Canadian Olympic champions say sports help cope with mental strain of pandemic

On World Mental Health Day, Canadian Olympic champions Jennifer Heil, Catriona Le May Doan and Kyle Shewfelt advocate for an increased role in community sport to help cope with the mental strain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Scott Russell writes.

Sport is 'the unsung hero of mental health,' says 2006 gold medallist Jennifer Heil

Canadian Olympic champions Catriona Le May Doan (l-r), Kyle Shewfelt and Jennifer Heil spoke to CBC Sports about the role of sport in helping individuals cope with the mental anguish of the COVID-19 pandemic. (The Canadian Press)

Around the planet, people are obsessed with the pandemic.

Stress and anxiety are universal. The threat to the physical well-being of all humans is also having a negative effect on how we feel mentally.

We isolate and we stay in our bubbles. We're told this is not a time for fun and games. We are constantly fearful of being with others.

But three champions we spoke to are advocating an increased role for sport at the community level to help us get through this.

"Physical activity and sport are essential and contribute to healthier communities overall," said Olympic gold medallist and gymnast Kyle Shewfelt.

WATCH | Jennifer Heil discusses importance of sport on mental health:

Dealing with stress and anxiety as an Olympian, with Jennifer Heil

3 years ago
Duration 4:15
Featured VideoIt's World Mental Health Day and Olympic champion Jennifer Heil joined Scott Russell to discuss how sport can help with mental health.

He has only recently re-opened his gymnasium facility in Calgary which offers non-competitive programs aimed at growing the grassroots movement of the sport for people of all ages and ability.

"I've always felt there is value in leaving your house. Putting down your phone and participating in an activity where you can immerse yourself one hundred per cent into it. Sport provides that place."

For Catriona Le May Doan, a double Olympic gold medallist in speed skating, her current position as the President and CEO of Sport Calgary has required her to champion the role that sport can play in keeping citizens of her city well-balanced and involved in everyday life.

"I am very worried that we will see the mental health of youth and adults suffer due to a lack of access to sport," she said via email.

"Not only is it hard for some to be pulled away from their friends and support groups, but many fear right now that sport isn't safe to return to and therefore they lack the ability to have an outlet or release."

Jennifer Heil won an Olympic gold medal in moguls skiing at the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy. She's a special advisor to ViaSport BC, a non-profit organization committed to increasing participation in sports and recreational pursuits in that province.

"It's important that we prioritize sport among other activities for the mental health of young people," Heil said from her home in Vancouver while on a Zoom conversation. "Sport gets kids off their devices, which we know is a huge issue around mental health, and it connects them with their peers and their communities.

"It's a critical part of many Canadians' lives. It builds so many skills that have nothing to do with technical skills. It sets people up for leadership roles and it changes the composition of our brains by building brain function and capacity. The results of physical activity and sport are endless. I don't know that we fully embrace it the way we need to."

Catriona Le May Doan is honoured before a Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Carolina Hurricanes game in 2002 after winning Olympic gold in the women's speed skating 500m at the Games in Salt Lake City. (J.P. Moczulski/The Canadian Press)

But while sport has obvious benefits, there are hurdles to overcome. Fears persist that returning to the fields of play en masse may end up doing more harm than good.

"Organizations and facilities across the country have demonstrated that sport can be done in a safe manner – we are all working so hard to ensure we are meeting provincial guidelines because we know the future of sport is at stake," Shewfelt stressed.

"Sport is an escape that can help us all feel a sense of control in this very overwhelming time. Accountability, belonging and a sense of purpose are all very important factors that contribute to mental health."

"I've heard countless stories from families about how much their children were missing their sports, coaches, and teammates. I can tell you first hand that I have never seen a group of kids happier to be back in a gym than they were on that first day we reopened our doors. Every kid was beaming."

WATCH | Kyle Shewfelt reflects on 2004 floor exercise gold medal:

Kyle Shewfelt relives his gymnastics gold from Athens 2004

3 years ago
Duration 4:18
Featured VideoCBC Sports' Scott Russell talked to former Olympic gymnast Kyle Shewfelt about winning gold at the 2004 Athens Games.

For Le May Doan, the key, in an era of uncertainty, is for sport to provide territory where all people can find comfort, fulfilment, and community.

"We must continue to make sport safe," she urged.

"With important programs like the 'RESPECT' program we continue to make sure that youth are safe in a physical, mental, and emotional environment. We must continue to educate youth on what is proper and respectful behaviour by all involved including themselves, and continue to make sure that their voices are heard. Sport helps build confidence for them to deal with the stress and anxiety of this moment and it gives them a voice to seek help in dealing with this issue.

"We know the physical benefits of sport – but we don't talk enough about how it is so important for our mental well-being."

Heil is like the other champions who are working in their communities to return to sport for the collective well-being. She's a parent of young children and subscribes to the theory that a healthy body goes hand-in-hand with a healthy mind.

"I don't know any other way, to be honest," she concluded.

"I prioritize fitness for my mind, for relieving stress, for being a better parent. That's all I know … a healthy body and a healthy mind. That's what I live by.

"As an advocate for sport and as someone who believes in the power of sport well beyond the Olympic playing field, I absolutely believe it is the unsung hero of mental health."


Scott Russell has worked for the CBC for more than 30 years and covered 14 editions of the Olympics. He is a winner of the Gemini Award, Canadian Screen Award and CBC President's Award. Scott is the host of Olympic Games Prime Time and the co-Host with Andi Petrillo of Road to the Olympic Games. He is also the author of three books: The Rink, Ice-Time and Open House.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now