Colette Bourgonje knows what to expect when she lines up for the women’s five-kilometre sitting race in Sochi on Sunday, the last event of the Sochi Paralympics. It will have been her fourth appearance at these Games alone, and a final chance to add to the six medals she’s won at the Paralympics since 1998.
Bourgonje, 52, made her Paralympic debut at the Summer Games in 1992 and competed in her first Winter Games event two years later.
“Cross-country skiing is amazing,” said Bourgonje, who lives in Prince Albert, Sask. “I’ve travelled all over the world and I’ve had amazing experiences. It’s just totally awesome.”
Bourgonje was a competitive cross-country skier on the national circuit when she was hit by a car and paralyzed from the waist down in 1980. Since then, she has gone on to achieve greatness competing on the IPC World Cup circuit while earning a physical education degree from the University of Saskatchewan and working as an elementary school teacher.
“One of my passions is physical activity,” said Bourgonje. “I’ve seen what physical activity has done for my life and taking it to this level and now sharing this experience with others it’s definitely been an awesome experience to see how far people can push themselves and I think that’s been my gift to give back.”
To say that Bourgonje has had a successful career as an athlete is an understatement. As a wheelchair racer in the Summer Games she won bronze at the Paralympics in Barcelona and Atlanta. She was a sit-ski double medalist at the 1998, 2006 and at the 2010 Games she became the first Canadian to win a Paralympic medal on home soil.
“Competition has always been a part of my life even in every aspect of it and I know I drove my family members crazy with it growing up,” she said. “It brings out the best in you because it pushes you to the limits and I think that’s what it’s about. Pushing yourself to the limit and it’s unbelievable how far you can go when you do that.”
Mentor to new generation of athletes
Bourgonje has competed in both able-bodied and para-events throughout her athletic career. She was an able-bodied cross-country runner and returned to the sport as a wheelchair racer after her accident.
"The Paralympians are tough," she said. "I’ve seen Paralympians from all over the world that are all about ability and that’s my passion, too. When I go into Sochi I will give the best race I can even though it’ll be my tenth Paralympic Games.
"If I’m fortunate enough to be healthy and on the starting line you will see one hundred and ten per cent effort.”
But medals have proven elusive for Bourgonje at the Sochi Games. She finished 13th out of 17 skiers in the 12K sitting race on Sunday, and 16th in the women's 1K sprint on Wednesday. There's a chance that the 5K will be her final Paralympic race as an athlete.
Recently, she has become a mentor for 20-year-old Brittany Hudak of Prince Albert, Sask., a left-arm amputee whom Bourgonje spotted at local Canadian Tire store. Bourgonje introduced herself and talked about the Paralympic program, ultimately inspiring the young Hudak to take up cross-country skiing and begin to train for the World Cup circuit.
Hudak is now competing alongside Bourgonje at the 2014 Paralympics.