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On World Health Day, CSIO Celebrates the Contributions of Dr. Steve Dilkas

By David Grossman

 

Like most youngsters, Steve Dilkas used to play a fair bit of hockey and recalls the days when he dreamed about what it would have been like to score the goal that brought a gold medal home for Canada.

Elite stick handling and experimental moves were most likely not his forte, but that didn’t stop him from having fun and always trying to do his best. This creativity and tenacity would, one day, turn into something much more rewarding.

The thirst for success, knowledge, and so much more, was his masterpiece.  It continued long after he graduated from Woodbridge College and pursued medicine at the University of Toronto. For Dilkas, the first member in his family to go to university, that grasp for intelligence and wisdom is just as robust today.

For him, the laurels and distinction, would heavily lean in the form of giving back to the community in a positive way. That was always an important priority.

What also became quite clear, especially after 13 years of post-secondary studies, was his broadening focus on helping people. Many know of him as a physician at Toronto’s West Park Health Care Centre, a hospital that provides specialized rehabilitative and complex care after a life-altering illness or injury. These include lung disease, amputation, stroke, and traumatic musculoskeletal injuries.

Others simply see his surname and register that he is a person who does wonders for many of Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes. From keeping them healthy to supporting athletes’ return to sport, and everything in between.

To say he’s a busy guy, just might be a play on words.

When he’s not giving his time to his patients, you’ll find him lecturing as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto. There is also the invaluable commitment to his family – his wife and son, Otis.

Enter the year 2020. Having been a sport medical doctor for five previous years at the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario, Dr. Dilkas was chosen to be the Chief Medical Officer at CSIO after the retirement of Dr. Doug Richards.

It was also an important period in the lives of athletes, who had devoted years of training and preparation for the amateur sport showcases of all showcases – the Summer Games in Tokyo and later, the Winter Games in Beijing.

Left: Dr Dilkas at CSIO. Photo: Vincent Bélanger/CSIO. Right: Dr. Dilkas with Mark Ideson of Canada’s Beijing 2022 wheelchair curling team at YVR Airport in Vancouver. Photo courtesy of Dr. Steve Dilkas. 

Then, something that was not expected: the lockdown.

The world was, and still is, dealing with a global viral disease that had mushroomed into a pandemic. There was cause for widespread panic, severe acute respiratory problems, and a list of obstacles. The complications became concerns that just festered.

“It was the early stages of the pandemic, and I had wondered how we were going to achieve what had to be done, to pull this off, especially in a few months and with everything shut down,” said Dr. Dilkas. “Sure, I was skeptical. In my book, the health and wellness of athletes took priority over everything else, and here we had international sports events not far off.”

For Dr. Dilkas, the return to sport had to be done – and done well.

Focussed and knowing he was no individual marvel phenom, Dr. Dilkas set out collaborating with people in the medical and political sectors across the country. The target: find possible opportunities to assist athletes –and also keep them safe.

That meant round the clock discussions involving peers, community leaders, and specialists, examining provincial and municipal policies, procedures and methods that would help athletes. Mounting protocols, paperwork, and telephone calls – lots of them around the clock. Raising optimism was crucial at a time when doom and gloom was growing.

Not one for personal gratification, Dr. Dilkas always found ways to always praise his fellowship network that consisted of individuals with various professional expertise.

“I’m no specialist in infectious diseases, but just one small part of a team who put our thoughts together to try find a way of helping people who had invested so much time working towards (the Olympics and Paralympics),” he said. “This doesn’t happen in a silo. While I contributed my share, and led the charge in Ontario, there were many others who did a great deal.”

The accolades for his commitment and work, have come in many forms of tribute.

One individual referred to him as “a ticket from heaven”. Others used words like “gifted” and “intellectually brilliant”.

When the spectrum of athletes, coaches, officials, and families, were feeling bitter, mentally drained, and unsure of the damage of a pandemic, Dr. Dilkas addressed the issues, studied the optics, and made operational decisions that would benefit huge numbers.

His knowledge and presence weren’t novelties, but a fact of life.

“Coming up with training bubbles (for athletes) across Canada was important as was building connections to get a rapid antigen screening program going in a matter of weeks,” he said. “We were grasping for opportunities that would work.”

Keeping the pulse on constantly changing times had Dr. Dilkas dedicating hours and hours of personal time to accomplish what he knew had to get done.

“We kept learning, looked forward for options, investigated everything, took chances and no stone was left un-turned,” he said. “The vaccines made a huge difference. There was so much that had to be done and whatever we did, we needed to do with the well-being and safety of everyone.”

Debbie Low, the CSIO’s President and Chief Executive Officer, has huge admiration for the work done by Dr. Dilkas.

“I have had to rely on him for everything and he’s been amazing,” she said. “From sharing his expertise with staff at our town hall meetings to providing countless recommendations for athlete safety- and the list goes on. He had us in good shape navigating through a pandemic. We simply could not have done what we did, without him. His manner, being congenial and trustworthy. Everyone has huge respect for Dr. Steve. To me, he’s a miracle worker.”

Never sure if progress was imminent, Dr. Dilkas forged ahead with leadership, evaluation and found ways for encouragement and opportunities. Small steps would become huge ones in the lives of committed athletes, their coaches and support staff.

“Solving a problem is inspiring to me and makes a positive impact,” said Dr. Dilkas, a distinguished individual who says his primary job is extremely rewarding because it involves working with people who have an impairment.

“I love CSIO and doing what I can for high performance athletes. To also be able to see our athletes and teams make it, and for them to thrive under difficult circumstances. These are things I will never forget.”

For him, there was also something else that was very special. It was going to Japan and China for the two Paralympic Games. In Beijing, he was the team physician for the para curling team that went on to win a bronze medal.

CSIO staff at Tokyo 2020 Paralympics
Dr. Steve Dilkas with Meghan Buttle, Melissa Lacroix, and Dr. Kim Coros at the Tokyo 2020 Athlete Village. Photo courtesy of Melissa Lacroix.

While athletes were being overwhelmed with the chaos of the pandemic, wheelchair basketball veteran Robert (Bo) Hedges had faith in the medical knowledge and connections of Dr. Dilkas.

“There was a time when I thought the Tokyo Games would be cancelled,” said Hedges, a four-time Paralympian and gold medallist at London 2012. “(Dr. Dilkas) was always there for us, making sure procedures and protocols were up-to-date and most important, that it would be safe for us as athletes.

“There’s no doubt that he played a big role, worked behind the scenes tirelessly, and continuously, to build a plan for our staff that would get us back on the court.”

“(Dr. Dilkas) is meticulous, he can’t stop, and won’t stop, until the job gets done – and done well,” praised Dr. Andy Van Neutegem, Director of Performance Sciences and Research at Own the Podium. “On the ball, he’s constantly finding solutions and doing it in a thoughtful and respectful way.

“There is a team of superstars everywhere, especially during a pandemic, and he’s been one of them. There’s no other way to describe it. CSIO have been leaders throughout, and his role has literally been the captain of the medical team at CSIO. Just an integral part of everything.”

Ryan Atkison is the Director of Performance Services at CSIO, and someone who has, for several years, witnessed the work of Dr. Dilkas.

“He’s an advocate for sport and I don’t think anyone else could have done the job he accomplished at such a critical time for so many,” said Atkison.

“The man is incredibly dependable and consistent. The first time I met him, back in 2014, I remember seeing him do the little things that made a big difference in the lives of so many people. When you see him work, you witness the power of knowledge, influence, and collaboration.”

While there is a saying about making first impressions last, Dr. Dilkas has also earned every bit of respect from so many.

 

David Grossman is a veteran multi award-winning Journalist and Broadcaster with some of Canada’s major media, including the Toronto Star and SPORTSNET 590 THE FAN, and a Public Relations professional for 45+ years in Canadian sports and Government relations.

 

Cover Photo: Angela Burger/Canadian Paralympic Committee