Sometimes your actions affect others in life. Whether you are the one affected or the one who affects, there is rarely the chance to say thanks. Especially when you’ve been affected like strangers from far away lands. This happened to me back in 2006. And now, right now, it feels like a miracle to be in this world away with the very chance to say thanks.
I’m in Uganda with right to play. I’m in the place where the images came from that so inspired me back in 2006. I am with the Right to Play Uganda staff, the coaches, teachers and most importantly, with the children, who gave me this inspiration almost seven years ago.
It was during the 2006 Olympics and I was in Torino, Italy, and I was a speed skater for Canada. The last month into the Olympics was a struggle for me. I contracted pneumonia and went from being the fittest and fastest in my life to feeling weak and wondering if I could even finish the 5000m race on the 24th of February. I was so demoralized that I wasn’t sure I should have been there.
But that all changed when I visited a booth in the athlete’s village and learned of the Right to Play programs. I discovered the world of sport for development. For the first time in my life I came to understand the true power of sport and play. The connection I made lifted me up each day and made me start to believe that I could find something special in myself for that race no matter how bad I was feeling on the ice.
This motivation built as the days went by. Then, by chance, the morning of my race, I turned on the television to see if anything was happening. Maybe an epic cross country ski race that lasted far longer than 5000m would be on the screen. I thought if I could see other athletes suffering in their events, maybe this would show me that it was possible to suffer and then succeed.
I started to think of how I could be involved with Right to Play and help promote the power of sport and play. And then, when I turned on the TV that had like feed from the Canadian broadcaster at the time, to my surprise and delight came on the screen not Olympic athletes competing, but Olympic athletes in Africa.
There were two Canadian athletes and they were in the field visiting the Right to Play programs in Uganda. What I witnessed was not the struggle of the athletic pursuit, but the struggle of these children. Many of them were displaced people because of wars and unrest. Many were former child combatants. What I saw moved me beyond what I thought the potential of my heart held.
I saw before my eyes on that little screen the magic made possible when kids have a chance to play. When the playing allows for learning. Allows for inclusion. Allows for the transformation of struggle to joy. These kids, they had the sparkle of joy in their eyes. It was because of what they were doing. They were playing.
These children from Uganda showed me it was possible to overcome any kind of pain and suffering, any kind of struggle, and to transform it into joy.
I sat transfixed by these images from Uganda. When it was over I wrote in big letters on my hand ‘JOY’. I wrote it there as a reminder that if these kids could transform, so could I. So could I overcome the pain that surely awaited me that night in my race.
I went into the race with the audacity to think I could win. This confidence came from a promise I made with myself: if something special happened to me that night at the Olympics, I would pay this back to the kids.
Because I was inspired I went on to win the Olympics. I did something that should not have been possible for me in that time and place. And when that something special happened and I had the utter joy of listening to my national anthem playing loud and clear in the Italian night, I went on to use the voice I gained by earning that success.
I donated all that I had to the Right to Play programs. It was $10,000.00 and it was what I had to give. I challenged Canadians to be inspired themselves and learn of what Right to Play was doing around the world. I challenged them to give what they could and they answered with donations right back. In less than two months, this $10,000.00 turned into nearly half a million dollars.
And now, here I am in the very place all this stemmed from. I am in Uganda and just spent the day playing, learning and laughing with the kids. I have the chance to say thank you to the very people who inspired me to one of the greatest nights of my life. To tell them how they allowed me to become a champion. Not a champion in the sense of winning, but a champion in the sense of giving.
Meeting a woman like Alice, a true force of nature, and seeing her commitment to the programs can’t help but affect you. Alice has been with RTP for almost ten years. When Johann Koss, the founder, CEO and president of RTP asked her how it is going she said her motivation is stronger than ever. Alice is always sending out love claps (a series of two claps intersected with ‘mmm…mmm’ in sync with cradling your head from side to side, hands crossed on chest, patting your knees and then finally a blowing kiss directed at someone who deserves the love), flowers (the shaking of the hands in an upward motion as the flower grows until you can stretch the quivering hands no further up into the air, then directing the imagined flowers to the individual who she feels deserves the flowers for a good answer or an enthused action) and many other claps of good vibes. Her influence on the kids and all the coaches in Right to Play is absolutely contagious.
I can tell you loud and clear, the magic is still here. I will leave this far away land in a few days being satisfied that I was right to be inspired because it is real and it is true, this power of play that believe to be just truly awesome. I will also leave knowing I have no choice but to continue working to allow for more funding for these programs. More resources for the staff and coaches, teachers, mentors and community leaders to give the kids more opportunities to be engaged. So that more of these children can have the chance.
We are by no means done. Please help and go to Right to Play to contribute to this movement that I am just beginning to grasp.
And please go to Level the Field and vote for me (vote for ‘We Build Peace) so that you can have the chance to win an opportunity to come to the field and see for yourself!