By Daphne Bramham
After Chandra Crawford won Olympic gold in cross-country skiing four years ago, she decided to use her “few seconds of fame or pseudo-fame” to encourage girls to go out, play, compete and keep on doing it into their teens and beyond.
Crawford believes girls can be empowered through sports, gaining confidence not only to pursue Olympic dreams but to take leadership roles in all aspects of life. She especially wants that message to get to girls in remote and first nations communities.
It couldn’t come at a better time. Fewer Canadian girls and boys are actively involved in sports and obesity among young Canadians is reaching epidemic proportions.
What Crawford is trying to do is make sports cool. She’s replicating for others the kind of support she got growing up in Canmore, Alta.
It started with her parents, who encouraged both their daughters to cross-country ski.
Both are now Olympians.
Chandra will compete in her second Games in Whistler, while her 21-year-old sister Rosanna, a biathlete, qualified for her first Olympics earlier this month.
But family wasn’t the only factor. Crawford had a tight-knit group of friends who pushed each other both academically and athletically. Then, she was helped by her Team Canada mates.
“It’s very important to pursue my goals with someone. I don’t know if that’s a particularly female thing to value the relationships so much, but I certainly do.
“Just pushing toward goals with my teammates and my family and sharing the journey is so much a big part of it for me, ” she says.
To help her cause, Crawford created a non-profit called Fast and Female ( fastandfemale.com)for girls aged nine to 19. It’s funded by her major sponsor, Best Buy, and private donations from friends.
It gets no government support and no support from Vanoc or any official sporting organizations.
“Fast and Female was really born out of the need that I perceived for young women to be more engaged in sport and get hooked on a healthy, active lifestyle, which I think can, in a lot of ways, insulate a developing teen from a lot of the pressures. If they’re just focused on sport and hanging out with others, it can be a real saving grace for a family and it can be a real distraction,” she says.
“I definitely focused more on the social side and what we can affect in terms of popularity of participation in sports. I want to create more of a coolness factor and the excitement around being part of it.”
That coolness factor means focusing on the fun parts of skiing, things like music pumping as the girls put aside snowplowing and head straight downhill or over jumps.
It means hip-hop dancing and yoga to build flexibility as well as camaraderie.
Crawford and her Olympian teammates help coach and give inspirational talks. And, of course, there’s the cool hot-pink logo of a pigtailed girl in goggles that’s on everything from black T-shirts to pink shopping bags, pink toques and pink head scarves.
Even in the short time that it’s been operating, Crawford sees more “young, up-and-comers who are going to nip at my heels and challenge me to be better.”
That’s important because it takes at least a decade to peak as a cross-country skier. The world’s best are in their late 20s and early 30s. Crawford is 26.
Right now, Fast and Female is focused on cross-country skiing, biathlon and summer endurance sports and is oversubscribed. But Crawford’s aim is to make it a nationwide “wellness through sport program” involving a wide variety of sports.
Crawford’s initiative couldn’t have come at a better time.
Girls’ participation has long lagged behind boys’ at all ages and then drops off precipitously as girls hit their mid-teens. By the time they are between 19 and 24, Statistics Canada reports that only a third of young women regularly compete in sports, compared with 52 per cent of young men.
Participation rates, however, are down for both genders. From 1992 to 2005, the number of kids taking part in sports dropped to 51 per cent from 57 per cent.
While two-thirds of boys played sports in 1995, StatsCan found the number had dropped to 56 per cent by 2005. Among girls, the rate fell to 45 per cent from 49 per cent.
The only good news is that the gap between boys’ and girls’ participation has narrowed.
Yet what remains is a perception that sports are more important for boys than girls.
StatsCan found no difference in boys’ participation rates regardless of family type, even though lone-parent families tend to be poorer.
But girls’ participation drops off sharply in single-parent families.
Citing an American study, StatsCan researchers suggest parents facing financial pressures sacrifice a girl’s chance to play sports because that has traditionally not been as important to young girls’ identities as it is to boys’.
In a separate study of children under 15 in 219 aboriginal communities, StatsCan found a much wider gap between boys’ and girls’ participation rates: 73 per cent of boys participated at least once a week, compared with only 63 per cent of girls.
That’s one reason Crawford and Fast and Female have targeted reserve communities.
The other is history.
Crawford grew up hearing stories about the success of a 1960s program sponsored by the federal government to introduce aboriginal kids to cross-country skiing.
It produced a number of top-level competitors, including twin sisters Sharon and Shirley Firth.
Four-time Olympians — their first was in Sapporo in 1972 — the Firths competed for an unprecedented 17 years on the World Cup circuit, winning a total of 79 medals at a variety of distances.
“Between growing up with that kind of lore about what kind of impact it has had and the combination about reading so frequently about the awful living conditions and depressing situation in some of our remote communities I thought this could be an area where I could try to make a difference,” says Crawford.
“A lot of my athlete friends are doing a great job of targeting Africa and different parts of the world. But I thought, here’s an area that’s really not getting as much as it could and if I could do anything about that it would be great and I think we’ll get some great skiers.
“So it’s a really good fit … and some of these communities could really benefit from the kind of injection of energy Fast and Female can bring.”
Sharon Firth is now a mentor for Fast and Female and will be leading its camp in Yellowknife. She’ll be joined by two other first nations skiers — Sekwan Trottier from La Ronge, Sask., the provincial champion, and Marika Cockney, the daughter of Angus Cockney, who trained with the Firths in the 1980s and is now a coach.
Both were participants in one of the first Fast and Female events two years ago.
“This is absolutely the dream,” says Crawford. “It creates future leaders.”
Last year, the Canadian government finally updated its 20-year-old sports policy for women and girls, which had long been overtaken by court decisions upholding their right to access publicly funded facilities and organized sports programs.
Its objective is admirable: “To foster sports environments — from playground to podium — where women and girls … are provided with quality sports experiences and equitable support by sport organizations.”
But Canada still has a long way to go. In 2004, little more than one-third of the 5.2 million members of national sport organizations were women.
That said, Canada’s elite female winter athletes have been more successful than their male peers. In the last three Winter Olympics, women have won most of our medals. In 2006 in Turin, Crawford and her female teammates accounted for two-thirds of Canada’s medals.
Women shine in the Paralympics as well, even though in the past Games they have comprised less than half the Canadian contingent.
In 2000, women won 46 per cent of the medals even though they made up only 38 per cent of the team.
In Athens, they won 62 per cent of the medals with only 47 per cent of the team spots.
Imagine how Canada would fare in international competitions if more girls were competing and pushing each other. Just imagine how much stronger our communities would be if more young women stepped up to take leadership roles.
That’s what Crawford and her Fast and Female crew dream about — and they’re working hard to make it happen.