Tuesday
Nov292016

::[WATERAID] MADAGASCAR 2016::

Madagascar is famous for it's unique wildlife, the cartoon movies that bear it's name, and for vanilla. 90% of all of it's plant and animal species are endemic to Madagascar, meaning they are found nowhere else on Earth. It's the 4th largest island in the world and the world's principal supplier of vanilla and cloves, and thanks to French colonialism, home to really good pastries and baguette. 

But what really sets Madagascar apart from the rest of the world? Over half of it's 22 million inhabitants don't have access to safe drinking water, and 90% don't have access to proper sanitation or a toilet. The definition of "access to safe water" might surprise you, it shocked me. Access means that water is within a 30minute round trip, not in your kitchen or bathroom. What that means is that about 12 million people in Madagascar alone have to go farther than 30minutes to find safe water. 

I visited Madagascar this past weekend and spent a day in the field with WaterAid Madagascar. WaterAid's mission is to provide access to clean water and sanitation to the most vulnerable communities in the world. Early Saturday morning my three friends, Ernest, Nary and Rado and I set off from Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital city, for Belavabary commune. We visited two communities; Tsarafangitra (a pre-intervention village, WaterAid is working hard to install water taps early next year) and Belavabary (a post-intervention village, WaterAid installed 4 water points and toilets at the school and health centre, their first in the community).

I put this photo essay together in an attempt to illustrate what water access means to the people of Madagascar. When you consider where to donate your money for #GivingTuesday today, consider a donation to WaterAid. The Government of Canada will triple it today (and all the way until the end of January), so give $25 - what it costs to provide safe water and sanitation to one person indefinitely, and a family of four will benefit when the Government tops it up to $100.


This is Raoly. Here we are in her home in Tsarafangitra. She's about 8 months pregnant, due any week now. She already has two kids and her husband works in the rice fields, so like most women in Africa, the retrieval of water is a big part of her daily routine. The closest water is only about 1km away; 3 or 4 times a day Raoly walks barefoot to the murky little spring that provides all the water for her community. On days where she does the washing, she might have to go back a 5th time. She says it's better to go early, as the water seems to get dirtier throughout the day. As we sat in her family's two-room home, she told me about her challenges and obstacles. She's worried that her baby will come before the rainy season, or that the rain won't fill the rice paddies. She is concerned about having to make the daily water trek with her baby strapped to her back. As her family grows, so does their need for water. I asked Raoly what would make the biggest impact on her daily life. Her answer was swift and certain, "a well, we need clean water" she said, with a hopeful nod. WaterAid is currently working to bring water points to Tsarafangitra in April 2017.

I asked Raoly to take me along on one of her daily water treks. We walked along the road, and then through the cassava fields you can see here. Years ago, a tapioca factory employed most of this communities inhabitants. So, Belavabary is rich in cassava plants, a resilient and drought resistant crop. Since the factory closed, the locals have relied on cassava leaves and roots as one of their primary sources of nutrition. Cassava leaves are okay to eat once or twice a week, but relying on them as a staple can be detrimental to one's health. Improper preparation can cause cyanide poisoning, and the leaves can promote goiters and ulcers. Raoly and I walked about 10-15minutes to the local spring. I got a sunburn on my neck.

This is where everyone the community of Tsarafangitra gets their water. Water for drinking, washing, cooking, everything. It's not clean or cold, and the nearby ponds are totally brown and swampy. They don't have the ability to purify the water beyond boiling it. It's common practice to add clorox to drinking water in Africa, but it's relatively expensive and it's not available in Belavabary. Of all the wells and water points I've seen in Africa, this was the worst. Raoly and I filled two 20L gerry cans to the top. About half of the water her family of four needs on a typical Saturday.

I insisted on carrying Raoly's water for her. There is a steep, treacherous hill right next to the spring that she nimbly descends and ascends many times a day, barefoot and pregnant. There's no way I will ever truly understand Raoly's hardship, but I thought if I take part in this ritual, maybe I'll gain a deeper level of sympathy for what she goes through. Her experience is not unique, millions of women do this everyday. If all I am left with is sore hands I thought to myself, "at least Raoly gets a day off". As we climbed the hill, I couldn't believe how hard it was. "Raoly, you are very strong" I said to her... she just laughed it off, "I have to be" she said.

It rarely takes Raoly less than half an hour return. I stopped for increasingly longer rests, as my hands ached from the little handles. These jugs are 20kg each. "That's why we carry them on our heads", Raoly told me. I didn't bother trying that. The woman in the background said it was nice to see a white man carrying water, with a chuckle. I stopped six or seven times for a break, Raoly smiled at me when I asked how many breaks she usually takes... "three, sometimes only two". Hmm.

Raoly showed me where the water goes in her kitchen hut. This is where she does all of her cooking. I was happy to put them down for good, my hands were killing me. 

As Raoly and I parted ways, I thanked her again for the experience and insight, and wished her luck with the arrival of her third child. She said again that she hopes it rains before her baby comes, and that she's excited for the WaterAid project to be completed in April. Raoly is an incredibly strong woman, she represents the resilience and determination of all Malagasy women. 

Tsarafangitra was the pre-intervention WaterAid village we visited. They are still researching exactly how and where they will install the gravity fed water system. It will start in the highlands, at a natural spring, and up to 5km of pipe will be laid underground providing hundreds of people with new access to clean, cold water that they don't need to devote hours of their day, and risk falling down a steep hill while pregnant, to retrieve.

On to the post-intervention village of Belavabary.

This water point is named "Mendrika" which means "Deserved". Water is a basic human right, not a privilege. It's a right that the people of Belavabary now experience everyday. This woman told me about the little cup they've left on the ledge of this water point. "Mendrika is on a busy road, so people who walk to work often stop here for a drink along the way", she told me. She also told me about what she does, now that a big part of her day has become available. "I have a small shop, my own business". Since she lives along the road, people stop to purchase food and supplies from her little store. The extra time in her day that this well has left her with is allowing her to provide for her family, be entrepreneurial and self sufficient. Poverty is truly sexist, and when we empower women, the whole world benefits.

This is Kanto, the second water point we visited in Belavabary. Kanto means "beautiful". The smiles on these little girls' faces are fairly indicative of the beauty of this village, and the happiness that access to water and sanitation brings. Kids in the post-intervention village were happier, more active and more energetic. They seemed healthier and certainly weren't shy about their enthusiasm for their newly installed water points. 

In addition to providing safe drinking water from the water points, this WaterAid project in Belavabary built these pit latrines at the school. A safe place to use the bathroom in private is especially important for young women, who are less likely to attend school if their school lacks proper sanitation facilities. Menstruation is heavily stigmatized in many areas, leading to girls being too ashamed to attend school while menstruating. A secure place to use the toilet ensures that girls won't miss school on account of having her period. Look how progressive this toilet system is with a separate facility for those with a disability! The handicapped toilet has a handrail and improved seating. There are urinals around the back for the boys and a hand washing station along the side. There is a separate facility currently under construction around the corner which will be dedicated to the health centre. Open defecation is a huge health risk in the developing world, and water security includes a safe place to use the toilet. Facilities like this are a human right.

This picture says it all.

Before we lined up for a photo, one of the teachers asked all the boys and girls to wash up so that their faces would be clean for the photographer. You've never seen 10 kids under 10 so enthusiastic about sanitation! They lined up and one by one cleaned up and put on their best smiles for our photo opp. Thanks to this WaterAid intervention, the kids in Belavabary have healthier sanitation practices, and drink clean & safe water, which leads to far less frequent gastro upset and diarrhea. Diarrhea is the second leading cause of death for kids in Madagascar, killing over 2100 kids every year. Their nutrition is vastly improved when they eat foods prepared with clean water, and they can stay hydrated if they do get the runs. Their improved nutrition wasn't only evident in the smiles on their faces, but their happy bellies too! These guys honestly made my day.

Today is #GivingTuesday. Every dollar you donate will be matched three-fold by the Canadian Government. Water is a basic human right, one that every person in the world should be able to take for granted. Water is life, it's truly what we are #MadeOf. I'm donating $25 now so that a whole family will have access to clean and safe drinking water for years to come. Will you join me? DONATE HERE.

>>>

 

Friday
Nov252016

:: [RIGHT TO PLAY] LIBERIA 2016::

Today was one of those days that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

It started at 6am when I looked out my window of the Government of Canada’s airplane and saw the sun coming up over West Africa. A few minutes later we were “wheels down” as they call it at Roberts Airport in Monrovia, Liberia. Their remarkable Nobel Peace Prize winning President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf met our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the tarmac with a warm and humid, stately welcome. It’s safe to say that Liberia doesn’t receive heads of state on a daily basis, and it was Prime Minister Trudeau’s first visit to Africa since he assumed office, so the significance of the occasion wasn’t lost on anyone in attendance. We sipped our waters and swatted a few mosquitos and listened to the military brass band play both national anthems.

I’ve been an athlete ambassador with Right To Play for a little over a decade. In that official capacity I’ve visited dozens of communities throughout Africa and the Middle East, talked to Canadian kids in schools and corporate folks in office towers and to Ben Mulroney on morning TV just about anytime he’ll have me on. I love this organization and I’m committed to the cause for one simple reason; I know how critical sport and play opportunities are for young people, and I’m desperate for every kid in the world to have access to them. Simply, I believe sport is a right, not a privilege.

So when the opportunity to join a Canadian delegation to Monrovia, Liberia to visit Right To Play programs arose, it was an easy yes. I dropped my dog off at my mom’s and stuffed my yellow RTP t-shirt into my backpack and got on the airplane without a moment’s hesitation.

This is my third visit to Liberia, and I’ve witnessed remarkable progress since I first visited in 2007. This country, as much as any in the world, exemplifies the resiliency of the human spirit. It’s been beset by hardship for over a century but particularly over the past 25 years, Liberia is defined by her challenges. War, poverty and disease have tried to keep Liberians down, but they are just too strong. They continually fight for what’s good, work hard and dream big.

The Right To Play curriculum here is focused on child protection, gender equity and female empowerment, sanitation and disease prevention, and access to quality education. Over 21,000 kids here have access to RTP programming every week in schools, playgrounds and community centers across the country.

Today, when I saw PM Justin Trudeau, Minister of Youth, former school teacher and father of three interacting with the kids at Slip Way School in the classroom and in the schoolyard, I knew I was witnessing something truly special. His passion for children is palpable. He shook hands and introduced himself to dozens of adoring little kids after we played some kickball and presented the school with some locally-purchased soccer balls. He laughed and smiled and goofed around with these kids and everyone had a blast. Of all the school visits I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in throughout West Africa and in Canada, today was the most inspiring.

I’ve never been short on the opportunity to feel proud to be Canadian. Both of my parents immigrated to Canada in the 1950s as kids and I am thrilled that Canada continues to provide safe haven for refugees. I carried our flag into the Opening Ceremonies in Beijing and I sang along to O Canada in Athens.

Also, there’s The Tragically Hip, Arcade Fire, Penny Oleksiak and The Toronto Raptors.

But this was a little different. Today I witnessed Canada at its very best.

These days, Canada’s greatest export might be goodness, but the world is desperate for more. Liberia is among the most vulnerable countries on earth; kids and especially girls are susceptible to so much harm and risk in the developing world.

While these problems are in many cases far from home, Canada has challenges of our own. Our First Nations communities have many similar obstacles; it’s for that reason that I’m so thrilled to support Right To Play’s PLAY program for “Promoting Life Skills in Aboriginal Youth”.

Recognizing how fortunate we are as Canadians is only half the battle. We also need to act. If you’re interested in supporting Canada’s missions abroad then I’d encourage you to do two things. First, contact your local MP and tell them you support more funding for these initiatives. Second, find a cause to either donate to or fundraise for. My favourites are Right To Play, WaterAid Canada, The World Food Program and Doctors Without Borders. We’re good, Canada. Let’s keep sticking up for those that need it most. 

...

Thursday
Oct132016

::GRATITUDE::

It is a little ironic that some of my most Canadian moments have happened so far away from home.

Or maybe it's perfect.

It doesn't get much more patriotic than marching in an Olympic ceremony with fellow Canadian athletes; my voice will never be too hoarse to scream O Canada with my fellow Olympians.

Watching the Tragically Hip concert at Canada Olympic House on the last Saturday night of the Olympics in Rio was like riding an emotional roller-coaster in a tropical storm of feelings with all of your best friends. When Gord Downie belted the songs that helped define our country's musical identity, we sang along with him. When he broke down and cried, so did we. We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger, and all I remember is sitting beside you.

The next morning I slept in a little and walked in the rain to Ipanema's best coffee shop. It's called Kraft, run by an Aussie dude and his Carioca wife. He told me he didn't know a thing about coffee when he opened the place, just that he missed a good flat white from Perth and he thought it was weird that Brazilians export their best beans. His joint was packed with Aussies, Kiwis and Brits every time I went for a coffee.

I walked to the bridge that goes over the little river that flows from the Lagoa (where the rowers and canoeists raced our boats) to the Atlantic Ocean. It was low tide so the water flowed out into the brackish abyss.

I thought about how it was all over. Not just the regatta, not just the 31st Olympiad, but my experience as a Canadian Olympian, too. I imagined the little river carrying our sweat and tears and dreams and quadrennial aspirations out to sea. Only less significant now, since they are a part of history rather than the present. Only smaller in the sense that they are among the sweat and tears of every Olympian who has ever left it all out there for the sake of a perfect effort.

I sipped my coffee.

Rio is a real city. It was busy and bustling throughout the Olympics, not in defiance of the Games, but in the same way it just goes about its daily business regardless of what circus is in town. I rode my bike past commuters and kids trying to get to school every morning on my way to the venue. Everyone was polite and kind, even when I was riding on the sidewalk.

The attention a city receives when it is selected to host the Olympic Games may be a little superfluous, but I strongly believe it leads to an important conversation and a deeper understanding of world issues. Global ones such as climate change, which was one of the impactful themes of Rio's opening ceremony, as well as local issues such as the living conditions in Rio's favelas.

Our direct overnight flight home Tuesday was well co-ordinated and quick; I slept most of the way. Back in Toronto, I walked to my local coffee joint and wondered if those beans were from Brazil, too. People were in a rush to get to work here as well, and I thought, "you know, this place ain't so different."

There was a homeless guy who slept on the stoop of our hotel in Ipanema. He'd wake up every morning surrounded by the granola bars and bottles of juice that we'd get at breakfast and leave for him. In Toronto, I live close to a park where people sleep as well.

I think Canada is the best, and as I tweeted while still dripping sweat from my final race, I've never been more proud to be a Canadian. I'm inspired by our team's performances, but I'm even more moved by their conduct and character off the field and out of the water. I'm inspired by Rosie MacLennan's generosity through her work with Jumpstart, and by Clara Hughes' incredible work with Bell Let's Talk.

As I reflect on how fortunate I've been to compete for Canada, I consider the access to facilities and world-class coaching that I've enjoyed. I think about how when I turn on the tap to fill up my water bottle, I completely take for granted the clean water that comes out. When I get hurt, I have access to great health care. If I need someone to talk to, there are services available.

But that access isn't equal all the way across Canada

Right to Play (RTP) has a program called PLAY, which stands for Promoting Life-skills in Aboriginal Youth. I've visited programs all over Africa with RTP and I'm inspired by what I've seen on the field. I'm further heartened to know that we are working domestically with a similar goal in mind — to improve the lives of children through the power and impact of sport and play in our indigenous communities here in Canada.

I'm going to follow in the footsteps of my teammates Rosie, Clara and others, clear out my personal chequing account and make a $5,000 donation to Right To Play's PLAY program. 

I'm appealing to Canadians to join me in supporting this cause which is so close to my heart. My neighbours and friends and fans and folks on social media have been so generous with their words of support and kindness. It's my hope that we can come together and be generous with our collective wallets as well.

Perhaps the most Canadian thing I've repeatedly read on Twitter and Facebook has been along the lines of "Congrats on your kayaking career, I'd like to buy you a beer." So how's this for an idea? Instead of a beer, donate $5 to Right To Play. Or if you're up for buying a round, donate $50. That's the best kind of "cheers" I can imagine.

Whatever we raise I am confident that as a result, more kids are going to have access to life-changing sport and play opportunities and programs in some of Canada's most vulnerable communities. That's a kind of victory we can all be proud of.

You can make a donation to Right To Play's PLAY program HERE.

If we needed any further proof that Canada is amazing, the inspiring performances and world-class character of our Canadian Olympic team are surely testaments to not only how great we are, but how much potential lies within all of us.

And just like any world-class athlete, we should continually strive to be better, to be the very best version of ourselves. It's been my experience that the best way to accomplish any great goal is to do it together. Thanks to everyone in Canada for all of the amazing support, and for considering a donation to Right To Play.

Wednesday
Aug242016

::ALL GOOD THINGS...::

***
Not all gifts come in shiny packages, and not every accomplishment is rewarded with a medal. These Olympics represented something totally unique to my kayaking career, an experience that is so fresh that I still don’t know exactly what to make of it.

I had a bad race in my semi-final. I hesitated, and while I’ll never know if it was that first stroke that cost me my last chance at an Olympic podium appearance, I know that it didn’t help. The semis were harder than ever this year. Our K1 1000m field is the deepest it’s ever been and we can all be proud of that.

It wasn’t until the day of my B-Final that I thought of it as more than just a consolation race. I warmed up casually, didn’t bring sandals to wear to the dock, or even a shirt to warm up in. When I left the hotel I wasn’t sure I’d even do a pre-warm up paddle. With about a minute to start I looked down my lane, 1000m of flat blue water with the Hill of Two Brothers just off to the right. I reconsidered my intention, and thought about how this was probably going to be the last time I got to race at the Olympic Games. I decided that my relegation to the B-Final was actually a great opportunity. A gift, even. I had a chance to perform my event, in front of an Olympic audience , on this Olympic racecourse, with world-class opponents for no reason but out of love.

It could be the purest race I’ve ever completed. I had no expectations. No pressure from myself or anyone else. There would be no medal ceremony, no flags or anthems. I was going to paddle 1000m because I love to. Because it’s what I do and who I am and I’ve practiced for 20 years and I prepared the best I ever have. I stole my moment back from that disappointing semi-final. I took my first stroke, crisp and well timed, put my shoulders down, applied pressure to my footrest, cranked it back and drove my boat forward three hundred and fifty times with my paddle.  

I went through the 500m mark and I relaxed. I saw the 200m mark go by and I felt no pain. I increased my stroke rate and pushed hard to the finish line without any discomfort. I won, 9th place. It was perfect, and painless and an absolute pleasure.

After the A-Final results came down, I heard that I had the second fastest time of the day. Good enough for silver had I been in the A-Final. Some people might expect me to be disappointed or have some regrets, but I understand racing. I know that it isn’t as simple as a time on a piece of paper. There is strategy and nerves and wind and a hundred other things. I also know that you need to earn a spot in the final and that I didn’t. I earned a chance to perform under virtually no pressure, and I believe that helped me a lot. I also don’t feel that a medal would validate my preparation or my performance any more than my strokes did today. I’m content knowing that I did my best, and it was pretty good.

I have zero regrets. I wouldn’t change a thing about my 2016 Olympic experience. I was given the gift of a lifetime. It came wrapped in ugly brown paper without a ribbon, and it was difficult to even see it as a gift at first. But that’s what I’ve left Rio with, having embraced the chance to race the purest one-thousand of my career without any tangible reward.  None except for a few really solid handshakes from men and women with strong, battle hardened hands from millions of hard strokes. Those individuals make up our paddling community. Our family of driven, talented brothers and sisters are an awe inspiring bunch to say the very least. The friends I’ve met through my years as a paddler are absolutely the greatest reward that this journey has provided me with. Having a friend in almost every country in the world is an amazing thing, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Our sport has taught me every lesson I’ve learnt in my life. It’s ripped my heart out and sent my heart racing with joy and excitement. My highest highs and my lowest lows were all as a result of my time in the boat. Sport has been my teacher, my girlfriend, my best friend and my worst enemy. It’s been my obsession, my emotional baggage, my strength and my weakness. Sport has kicked me in the teeth when I’ve been down, and stuck out her arm when I needed help to get up. All of these life lessons, taught by strokes. Thousands and thousands a day, tiny lessons, one at a time.

All of those strokes have led to a tremendously fulfilling athletic career. As I reflect, I’m struck with how complete it has been. I’ve lined up as a relatively unknown youngster and as seasoned veteran. I’ve won each colour of Olympic medal, but I’ve also missed out on the podium a couple of times. I made O Canada play, but I’ve also got the tune to the Norwegian national anthem committed to memory.  And the German anthem. And the Aussie’s. (Ours is my favourite) I’ve had the honour and privilege of carrying our flag at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. I’ve exceeded my expectations, met them square-on, and fallen short a couple of times as well. I have felt every single emotion that an athlete can feel. I think I’ve had the most holistic Olympic experience an athlete could ever ask for. I have only gratitude to express to everyone who I’ve met along the way, and I couldn’t dream of asking for anything more.

After four Olympics I’m thinking that I need a new kind of challenge. Being an athlete is a very selfish endeavour. I worry about what I eat, rather than that some people don’t have enough. I think about my fitness, not about issues like childhood obesity and inactive lifestyles. I have always wanted to be first, and as a result I’ve failed to put others first in my life. I have always loved Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote about “Life’s most persistent and urgent question… What are you doing for others?”. I don’t know what the future holds for me or what will get me out of bed in a few weeks or a few years, but I know that MLK’s question will guide my future endeavours.

All good things must come to an end. As I walk away from my career as an Olympic athlete I have heartfelt congratulations to everyone I’ve ever had the pleasure of sharing a racecourse with. Our collective effort has created history, and I’m honoured to have been a part of it. 

 

Friday
Aug122016

::FEMINISM IN SPORT::