By David Grossman
Canadian Sport Institute Ontario believes in the power of sport and the importance of positive, inspiring role models and mentors at all levels of sport. This 5-part article series, written by award-winning sport journalist David Grossman, was designed to showcase how these remarkable women in the industry have used sport, and the many transferable skills learned through sport, as a pathway to professional opportunities and leadership positions.
In partnership with Sport Canada and their funding support for Gender Equity in Sport and Safety in Sport initiatives, CSIO strives to be a leader in advocating for a more inclusive, gender equitable sport system.
Some might view it as empowerment or simply combining confidence, experience and determination to make things better.
For Debbie Low and Chelsey Gotell, their directive is instinctive and one that has turned struggles into positive life-changing moments for thousands of athletes in Canada and around the world.
Two outstanding women, both impeccable leaders in sport, they have been remarkably consistent in delivering a message.
Helpful in the growth, awareness and future direction of Canada’s high performance athletes competing in the international spotlight, Low and Gotell have been instrumental in building relationships, wisely choosing contacts and nurturing opportunities.
For the two, there is a special bond to the Paralympic sports movement. Each has had something to do with the ongoing growth and advancement of Canadian elite athletes with a disability.
Low is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario (CSIO) – a world-leading multi-sport daily training environment for high performance athletes and coaches working with in-house expert practitioners.
Debbie Low with CSIO staff members, celebrating the 5 year anniversary of CSIO at Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre – August 2019. (Photo: Canadian Sport Institute Ontario)
For more than 30 years, Low has found ways to support athletes and coaches striving for excellence on the universal scene. She heads up an organization that provides expert leadership, services and programs for the people who need them the most.
“When I reflect back and see a perception come to fruition, it not only becomes very powerful, but gives encouragement for doing more,” said Low. “There are so many more opportunities ahead and what we can accomplish, as a province and country, can do so much good towards the athlete’s journey.”
Her work has not gone unnoticed as Low was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012. Presenting her with the distinguished honour, given in recognition of her contribution to advance the cause of Canadians who live with a disability, was the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.
Low had a huge leadership role in two Paralympic Games.
In 2008, she was Canada’s Chef de Mission for the Games in Beijing and four years earlier, Low was chosen to be Assistant Chef de Mission for the Games in Athens.
Debbie Low (standing, third from right) as Assistant Chef de Mission at the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games, pictured with some of the Team Canada Mission Staff at the Acropolis. (Photo: Debbie Low)
As for Gotell, a native of Antigonish, N.S. and former Paralympic swimmer, she was Chair of the Canadian Paralympic Committee Athletes’ Council and now serves as Chairperson of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Athletes’ Council and is a member of the IPC Governing Board. Born with a visual impairment, it didn’t stop her from winning 12 medals and competing with many of the best swimmers in the world.
Elected into her role by the world’s Paralympic athletes at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, as Chairperson of the IPC Athletes’ Council, Gotell is the global voice for athletes with disabilities within the Paralympic movement at the governance table where decision making for the movement happens.
Chelsey Gotell (back row, second from left) is the current Chairperson for the IPC Athletes’ Council, pictured with fellow Council members at the IPC Headquarters in Bonn, Germany. (Photo: IPC Website)
Born with oculocutaneous albinism, a condition that affects pigmentation and vision, Gotell remembers her parents treated her exactly how they treated her older brother, who didn’t have one.
“I have never used my vision as an excuse not to excel,” said Gotell. “In fact, I used it to propel me. I played in all sports in school – whether they involved having good vision or not and I attribute that to my parents pushing me to try anything.”
“I remember being six years old watching the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games and seeing Mark Tewkesbury win gold for Canada in the 100m backstroke,” reminisces Gotell. “After seeing that race, I wrote in my journal, that I wanted to go to the Olympics – I had no idea the Paralympics were even an event at that time.”
Gotell was, and still is, quite aware of some parents being over-protective, apprehensive and terrified about allowing their children with disabilities to compete in sport. She would have nothing of it.
Just about the time she celebrated her 13th birthday, Gotell said she discovered Paralympic sport as an opportunity to move that much closer to the world stage. Two years later, in her first Paralympics in Australia, Gotell was winning medals in events that others thought was not possible.
Chelsey Gotell having a golden podium moment at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games. (Photo: Chelsey Gotell)
“The Paralympic Games fell into my lap and opened a door that has since led me through this incredible journey,” she recalled. “CSIO impacted my career – no doubt about it. For me, CSIO streamlined the services for what it means to be a high performance athlete in Canada and I’m so thankful for that.”
Chelsey Gotell worked for the TORONTO 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games Organizing Committee and was one of the Games’ first official torchbearers. (Photo: Chelsey Gotell)
While both women have numerous stories to share, they have been dominant leaders in sport development. Low has adulation for Gotell and Gotell looks at Low as her mentor.
“She’s good at being uncomfortable, always looking for ways to move the dial on making positive change. It’s women like Debbie who have helped show me how to be a strong leader within a fairly male dominated industry and to not be apologetic for challenging norms as a way to make positive impact.” said Gotell. “My role is to ensure that athletes with disabilities, from all Paralympic nations around the world, have a voice – one that will influence a positive and productive change in the highest level of sport.”
A former Athlete of the Year in her high school days at Toronto’s Northern Secondary, Low was proficient at almost every sport.
“My friends got me interested in sports and I quickly learned that physical activity was important to me,” said Low, whose mother is French Canadian and father is Asian. “There were times when kids made fun of me because of the way I looked. I just focussed on sport, as I had always aspired to be an Olympic athlete. Once I knew that I didn’t have the necessary skills, I was still motivated to be involved in sport in some way.”
Debbie Low, in her role as Director of Sport for the Toronto 2008 Olympic Bid. Pictured with Bob Steadward, IPC President. (Photo: Debbie Low)
It was during her post-secondary days, studying at the University of Toronto, that Low took extreme interest in a course on disabilities. First impressions aren’t just transient judgements, and Low became hooked quickly on the enhancement of sport.
“There was a special (university) academic course that I took, and the experience of helping out at Variety Village did something for me,” she recalled. “Watching individuals with disabilities compete had a profound impact on me.”
Many of Canada’s high performance athletes are benefactors of the important contribution, along with the strength and resilience, which Low and Gotell have given to the growth of Canadian amateur sport.
David Grossman is a multi award-winning communicator and storyteller with a distinguished career in Broadcasting, Journalism and Public Relations in Sport and Government Relations.