

Sonja first got involved with athlete leadership after her accident because she wanted to encourage other people with similar disabilities to pursue active living through sport and embrace a positive outlook on life open to all the many possibilities. “I first got involved with the Rick Hansen foundation as an ambassador, and then when I became an athlete on the wheelchair curling team I continued that leadership with the Paralympic Committee and their Heroes program which spreads the message to school aged kids about the Paralympic movement and sport.”

Sonja also does presentations on her own accord in her local community of Vernon, BC. “After the success of the gold medal in 2006, I’ve done a number of presentations at local schools.” These presentations are some of Sonja’s favorite volunteer activities. “I love to go to the schools and share my story, motivate them, and inspire them to reach their goals – whatever they may be.” In addition, Sonja plays a key role in the creation of recreational activities for people with disabilities in her community. Recently, Sonja attended a conference for sport health professionals in Vancouver, where she introduced wheelchair curling to the sport doctors and informed them of the injuries that are involved with the sport.

When asked about special causes that she is particularly passionate about, Sonja said, “Living an active lifestyle, overcoming obstacles, and being real through all of that. Also, making the right choices and making healthy choices. Increasing awareness and taking the word disability and breaking it down to the ability. We all have a responsibility to acknowledge people’s abilities and not focus on their disabilities.” She added that a key passion of hers is spreading the word of the Paralympic movement, which is to “empower people with a disability through the power of sport”.

Surprisingly, Sonja does not find it very difficult to balance her training with athlete leadership initiatives. She explains, “I can usually get training in anywhere. If I’m away, I just track down a gym or a rink or haul my hand bicycle around and do training wherever I am.” When a conflict does arise, training typically takes precedence for Sonja. To summarize her time management strategy, “You just have to learn how to say no at the right time.”

Sonja is a registered teacher’s assistant, a career currently on hold to make time for training for Vancouver 2010. However, she does various paid speaking engagements with VANOC which she considers to be another one of her many part-time jobs.

This fall, Sonja plans to attend the 2009 AthletesCAN Forum in Richmond, BC where she looks forward to the opportunity to network with other athletes. “Since Wheelchair Curling is still a fairly new sport, finding ways to grow in a positive direction is crucial. I would like to look at other Paralympic sports and how teams have developed over the years in terms of sport specific equipment, adaptations, and classifications.” Other points of interest for Sonja are tryout and qualification processes, gender issues, and creating more interest at the grass root level. Sonja adds, “Wheelchair Curling has already grown in leaps and bounds with the help of a lot of great people, so maintaining this momentum is my main focus.”

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