© Herald photo by Matt Gardner
Paralympic athletes Colette Bourgonje and Brittany Hudak receive pennants and commemorative coins at a special “welcome home” ceremony hosted by CIBC to honour their success at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. From left to right: CIBC branch manager Chad Gareau, Bourgonje, district vice president Craig Becker, district branch manager Bev Matthies and Hudak.
Prince Albert’s two Paralympic athletes received an official welcome home on Friday following their participation in the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
Cross-country skiers Colette Bourgonje and Brittany Hudak appeared at a special homecoming event in the morning hosted by the local branch of CIBC, the premier partner and official banking partner of the Canadian Paralympic Committee.
As part of a four-year sponsorship deal, CIBC has pledged its support to para-athletes competing in the 2014 Sochi games, the 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games in Toronto and the 2016 Paralympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Branch employees on Friday joined local dignitaries, friends and family to welcome the athletes home, presenting both Bourgonje and Hudak with personalized sports pennants and commemorative gold-plated coins celebrating their success in Sochi.
CIBC branch manager Chad Gareau said the pair had “ignited our community pride and spirit with their accomplishments in Sochi” in para-Nordic skiing.
“Colette and Brittany, we are honoured and excited to shine a spotlight on para-athletes,” he added. “Thank you for inspiring us with your performance in Sochi.
“You have showed us how hard work, dedication and perseverance can lead to greatness no matter what challenges you face.”
Speaking on behalf of Mayor Greg Dionne and his fellow city councillors -- of whom Coun. Don Cody was among those present in the audience -- Coun. Rick Orr praised Bourgonje and Hudak for their positive role in the community.
“I think of how you’ve invited other athletes to participate,” Orr said. “This week we have the First Nations Winter Games on and that’s mentoring sport athletes to come up. We just finished the Saskatchewan Winter Games.
“Everything in our community is about champions, and two of our champions are here right now -- and they’re going to invite others to participate, I know, by their (being) role models.”
Presenting the pennants and commemorative coins to the two athletes were CIBC district branch manager Bev Matthies and district vice-president Craig Becker.
The Paralympians thanked the audience for the welcome home ceremony, expressing gratitude for their support from the local community, coaches Robin McKeever, Bruce Craven, Bill and Joan Jeffery, and the province as a whole.
“We both started in the province of Saskatchewan, and the support in this province has been phenomenal,” Hudak said.
“I had no idea what opportunities there were in Saskatchewan … It’s really the best province I could imagine to come from, so we’re really grateful for that.”
In terms of their involvement in the Paralympics, Bourgonje and Hudak represent the whole spectrum of career development.
While the former has competed in six winter and three summer Paralympic Games stretching back to 1992 -- noting that Sochi would be her last Paralympics -- the 2014 games represented the first Paralympics for Hudak.
Currently aged 20, Hudak was 18 when Bourgonje stopped by the Canadian Tire where she worked and helped spark off her Paralympic career by introducing her to cross-country skiing.
While Bourgonje initially noticed Hudak’s physical fitness, the latter’s rapid progress in cross-country skiing surprised even her mentor.
“I did a lot of things with Brittany leading up to these games,” Bourgonje recalled. “We travelled and I said ‘You know, you have to train consistently.’ I remember being in the truck saying, ‘Yeah, we’ll look at … the (2018) Paralympics in Korea.’ I had no idea that she would have the ability and determination to make it to Sochi.”
A key element of Hudak’s improvement was the assistance of Saskatoon sports physiotherapist Craven, whom Bourgonje began training with in the 1990s.
Craven began writing a program last July that would help Hudak qualify at the International Paralympic Committee World Cup in Canmore, Alta.
“It’s an individualized program based on heart rate, so that’s very, very important physiologically,” Bourgonje said.
We both started in the province of Saskatchewan, and the support in this province has been phenomenal. Brittany Hudak
Yet it wasn’t until Hudak crossed the finish line at the World Cup that she realized she had managed to shave 10 minutes off her time in the five-kilometre run, successfully qualifying for the 2014 Paralympics.
The experience of the Sochi games left a deep impression on both athletes, who had particular praise for the opening and closing ceremonies.
“I think Russia sets the bar high for my next Paralympic Games,” Hudak said. “My favourite experience was probably the opening ceremonies. I thought it was really well done, and seeing … the closing ceremonies -- to me, the messages that they displayed were really well.
“That’s what got me really excited to perform at the games and just know I’m representing my country, and that was such an amazing feeling.”
The constantly changing weather initially proved something of a challenge for Hudak, since it made planning for race day considerably more difficult.
While one of her fellow skiers tried skiing the course hours before her race, Hudak opted for a more flexible approach.
“Some parts of the race course were icy, other parts are slushy and wet,” she noted. “So you don’t know what to expect.
“But as a skier, you need to learn to ski in all different conditions, so Sochi just prepared me for what I can expect in different games and different racing.”
At the Sochi games, Hudak placed fourth in the 4 x 2.5 km relay, sixth in the one-km standing sprint, 10th in the 15-km standing race and 12th in the five-km standing race.
Meanwhile, Bourgonje placed 10th in the 4 x 2.5 km relay, 13th in the five and 12-km sitting races and sixteenth in the one-km sitting sprint.
The wave of adulation that greeted the pair upon their return to Prince Albert came as something of a shock to Hudak, who nevertheless appreciated the recognition for their hard work over the past year.
“There’s been a lot of invitations to come to events (to) come and talk,” the young athlete said. “I’ve had a handful of people want me to speak somewhere … I was prepared to try and make it to Sochi, but I wasn’t prepared for the life after, because it happened all so quick.
“So to me, it’s very humbling. I’m not prepared for people to want me to speak everywhere … It’s a great experience and I’m going to do it, but for me, it’s like, ‘Why do people want me to talk? I just started. You guys should have seen me on skis two years ago -- I wasn’t that good,’” she added with a chuckle.
For veteran Paralympian and elementary schoolteacher Bourgonje, the most notable aspect of their return is the opportunity to encourage others to participate in athletics.
“I find it wonderful, because that is how you get more people involved,” she said. “It’s the start of finding more people in this area and I know there are more. I mean, I’m not sure everybody can get to that level, but it doesn’t really matter.
“As a physical education teacher, it’s important that they’re active, and I actually don’t care what they do as long as they find something to be active,” she added. “Whatever level they take it to … sport increases, I think, your quality of life. When I look at where Brittany has come through sport, it’s phenomenal.”
As Bourgonje plans to retire from competition, she has in a sense passed the torch to her young protégée, who is eager to compete in future Paralympics.
Looking ahead to the 2018 winter games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Hudak has ambitious plans to begin training for other events.
“I’m hoping to get into biathlon as well, so in Korea I’m hoping to do cross-country and biathlon.”
“A long road ahead -- that’s what I’m planning,” she added.