The Development Stories of Indigenous Champions

Alwyn Morris, Shirley and Sharon Firth, Jordin Tootoo, Spencer O’Brien
Prepared by Jim Grove

Alwyn Morris, Olympic kayaking

Alwyn Morris is a member of the Mohawk nation in Kahnawake south of Montreal, Quebec. He competed in sprint kayaking during the 1980s, including two Summer Olympics. At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, he distinguished himself, his Mohawk nation, and Canada when he won gold in the K-2 1000m and bronze in the K-2 500m events.

As a youth, Alwyn had no idea that he would ever kayak at the Olympics. He grew up playing hockey and lacrosse, and his grandfather and his uncle provided active role models as amateur lacrosse athletes.

After the Onake Paddling Club opened near his home, Alwyn became interested in kayak racing. He soon began to dedicate himself intensely to the sport with a growing belief that he could become a champion. The encouragement he received from his grandfather was also a major factor in his focus and determination.

In 1975 Alwyn won the Canadian National Junior Championships, and subsequently he was invited to compete for a place with the Canadian Olympic Team. He didn’t make the team that year, but the experience gave him extra motivation to pursue the best training possible in Canada. At that time, it meant leaving his home, friends, and family and moving to Burnaby, British Columbia.

In Burnaby, he met his future Olympic partner, Hugh Fisher. He also met a new spiritual inspiration: a bald eagle who watched over all of Alwyn’s practices and training sessions. Alwyn came to regard the eagle as a symbol of the dedication and courage he would need to reach the top of his sport.

Sadly, during this time, Alwyn’s grandfather passed away. Alwyn felt the loss deeply, but he faced the pain and resolved to train even harder so that he might honour the inspiration and guidance his grandfather had given to him.

At the 1984 Summer Olympics, Alwyn and Hugh Fisher reached the final where they faced a heavily-favoured German team. The German pair was strong and they took an early lead. But Alwyn and Hugh did not relent. They strained and pressed their paddles harder into the water, and they overtook their opponents.

Dressed in red and white, Alwyn and Hugh ascended the top of the podium to receive their medals. It was then that Alwyn held up an eagle feather for thousands of Olympic television viewers and spectators to see. It was his way of showing respect and gratitude to his grandfather, his family, and his Mohawk nation.

Alwyn is an inductee of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and a two-time winner of the Tom Longboat Award. He was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1985, and he was given the honour of bearing the Olympic torch through the Kahnawake Territory for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Shirley and Sharon Firth, Olympic cross-country skiing

Shirley and Sharon Firth were two of the first female Aboriginal athletes to represent Canada at the Olympics. Members of the Gwich’in First Nation that spans the Yukon and Northwest Territories, they were part of the first Canadian women’s Olympic cross-country ski team.

They were born in Aklavik, NWT, and later moved to nearby Inuvik. As children, they lived in a log cabin and their parents taught them to trap and hunt according to the traditions of generations before them. From this simple beginning, they grew to become elite athletes and compete at four Winter Olympics.

They were physically active from a very young age, as they hiked and snowshoed great distances on their family trap line. Later in Inuvik, they played a variety of games and sports at school and with the kids in their neighbourhood.

Sharon and Shirley were introduced to cross-country skiing at age 13 through the Territorial Experimental Ski Training Program (TEST) that began in the 1960s. The TEST program was established with the idea of fulfilling the athletic potential of Aboriginal youth in Canada’s north and developing their leadership skills through sport.

Within a couple of years of starting to train, the sisters were competing with success. At the Canadian Junior Cross-Country Championships in 1968, Shirley won a silver and Sharon won a bronze. As their commitment to their sport grew, they would train for hours in virtually all weather. They skied in minus-40 degree temperatures in the dark of the northern winter, and they did distance runs during the long summer days.

From the late 1960s until the mid-1980s, Shirley and Sharon delivered regular podium performances in Canadian cross-country skiing. From their trips to the national championships, Sharon took home a total of 37 medals (19 gold, 14 silver, and 4 bronze) while Shirley won 42 medals (29 gold, 10 silver, and 3 bronze).

Shirley and Sharon competed in several World Championships and four Olympic Winter Games, including Sapporo 1972, Innsbruck 1976, Lake Placid 1980, and Sarajevo 1984. They are the only female Canadian skiers to have competed in four consecutive Winter Olympic Games.

Both sisters received the Order of Canada in 1987, and they received the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002. Both were inducted into the Canadian Ski Museum and Skiing Hall of Fame in 1990.

Shirley died of cancer in 2013. In her instructions for her memorial, she asked her husband Jan Larsson to talk about her belief in family, health, and education. These were the values that she held highest.

Sharon and Shirley were a dominant force in Canada’s national cross-country ski team for an unprecedented 17 years. Their incredible collection of medals and titles, and their personal example as members of the Gwich’in people, have secured their place in Canadian and Aboriginal sport history.

Jordin Tootoo, NHL ice hockey

Jordin Tootoo is a professional hockey player of Inuit heritage who grew up in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. In 2001, he became the first Inuk ever to be drafted into the NHL when he was selected by the Nashville Predators in the NHL Entry Draft. He subsequently built his NHL professional career with the Predators, Detroit Red Wings and the New Jersey Devils.

Jordin’s father taught him to skate and play hockey from a young age. While he was growing up, he also learned how to hunt and camp according to the traditional Inuit lifestyle. His middle name, Kudluk, means “thunder” in Inuktitut.

After playing through the ranks of Junior hockey, Jordin became the first Inuk to be drafted into the Western Hockey League, and he was selected to captain Team Canada at an Under-18 tournament in Europe in 2001. The Hockey Hall of Fame subsequently requested his jersey for their collection. Jordin was also recognized with a special youth National Aboriginal Achievement Award the following year.

Jordin continued his rise through the ranks of Canadian hockey when was selected to play for Canada in the 2003 World Junior Hockey Championships. Canada won silver, and Jordin made his mark at the tournament by recording two goals and one assist over six games. He also set another hockey milestone by becoming the first Aboriginal player to represent Team Canada at the World Junior level.

Jordin has faced significant challenges in his personal life that have shaped his attitude toward competing in sport and serving his community. One of the biggest challenges was losing his brother Terence to suicide in 2002. Jordin has called it one of the most difficult moments of his life, and it made him determined to work hard as an athlete so he could make a difference as a role model for Inuit youth.

To this day, Jordin remains active in his community and he works each summer at a hockey camp attended by many Aboriginal youth. He sees the camp as a way to engage Aboriginal youth in sport and physical activity, while developing interest in hockey in particular and showing keen players how to take their game to a higher level.

Spencer O’Brien, Olympic snowboarder

Spencer O’Brien is a Canadian competitive snowboarder, a Canadian Olympian of Aboriginal heritage. She is a member of the Haida/Kwakwaka’wakw peoples of coastal British Columbia.

As a child, Spencer was exposed to many different sports and activities. She started early in swimming, figure skating, skiing, and gymnastics, and played sports on her elementary school teams. In her teens, she did track and field, dance, volleyball, softball, basketball, soccer, and field hockey—even as she began to compete in snowboarding.

Spencer’s father and older sister introduced her to snowboarding when she was 11 years old. In her early years riding the slopes, she didn’t imagine she would become a professional snowboarder. Her older sister was entering competitions, so Spencer simply decided to join her. Without knowing it, she had started her development towards eventually becoming an Olympic and X Games competitor.

As snowboarding and schoolwork became more demanding, she had to give up some of her other sports, but she says her parents never pressured her into doing any one sport in particular. They always let her choose what made her happy.

She focused on halfpipe from ages 12 to 15, but she had to change her discipline when her local mountain stopped building a pipe. She then discovered a love for slopestyle and she was soon competing with great success locally and regionally. Before too long, she began to participate in international competitions.

She started by winning bronze at the 2008 Winter X Games in Aspen on the eve of her 20th birthday, and then silver in 2009. She later took silver at the 2012 Winter X Games Europe and bronze at Aspen in 2013. At her first FIS World Championships in 2013, she won the gold medal. She competed at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, but her performance in the slopestyle final was unfortunately hampered by injury.

Outside of training and competing, Spencer is involved with the Alliance for Climate Education and speaks occasionally in high schools. She has donated equipment to the First Nations Snowboard Team, and she works with Nike N7, a program to promote health and wellness in Aboriginal communities.

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