Colette Bourgonje, a Métis from Porcupine Plain, Saskatchewan, embodies the spirit of resilience and determination. From her early days, where she showcased her athletic prowess in various sports, to her rise as one of Canada’s most celebrated Paralympic athletes, her journey is a testament to overcoming adversity. Facing a life-altering tragedy, Colette’s unyielding spirit transformed her challenges into a beacon of inspiration for the nation.
Table of Contents
Summary and Key points
Colette Bourgonje: An Unyielding Spirit in Sports and Life
- Introduction to Colette Bourgonje: A Canadian Paralympian who has left an indelible mark in both summer and winter Paralympic Games. Recognized for her prowess in wheelchair racing and sit-skiing, Bourgonje has become a symbol of resilience and determination.
- The Turning Point: A tragic car accident left Bourgonje paralyzed, but instead of letting it define her, she used it as a catalyst to propel herself into the world of adaptive sports. Her journey from the aftermath of the accident to her first Paralympic competition is a testament to her unyielding spirit.
- Athletic Achievements: Over her illustrious career, Bourgonje has clinched multiple medals, showcasing her exceptional talent and dedication. Her accomplishments in both summer and winter games underscore her versatility as an athlete.
- Beyond the Podium: More than just her medals, Bourgonje’s influence extends to her advocacy work. She has been a staunch supporter of accessibility and inclusion, emphasizing the importance of creating opportunities for all, regardless of physical challenges.
- Inspiring the Next Generation: Bourgonje’s story serves as a beacon of hope and inspiration. Through her journey, she has demonstrated that with determination and passion, one can overcome even the most daunting challenges and achieve greatness.
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An Introduction to Colette Bourgonje
Sometimes it takes a special individual to step up, push through a barrier; to show others what can be achieved in the face of what seems insurmountable. Who could predict that a small-town Saskatchewan girl by the name of Colette Bourgonje would be one of those persons? Her strength of character and perseverance in the face of tragedy would inspire a nation and make her one of Canada’s most celebrated Paralympic athletes.
Colette, of Métis ancestry, grew up in the town of Porcupine Plain in the northeast parkland area of the province of Saskatchewan. Colette’s winning spirit began at a young age. Like many other elementary school students, she loved running and playing soccer during recess with her classmates at school. By the time Colette reached high school, her passion and participation in athletics grew to include most sports; playing basketball, football, ice hockey, and cross-country running to name just a few. In the words of her brother, “it did not matter what she played; she was the best at it.”
Colette Bourgonje’s Early Signs of Sporting Ability
As time went on, Colette’s talent for running was clear, and before long she became a fixture on the cross-country running circuit competing at events across Canada. At the start of grade 10, Colette set two big goals for herself. She would commit to training hard to see where her talent and ability in running would take her and second, after high school attend university to complete her physical education degree and ultimately teach at a school.
A Tragic Accident that Leads to New Resolve
On a spring day in April 1980, two months before her high school graduation, Colette was involved in a car accident which paralyzed her. Of course, the news was shocking, but Colette dealt with things one step at a time rather than giving up. She stated, “I am going to keep moving forward, accomplishing the goals I have set out for myself.”
Determined to fulfil her goal and get into the University of Saskatchewan to study physical education in the fall of 1980, Colette remarkably found strength and wrote the entrance tests while recovering in the hospital. Breaking barriers, she became the first person with a disability to graduate from the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Physical Education degree program. Later on, she obtained her teaching degree as well.
On her 19th birthday, Colette created a plan to resume her life as an athlete as she was still passionate about competitive sports. With this renewed focus, Colette’s life as an elite athlete was not over; it was just beginning!
A New Beginning and Training
Almost immediately, Colette began wheelchair training and racing. By 1992, Colette more than hit her stride as she won two medals at the Paralympic Games in Barcelona. Her success did not end here but launched her towards winter sports and what would become her passion, sit-skiing. Instead of relying on the strength of your legs to move you forward, sit-skiing relies on the same upper body strength and aerobic capacity as wheelchair racing to move you forward along the snow. Once again, Colette accomplished the impossible, moving forward in this pursuit and becoming one of the best in the world.
From the wreckage of her car crash to reaching the pinnacle of success on the Paralympic stage in both summer and winter sports, Colette turned her tragedy into triumph, becoming a world-class athlete and one of the most successful Paralympians in the sport’s history.
Colette lives by the philosophy, “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” Her courageous, triumphant, and remarkable story will forever provide people with the shining example of what is possible, even in what might be the most challenging of circumstances.
Sporting Successes Over Colette Bourgonje’s Career
Colette Bourgonje’s illustrious career as a Canadian Paralympian is marked by numerous achievements:
- Paralympic Medals:
- Winter Paralympics: Colette has secured medals in sit-skiing events across multiple Winter Paralympic Games.
- Summer Paralympics: In the summer games, she has been recognized for her prowess in wheelchair racing, earning medals in various distances.
- Versatility: Colette stands out as one of the rare athletes to have competed in both summer and winter Paralympic Games, showcasing her adaptability and wide range of skills.
- Advocacy: Beyond her athletic feats, Colette’s advocacy for accessibility and inclusion has been instrumental in inspiring others to overcome challenges and chase their dreams.
- Recognition: Her determination and achievements have solidified her status as a key figure in the Paralympic community, garnering respect from peers and fans.
- Legacy and Awards: While her impact in the Paralympic community is undeniable, specific information on awards named after Colette Bourgonje would need to be sourced from official records or Canadian sports archives.
Between the years 1992 and 2000, Colette participated in seven Paralympic Winter Games and three Paralympic Summer Games winning ten medals.
After her accident, Bourgonje was introduced to Para Sport by the Saskatchewan Wheelchair Sports Association (SWSA) and became a member in 1987. In the early stages of her training, she largely relied on herself due to the limited number of coaches familiar with training athletes with disabilities. Drawing from her academic knowledge and prior athletic training, Bourgonje crafted her regimen, always mindful not to push herself too hard.
Bourgonje stands out as one of the few Canadians to have received medals in both the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games. Her impressive track record includes participation in six Winter Paralympic Games as a sit-skier and three Summer Paralympic Games as a wheelchair racer.
In a gesture of gratitude, she gifted one of her silver medals from the 1998 Games to Pat Prokopchuk, acknowledging Prokopchuk’s role in introducing and advancing the design of the sit ski in Saskatchewan.
After her participation in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, where she clinched the first medal on Canadian soil, Bourgonje addressed questions about her age by stating, “age is nothing, attitude is everything and I live by that today.”
In 2010, Bourgonje was also selected for the Team Visa Inc. Program, an initiative supporting 30 individual athletes worldwide in their preparation for the Olympics and Paralympics. The program offers these athletes marketing opportunities, long-term financial assistance, and mentorship.
Colette Bourgonje’s Sporting Achievements:
- 1990 Commonwealth Games, Auckland:
- Gold medal in the 800m wheelchair race.
- 1992 Summer Paralympics, Barcelona:
- Bronze medal in the 100m wheelchair race.
- Bronze medal in the 800m wheelchair race.
- 1996 Summer Paralympics, Atlanta:
- Bronze medal in the 100m wheelchair race.
- Bronze medal in the 200m wheelchair race.
- 1998 Winter Paralympics, Nagano:
- Silver medal in the 2.5 km Para-Nordic sit ski.
- Silver medal in the 5 km Para-Nordic sit ski.
- 2006 Winter Paralympics, Turin:
- Bronze medal in the 5 km freestyle Para-Nordic ski.
- Bronze medal in the 10 km classic Para-Nordic ski.
- 2010 Winter Paralympics, Vancouver:
- Silver medal in the 5 km Para-Nordic sit ski.
- Silver medal in the 10 km Para-Nordic sit ski.
- Notably, she became the first Canadian athlete to win a Paralympic Winter Games medal on home soil.
- At the Vancouver 2010 closing ceremonies, she received the prestigious Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award, honoring her exceptional efforts to overcome adversity while striving for excellence in sport.
Post Olympics and Career
Colette remains a mentor and role model for youth with disabilities and an ambassador for Saskatchewan’s In Motion program, promoting the importance of daily physical activity for all people. In addition, to honouring her Métis heritage, Colette also endeavours to empower and coach young Indigenous athletes in her home province encouraging them to reach their full potential.
Bourgonje holds the distinction of being the first individual to complete the University of Saskatchewan’s Physical Education program while using a wheelchair. Additionally, she was the pioneering woman to graduate from this program in Canada. To facilitate her education, the university invested in a $200,000 ramp and she resided with two professors, Dorsey and Lawson, during her studies.
Upon completing her university education, Bourgonje took on a role as an after-school recreational coordinator in Saskatoon. From 1989 to 2010, she balanced part-time physical education teaching with her training, starting her teaching career in Silverwood Heights, Saskatoon. Despite her physical challenges, Bourgonje innovatively navigated teaching hurdles, often leveraging student demonstrators and guiding students in setting up equipment safely. Her teaching philosophy prioritizes physical activity, dedicating specific daily periods for exercises, even introducing students to cross-country skiing.
Bourgonje champions physical activity and sport engagement, hosting events, coaching disabled cross-country skiers, and collaborating with Saskatchewan’s In Motion program to boost activity levels.
She conceptualized the “Saskatchewan Para Sport Tour Dream Relay” in 2016 to raise awareness for Para Sport and connect potential athletes with necessary equipment. This 10-day relay covered 363 kilometres with 14 Parathletes.
In 2016, she addressed the “Training for Life Power Breakfast,” benefiting the Special Olympics of Saskatchewan. Together with Pat Prokopchuk, she co-leads SASKI-Skiing for Disabled, assisting the sit ski community with equipment costs, travel, and memberships. Additionally, Bourgonje frequently visits hospitals and rehab centers, sharing her story to inspire and uplift those facing new physical challenges.
Bourgonje is deeply committed to coaching, always on the lookout for potential Paralympians. She has mentored numerous successful athletes, including Brittany Hudak, whom she met in a Canadian Tire. Despite missing part of her left arm, under Bourgonje’s guidance, Hudak mastered skiing and clinched three gold medals at the 2015 Jeux du Canada Games in Prince George, British Columbia, in events including the 1.2 km standing classic sprint, 2.5 km classic sprint, and the 5 km standing free event.
Post Olympic Career Honours and Awards
Olympic medals are not the only awards and/or honours that Colette has received. Here is a list of things outside of the olympic medals that she has won or been awarded.
Bourgonje’s illustrious career has been marked by numerous accolades:
- 1996: Honored with the Breakthrough Award by the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS).
- 1998: Inducted into the Saskatoon Sports Hall of Fame.
- 1999: Recognized with a YWCA Women of Distinction award.
- 2002: Named Female Athlete of the Year by the Canadian Paraplegic Association (CPA).
- 2010: At the Winter Olympics, she received the Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award, given to athletes with disabilities who have overcome significant adversities.
- 2010: Inducted into the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame.
- 2011: Awarded the SaskSport Athlete of the Year.
- 2019: Became an inductee in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.
- 2021: Inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame.
Hall Of Fame
As mentioned above Colette Bourgonje was inducted into the Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2019. She was inducted to the Canadian Disability Sports Hall of Fame in 2010.