One of Canada’s most prolific Paralympians, Colette Bourgonje competed in a remarkable 10 Games across summer and winter and brought home a total of 10 medals. Now 57 years old, Bourgonje retired from competitive sport following the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Games.
Bourgonje, who grew up in Porcupine Plain in northeastern Saskatchewan, competed nationally in cross-country running before a car accident in 1980 saw her eventually turn towards two Para sports – first, wheelchair racing in summer and then also cross-country sit-skiing in the winter.
She has broken down barriers ever since. She was the first wheelchair user to graduate from the University of Saskatchewan’s Physical Education department and became a teacher in the subject thereafter.
She made her Paralympic debut at Albertville 1992 and then was the first Canadian woman to compete at both a summer and winter Paralympic Games when she raced at Barcelona 1992. She won two bronze medals at that summer Games. At the Nagano 1998 Paralympic Winter Games, she captured her first two silver medals on the snow. She was Canada’s Closing Ceremony flag bearer at those Games, as well as at Torino 2006
At Vancouver 2010, she won Canada’s first-ever Paralympic medal on home soil, a silver in the women’s sitting 10km cross-country race.
In total, she claimed four bronze medals in wheelchair racing, and six medals in sit-skiing – three silver and three bronze. Her Paralympic career spanned 22 years – Albertville 1992, Barcelona 1992, Lillehammer 1994, Atlanta 1996, Nagano 1998, Sydney 2000, Salt Lake City 2002, Torino 2006, Vancouver 2010, and Sochi 2014.
Bourgonje’s influence and involvement in the Paralympic Movement goes well beyond her success on the field of play, as she has been an instrumental member of the Canadian sport community for decades.
She is an advocate for healthy living and the value of physical activity, acting as an ambassador for Saskatchewan’s In Motion program to increase physical literacy. She coaches cross-country skiing to Para athletes and is the Para Skiing Development Coordinator for SASKI Skiing for Disabled, which is run by volunteers and provides opportunities for athletes with disabilities in snow sports. She took an active interest in the growth of her sport as an athlete representative on the Para nordic technical committee while competing, and today acts as a mentor at development camps.
A true believer that everyone should have access to sport, she is always looking to introduce more people with disabilities to the power of the sport. She notably discovered one of Canada’s rising Paralympic stars Brittany Hudak, noticing the young woman at a Canadian Tire in Prince Albert. Bourgonje approached her and asked if she’d ever tried Para nordic skiing or knew of the Paralympics. The answer was no, but flash forward to the present and Hudak is now a Paralympic medallist in the sport.
She regularly spreads her message that attitude is everything: it is how one reacts to obstacles that is the answer, and limitation is only a perception. “Dream big, believe in yourself, attitude is everything” is among her positive lessons, and it is something she lives by every day.
Bourgonje, who is of Métis heritage, has been recognized throughout her career for her many accomplishments. A pioneer for sport in her home province, you can find both a street named Bourgonje Crescent and an elementary school called Colette Bourgonje School in Saskatoon, which is appropriate as she worked as a teacher in the city for many years. She was inducted into the Saskatoon Sports Hall of Fame in 1998 and was named Saskatchewan’s female athlete of the year in 2010. She is a member of the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame.
The Prince Albert resident was also inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame this fall.
At Vancouver 2010, she received the Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award, presented by the IPC to “someone who is fair, honest and is uncompromising in his or her values and prioritizes the promotion of the Paralympic Movement above personal recognition.” A rather accurate depiction of Bourgonje and how she has contributed to Para sport throughout her storied career.