It's been two years since the Canadian Olympic Committee launched its comprehensive athlete wellness program, Game Plan, and the results of its impact on Canadian athletes are starting to come to fruition.
The initiative is a partnership among the Canadian Olympic Committee and three corporations, Deloitte, RBC and human resources company Morneau Shepell. Smith School of Business at Queen's University became a part of the program one year ago to allow scholarship opportunities for athletes. The program was years in the making, with the COC, Canadian Paralympic Committee and Sport Canada all equal partners in the founding of the venture.
Game Plan offers current and retiring athletes help with career planning, networking, skill development, education and mental health, all from professionals and other former athletes.
Canadian Paralympic sledge hockey athlete Kevin Rempel says if it wasn't for the program he wouldn't be here today.
"It's why I'm able to share my story today and why I'm still alive," Rempel says.
"Knowing that I had somewhere to go and I wouldn't be judged and not feel guilty asking for help is what gave me the confidence to reach out faster."
In 2006 Rempel was told by doctors he would never walk again after a horrific motorcross crash left him with a broken back, fractured pelvic and broken ribs. His injuries were hauntingly similar to the ones suffered by his father some seven years earlier.
"My dad was paralyzed in 2000," he says. "We were out hunting, he was up in the tree and fell two storeys. I saw him fall. I helped carry him out on a stretcher…watching his injury, and then me going through almost the exact same thing."
Rempel worked hard at his rehabilitation and one year after his accident was slowly learning how to walk again. There was progress and excitement. The same wasn't true for his father, says Rempel.
For years leading up to Rempel's accident he says his father talked about suicide.
"It took a huge toll on me," he says.
Rempel's father committed suicide a little more than a year after his motorcross accident.
"When my dad took his life I was one-year post injury from my accident."
The full weight of his father's death struck him in 2008. Rempel came face-to-face with his own suicidal thoughts, but was able to push through them by finding the sport that would give him the greatest thrill of his life.
"I spent two years of my life with nothing to looking forward to. And then I saw a poster about wheelchair basketball. I met a guy there who asked if I had tried sledge hockey," Rempel says.
"I played hockey as a kid but I hated it. I got in a sled and it was like motorcross."
Success and searching
Rempel was a quick study of the sport and made Canada's national team by 2010. He made his Olympic debut in 2014 in Sochi, tying for second in team scoring and helping Canada to a bronze medal.
But after those Games, Rempel hit another wall: what to do after high-performance sport?
"I knew in my gut and my heart that I didn't want to play anymore, but I was too scared to leave sport," he says.
Rempel says the decision was made for him in the fall of 2015 when he was cut from the team.
"There was relief. Then over the next few months it all just happened at once. Money was running thin. My relationship was going down the tubes. I went for job interviews but I felt like I was selling out," he says.
During his time competing Rempel says he was aware of the Game Plan program but never thought twice about seeking help on transitioning from sport to the real world because, "like most athletes, I thought I didn't need it."
But Rempel kept it in the back of his mind and when he needed it most, it saved his life.
In early 2016, Rempel, like his father, became suicidal. He was on his balcony in Toronto completing taking his own life when he reached out to a counselor through the Game Plan program. He got a session immediately.
"I was balling my eyes out," he says. "From January of last year until June I saw a sport psychiatrist almost weekly, all through Game Plan."
More than a year later, Rempel has published an autobiography, Still Standing, which chronicles his challenges and accomplishments. He's also started his own company called The Sledge Hockey Experience, which aims to break barriers in the sport through corporate team building exercises.
Program continues to grow, evolve
Retired rower Jeremiah Brown is Game Plan's first director. He had started a career in corporate banking before becoming an Olympian and then struggled in returning to that life after winning silver with Canada's men's eight crew at the 2012 London Games.
Since the launch two years ago Brown has been relentless in his pursuit of finding new ways to evolve and grow.
"I still have that athlete mentally," he says. "Of course I always want it to be better but I'm proud of the relationships we've formed. I feel like we're heading in the right direction."
Brown says he hears from athletes across the country all the time, some who call just to thank him for what he's doing and some who share deeply personal stories of challenges.
"Former athletes and Olympians I've known have reached out to me who have used the Morneau Shepell services and accessed counseling while dealing with depression and anxiety. They've said it's been very helpful," Brown says.
Brown is excited about a new initiative gaining momentum across the country relating to athlete education. He says they've been able to sign on 19 universities as a part of the Game Plan Education Network. According to Brown, the network will allow athletes to have a direct line to universities to help guide and coordinate classes and programs.
"It's about having a contact point, having early course registration and flexibility around schedules and exams," he says.
"And it's about affecting a culture change over time. We're slowly getting people to realize if you totally defer your education you're not setting yourself up for a smooth transition."
More than anything, the personal stories of perseverance and overcoming adversity with the help of the program is what keep Brown motivated.
"These are opportunities that can change people's lives."
Retired sledge hockey player Kevin Rempel knows this all too well.