Elladj Balde finds roots, happiness on trip to Africa

Elladj Balde finds roots, happiness on trip to Africa


'The last thing my grandfather told me was, "Now I can die in peace."'

By Elladj Balde for CBC Sports
October 28, 2015
Elladj Balde, right, met his grandfather, Elhadj Mamadou Oury, for the first and only time during a trip to Africa last February. (Photo courtesy Elladj Balde) Elladj Balde, right, met his grandfather, Elhadj Mamadou Oury, for the first and only time during a trip to Africa last February. (Photo courtesy Elladj Balde)

I’m someone who appreciates life now.

I’ve become someone who is grateful for everything, not just skating.

I finished sixth at the 2015 national championships, which was disappointing, but it allowed me to travel to Africa and visit with my 99-year-old grandfather for the first time in my life.

Before nationals, my grandfather fell into a coma; not because he was sick; it was literally just that he was 99 years old and his heart was tired of beating.

He fell into a coma in December, a few weeks before nationals, and my father Ibrahim told me I had to go to Africa. I had to, at least, even if I didn’t see him or even if I didn’t speak to him, maybe be there for the funeral.

My dad decided he was going to go in February, but I told him I had nationals coming up that January. I have goals: I wanted to go to Four Continents and the world championships. The worlds weren’t until end of March so I could go visit at the end of April or May.

I asked my dad but he told me I couldn’t wait that long.

Finally, at the beginning of January, my grandfather came out of his coma after two weeks. My dad insisted I go with him in February. It may be the only time I’d talk to my grandfather before he passes away.

I reasoned that he came out of the coma fresh and he was talking. Yes, his body was tired and he needed help to walk but he came out fine, like nothing happened.  

I told my dad that maybe he’ll live until May. Again, he said I couldn’t take the chance.

So that was that.

A season of promise

Before I left for Africa, there was the matter of competing at nationals. The season started off really great. The summer was good, I performed well in the first two competitions, but then I suffered a concussion and had to pull out of the Skate Canada International event.

I recovered in time to compete at the NHK event — my second Grand Prix competition — and I skated really well.

It was probably my best competition my career. I skated two almost perfect programs. It was an amazing experience.

I love going to Japan, the people there are so amazing.

Nationals were a little bit of a disaster. I was so ready and I had expectations for myself. I wanted to go there, be in the top two or maybe even win. That was my goal, and clearly, it didn’t happen.

I was kind of lost to be honest. I didn’t know who I was anymore.
Did I even like skating anymore? I went through a real intense and deep thought process because I didn’t know if I still wanted to do this.

After what happened at nationals, I wasn’t going to Four Continents or worlds.

 
Balde, right, with his father Ibrahim in the tiny village of Tombon, located in the mountains of Guinea. (Photo courtesy Elladj Balde) Balde, right, with his father Ibrahim in the tiny village of Tombon, located in the mountains of Guinea. (Photo courtesy Elladj Balde)

The journey

I called my dad and I booked my flight. There was some resistance. A lot of people were telling me not to go to Africa because of the Ebola outbreak.

Guinea, where I was travelling to, was one of the countries most hit by Ebola, along with Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Doctors were telling me not to go. My coaches at the time, Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen, were obviously worried for me and they said I should think about it more.

But I did some research and I saw that getting Ebola is really not that easy to catch. It’s a hard process. Finally, I decided I was going. It might be my only chance of meeting my grandfather. I want to emphasize how important it was to meet my him.

My father is my grandfather’s first son, and I am my father’s first son. So, in our culture, meeting my grandfather was really, really important for the whole family, for the continuation of the family and the ensuing generations.

I decided if I catch Ebola, I’ll catch Ebola. I’d regret it my whole life if I didn’t go.

 
Balde, collecting water from the well, said his experience in Tombon was like “living hundreds and hundreds of years ago.” (Photo courtesy Elladj Balde) Balde, collecting water from the well, said his experience in Tombon was like “living hundreds and hundreds of years ago.” (Photo courtesy Elladj Balde)

Everything happens for a reason

I got to go to Africa and meet my grandfather because of what happened at nationals. It reinforced my belief that everything happens for a reason. Before I left the last thing my grandfather told me was, “Now I can die in peace.”

Now that he met me and saw who I was, not as a skater because my family knows I skate for Canada, but he was just happy about meeting the person, the human being. That’s what he told me.

At the beginning of May he passed away.

The experience changed me. I knew that going there was going to change my perspective on life and opportunities.

I saw a level of poverty that I didn’t even know existed.

The experience was magical and it rooted me. It changed me as a person.

That’s why I’m someone now who appreciates life so much more, because I got to experience that and I’m much happier.

People there don’t have all these things we have in Canada, but they’re all happy. I didn’t see one person there without a smile on their face. That’s who I’m becoming now and I’m kind of transitioning that into my skating.

I was so stressed about it before, and I just wanted it so much. But it never happened because it was too much, too heavy. I had to realize that I want to skate for other reasons.

I took a solid three months to clear my mind and try to figure it out. I realized that the reasons I was doing this weren’t the right reasons. I told myself I would not step back on to the ice until I was going to do this for me. I was going to do this because I love it.

Eventually I did figure that out. Last season, the way it ended, definitely transformed me into who I am now. I’m grateful for the experience. Sometimes you can’t choose what happens to you and sometimes you can.

At the end of the day, you just have to make the best out of that situation and try to grow from it. I got to do that and I’m good now.

 
Balde has a new-found love for performing on the ice and connecting with the audience. (Photo courtesy Elladj Balde) Balde has a new-found love for performing on the ice and connecting with the audience. (Photo courtesy Elladj Balde)

Connecting with the audience

I love performing and when I’m on the ice. I can connect with people in ways that not everybody can.

I can send some energy to someone and they can send it back me. We can build a connection like that, and I love that aspect of performing. It’s why I’m skating now.

I had to find that inside of me during the whole process after nationals, to be able to keep going.

I’m really glad I did because now I skate just for the joy of skating.

It’s made a difference in my day-to-day training, too. Obviously we’re all athletes and we’re all competitive and we all strive for greatness, but I’m on the ice every day and enjoy the training.

I would get so emotionally stressed when bad days happened before. Then I’d start analyzing everything and wanting to restart everything.
Now I take bad days as they come.

I’ve become much more open to situations, not just in skating but in life. I accept whatever comes to me, the good or bad. If it’s a good thing, I say thank you. If it’s a bad thing then I try and learn from it.

My training is better and when I get to competitions I can go out there and just enjoy the performance.

I’ve figured out a way to turn a bad day around

So I have the confidence that I have the ability to perform what I want to perform. I mean, there’s always stress. We’re athletes and we all want to skate well, but when I step on the ice now it’s totally different.

I would say it’s more calm.

(Large photos courtesy Elladj Balde)

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