Brooke Henderson didn’t get to know many other athletes at the Rio Summer Olympics in 2016. She was 18 years old, at her first Olympics, and focused on winning a medal. But one athlete caught her attention: Penny Oleksiak. The 16-year-old swimmer caught everyone’s attention. She was Canada’s star in Rio, the first athlete from this country to earn four medals at a single Summer Games — one gold, one silver and two bronze.
“I saw Penny one time,” says Henderson, who tied for seventh in Rio but has since become the winningest professional golfer in Canadian history. “Just where we were staying, just from a distance, but it was cool just to see her.”
Oleksiak can understand being awestruck by a fellow athlete. She had a similar feeling last September as she watched Bianca Andreescu become the first Canadian to claim a Grand Slam title, beating tennis great Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final.
Oleksiak, three days older than Andreescu, did what teenagers do, sending a direct message to Andreescu on Instagram offering congratulations and support.
“I told her, ‘If you ever need someone to hang out with or if you ever want to call someone, here’s my phone number. Hit me up, whatever,” Oleksiak says. ‘She messaged me back and she was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to hang out so bad.’ ”
They don’t all share courtside seats at a Raptors game, as Andreescu and Oleksiak did last fall, but the top women in Canadian sports are pulling for each other. And as the world celebrates International Women’s Day, they plan to lead women’s sports in this country to new heights together. When the Canadian women’s soccer and basketball teams recently clinched Olympic berths days apart, the players offered each other post-game congratulations.
“If we’re not supporting each other and lifting each other up, how do we expect people who aren’t involved in the sports community to lift us up?” says Jordyn Huitema, the 18-year-old who is being groomed to replace Christine Sinclair, the greatest scorer in the history of women’s soccer.
Hamilton’s Kia Nurse was 19 when she dropped 33 points in the gold-medal game of the 2015 Pan Am Games, an 81-73 upset of the United States. And with that she became the face of Canadian basketball. She has been an NCAA champion, a WNBA all-star and the MVP of the Women’s National Basketball League in Australia, and she still can’t wrap her head around that status.
“People come to me and they’re like, ‘You’ve been a big part of (the growth of basketball in Canada). People want to see you play,’” the 24-year-old says. “To me, that’s crazy. I’m just in the gym still hanging out.”
The gym, in her senior year, became a packed Mattamy Athletic Centre when the University of Connecticut came to Toronto for a “hometown” game in her honour during her senior year with the Huskies. She recognized then her ability to affect change, to expect things to be a little bit different. Last June, the WNBA announced the most expansive broadcast coverage ever in Canada, including 53 live games across Sportsnet, TSN and NBA TV Canada. A picture of Nurse ran alongside the announcement on NBA.com.
“It’s understanding that if I continued to do well in my career and I continued to try to push the envelope — get to the WNBA, (make) the all-star team — the more and more that kind of stuff happened, the more it became visible for women,” Nurse says.
The country’s top women athletes agree that being a role model is part of their job, although being looked up to while they are still in their teens has been surprising. Oleksiak and Henderson prefer to let their performances do the talking. Andreescu is already using her voice.
“I know where I stand in my beliefs and values and it’s just really easy to speak openly about it,” the Mississauga teen says. “I think I’ve done that a couple times but I slowly want to build my own base and hopefully in the future create my own fundraiser or charity kind of thing. I have ideas.”
None of Canada’s stars today had regular access to women’s sports, or women’s sports heroes growing up. Female role models that weren’t family members were hard to find outside Olympic years. Even recently, according to a 2016 report by Canadian Women & Sport analyzing four years of coverage, only four per cent of sports programming on Canada’s national networks featured women’s sports.
Victoria Bach, the top rookie in the final year of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, hopes the breadth of talent in this generation of Canadian female athletes — and the next — will be more readily available to young fans.
“I see sport now, it’s evolving so much, my hope is that you ask them (who their role model is), they can name off five or six of their favourite athletes that they watched growing up.”
But being seen is only part of the next step.
“(Athletes) need to brave and stand up and keep speaking out for what they believe in,” says hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser, now an assistant director of player development with the Toronto Maple Leafs and a medical school student. “I think athletes in the next generation have to not care as much about what they get from the game, the sport. They have to care about how much they’re giving back and what they put into it to really keep moving the needle.”
Lizanne Murphy, who spent a dozen years with the Canadian women’s basketball team, admires the new wave for a willingness to be ambassadors. “They really understand the importance and the responsibility they have to young girls, women, even little boys, to show that gender equity matters,” she says. “We’re going to get there … I think they realize that and feel the weight of it but also the excitement of it.”
Generation Next: Athletes to watch
The question for Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, the CEO of Canadian Women & Sport, is how to capitalize on the attention the current generation of female athletes is getting.
Get more sports in your inbox
Get the Star’s Sports Headlines email newsletter for a daily round-up of the latest big news.
“This is so much inspiration out there right now, so many things that give reason to be optimistic about where this is heading, but we need to make sure that that is met with action,” she says. “This is a big ship to turn around. We’re talking about big, cultural, institutional things that have been in place for a long time that we’re trying to change, and that’s going to take time and it’s going to take persistence.
“The worst thing that could happen is for this to be the flavour of the month. I don’t think it is, I think it’s more than that, but we can’t view this as a cause. This has to be something that we’re all really committed to seeing to the end.”
The climate for women athletes today is much better than it was when Wickenheiser started with the national hockey program in the mid-1990s or when Murphy joined the national basketball team about a decade later. “There’s so much more, frankly, acceptance — which feels like a sad thing to say,” Sandmeyer-Graves says. “But (it’s) also celebration. A celebration of women playing sports.”
The success of phenoms like Andreescu and Henderson can obscure the fact that there “are still tremendous gaps,” Sandmeyer-Graves says. At a recent meeting with a provincial hockey organization, she learned that just 14 per cent of the players were girls and only five per cent of coaches identified as women. Pay equity, facilities, equipment, tournament and television scheduling all represent opportunities for change, she says.
That all requires money. Sandmeyer-Graves believes a constructive place to start is with an investment mindset. Female athletes understand revenue; they don’t expect to be paid the same as, say, NBA star LeBron James but they want to be paid fairly and get equal treatment.
“When you invest, you expect that you’re going to be putting money in and it may take a while for the returns to come,” she says. “You’re investing in the potential of something. I think too often … people expect to put the money in and to have the same results as what we’ve seen in the men’s space but the men’s space has benefited from years of investment.
“So let’s give the women’s game and the women’s sports space that same opportunity, that same kind of commitment, that same kind of investment and the same kind of patience, and see how it translates.”
Bach quickly learned that the Canadian Women’s Hockey League was going to be different when she joined the Markham Thunder in 2018, after four years at Boston University.
“The first day I walked into the room I was like, ‘Where’s the clear tape?’ For, you know, your hockey socks,” the 23-year-old says. “One of the girls turns to me, ‘Oh, we don’t get clear tape here.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding me.’ Little things like that. It’s the highest level you can play.”
The Burlington-based player made $2,000 in her lone year in the CWHL, while tying for second in the league in goals and fourth in points. “You can’t live off of two grand,” she says. “You can’t even pay for your gas to get to Markham from where I’m from for two grand for the year.”
The CWHL folded in May, saying “the business model has proven economically unstable” and leaving its athletes without a regular place to play. And yet Bach shows no bitterness. More than 200 players joined forces to launch the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, hosting a Dream Gap tour across North America to showcase the players’ skills as well as the gap that exists between what young boys and young girls can dream about when it comes to their aspirations as hockey players. A sustainable league, Bach insists, is “just a matter of time.”
Nurse, whose cousin Sarah is a PWHPA member, hopes the WNBA’s recent collective bargaining agreement, widely heralded as a progressive deal that will see a significant increase in average salary and cap space as well as other workplace benefits for players, can act as a precedent for other leagues, including a future professional hockey league.
Other sports, like curling, have taken steps forward. Curling Canada announced in December that the men’s and women’s champion rinks will both receive $105,000 in prize money this year. At last year’s Brier and Scotties, the men’s champion won $100,500 while the women’s winner received $69,000.
Nurse looks forward to a time when gender equity in sports in no longer news.
“When it becomes normal,” she says. “That’s what I hope for.”
Until then, the women will continue to do what needs to be done, speaking up, supporting each other and cementing themselves as part of this talented next generation.
“Seeing other women athletes, especially Canadians, do so well, we feed off of each other and give each other motivation and inspire each other, which is so nice,” Andreescu says. “We push ourselves to be better.
“We’re going to continue to be badasses.”