December 16, 2022 | By Dave Robinson |
When people from other countries think of sports in Canada they think of hockey and skiing.
Traditionally, we have not been known for summer sports but that has changed a lot in recent years.
We are a force to be reckoned with in several summer sports now and one them would be triathlon.
Way back in 2000, Canada scored a gold medal in the very first Olympic triathlon in Sydney Australia.
Simon Whitfield’s come from behind sprint finish at the Sydney Opera House put Canada on the map in a brand new Olympic sport.
It was motivation for lots of kids to take up the sport and it was also a real shot in the arm for government funding and corporate sponsorship.
Success breeds success as they say and since that memorable day Canada has produced several top world class triathletes.
In order to produce a top Olympian you need a development program that gets lots of kids into the sport which gives them the opportunity to be the best they can be.
Triathlon figured that out in the early 90’s when they founded a program called Kids of Steel, a series of small fun races for kids 5 and up. Barrie Shepley was the original guy to get it going and since then literally thousands of kids have given triathlon a go.
One of those kids who signed up was Kira Gupta Baltazar. Behind every successful athlete there are supportive parents and family and Kira has been very fortunate to have Dr. Gupta and wife Patricia Baltazar in her corner. They are of the belief that early involvement in sports combined with a strong emphasis on scholastics will produce a confident adult capable of doing great things in life.
The Gupta-Baltazar family are originally from the Philippines and India and have always encouraged their children to be active in the community.
Kira originally tried soccer and swimming and was a stand out in both, but a chance meeting between triathlon coach Barrie Shepley and Kira’s uncle Pete at a hockey game changed everything.
Kira signed up for a Kids of Steel race in Caledon when she was 3 and was immediately hooked.
Since then Kira has rapidly climbed the ladder in the sport and is now considered a strong hopeful to be on the Canadian Olympic team heading into the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
Kira, who is now 20, is on a full ride athletic and academic scholarship at the University of San Francisco.
She juggles triathlon competitions with studies in Biology. Her goal is to one day become a doctor.
Kira’s triathlon resume is very impressive with numerous top finishes over the last couple of years including:
NCAA Individual Champion
World Triathlon Championships Montreal 8th place in mixed relays
World Triathlon Championships Junior 17th
World Triathlon Grand Final junior women 32nd
Family values are important to the Gupta-Baltazar family. They value equality, inclusion, fair play and respect. These values are core in the sport of triathlon.
Since the very beginning of triathlon back in the late 70’s, the sport has always been totally inclusive. Regardless of gender, race, religion or colour the sport welcomes everyone no exceptions.
This is a very important aspect of the sport for the Gupta-Baltazar family.
They have some strong opinions on women and minorities in sports.
Have you or your family experienced barriers or challenges or restrictions as a result of your background ?
We’ve never faced restrictions in any of the many numerous sports in which we’ve been involved (soccer, hockey, baseball, swimming, triathlon, cross country, basketball, tennis, cycling, track). Definitely not seeing many role models that physically look like my family, can sometimes be a challenge, and when my children were young, may have made them less confident. This was something they learned to overcome. We’re a very active family and support each other’s activities.
What do you see as barriers for getting girls into Sports?
I can speak to a couple of factors. Traditionally, many families from minority backgrounds, especially new immigrants, don’t value sport, especially for females. They value an education and achieving academic success. Many from this group would view sport as a distraction for their daughters, whose priority, they feel, is to achieve high grades and pursue higher education.
Along these lines, if parents are not involved in sport, it is unlikely that their children would participate. Encouraging a young child to try something new, is so much easier than pushing them to try it when they’re teenagers. And if people haven’t tried a sport when they’re young, it is more difficult to pick it up when they’re older. Lack of parental support and encouragement will prevent girls from getting involved.
There is evidence that the dropout rate for teenage girls is much higher than boys.
Would you agree and what would be your opinion as to the root cause ?
Yes, I do agree and see it every year. Girls tend to drop out of sports in middle school and few continue the activity that they had been passionate about for so many years, shortly after beginning high school. In this case, I think the decrease in competitiveness, the lack of resources (coaches, leagues, training, etc.), affect girls’ motivations to continue with the sport.
Do you believe that some of the problem stems from inadequate coaching?
Somewhat. For example, I feel that there are more certified male soccer coaches than female coaches and I would imagine this to be true in the most sports.
Do you have any experience with or know of anyone who has had a negative experience with a coach ?
The triathlon world is not so big. We have not personally experienced anything negative, but, have heard stories – from those coaches who have encouraged youth athletes to race despite injury.
My sons play hockey in the GTHL – I don’t know anyone who has not had a negative experience with a hockey coach. But this is changing. Due to recent and not so recent events involving Hockey Canada and players, there is zero tolerance with respect to behaviour from players, coaches, parents and referees. Additionally, the GTHL surveys its participants/ parents annually. This includes gathering information on minorities playing hockey.
Do you believe that minorities are not given a level playing field to enter and continue sports?
As I mentioned previously, not being able to identify with a role model that looks like them may be a deterrent for minority youth to begin and continue in sport.
What do you propose as a solution ?
How do we attract those from minority backgrounds to sports like triathlon? I see Hockey Canada with their inclusive marketing strategy – commercials include female and male youth, para athletes, people from all walks of life. Hockey Canada has deep pockets. How do other sports attract minorities and girls especially – perhaps aligning with sponsors who can help financially. For instance, National Bank has supported tennis and most recently took over the National Bank Open (formerly Rogers Cup). We have successful tennis players from minority backgrounds in Leylah Fernandes and Felix Auger Aliassime. Encourage these athletes and more to be available to speak with and interact with kids at events. Perhaps this is part of their sponsorship contracts. Can CEOs and CFOs and other decision makers be persuaded to see the value in supporting minority youth in sport? Shouldn’t all sports in Canada be representative of the demographics we see around us? How many companies revoked their ad dollars from Hockey Canada and the World Juniors? Can they redirect this to highlight what women and women of colour are doing in sports?
In order to build on a legacy for future generations, we need to see older women give back to the girls.
Do you see that happening and how best do you see that initiative being carried out ?
Encouraging and developing a mentorship program would go a long way for girls in sports. Older athletes have inspiring stories and experiences to share. Grass roots events like Barrie Shepley’s Kids of Steel are great venues for older athletes to demonstrate what triathlon is. Barrie is great encouraging older athletes to participate in clinics and speaking engagements.
Kira is doing extremely well in her young life and we wish her and her family all the best in the coming years.
Dave Robinson is resident of Mississauga and is an active competing masters triathlete for 40 years.
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