‘Horrible legacy of COVID’: Canadian girls forced onto sidelines may not return to sport

Gabby Paterson is driven to compete.

The 14-year-old St. Albert, Alta., teen recently returned from a track meet in Calgary with four new medals around her neck — three of them were gold.

Her events include sprints, high jump, long jump and hurdles.

“It takes a lot of flexibility and confidence,” said Paterson, “because if you start doubting yourself in a race, it’s like easier to fall or make a mistake.”

Gabby Paterson, 14, won three gold and one bronze medal at her recent track competition in Calgary, Alta.
Gabby Paterson, 14, won three gold and one bronze medal at her recent track competition in Calgary, Alta. Supplied

The track star is also dedicated to gymnastics, so when COVID-19 shut down gyms and sports clubs, Paterson didn’t know if she’d be able to keep up with her training.

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“It was really hard. I didn’t really believe it at first. I kind of thought it would only be like a couple of weeks,” said Paterson, “but as the year went on, everything just shut down.

“It was really hard to keep on going.”

The national competition was called off and Paterson’s dream of competing in the North American Indigenous Games was also sidelined.

“Those two got cancelled and so that was really hard for me to keep on training when I didn’t know if I would ever compete anytime soon.”

She didn’t quit.

With the help of her dad and older brother, Paterson started training at home, practicing her form in her front yard and doing basement workouts.

“Yeah, I definitely had my moments where I felt like, I don’t know, track would never go again. It was really upsetting.

“I’m glad I stayed training because now I’m competing.”

Tens of thousands of other girls across the country and their commitment to sport have also been impacted.

Read more: ‘It’s going to be a lot harder’: Moving from high school to university sports during a pandemic

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Canadian Women and Sport, which advocates for gender equity in sport, warned one in four girls who participated in sport before the pandemic may not return.

“Unfortunately the numbers are significant,” said Canadian Women & Sport CEO Allison Sandmeyer-Graves. “That’s up to 350,000 girls who might be left on the sidelines.

“The equivalent of every girl between the ages of six and 18 in Alberta.”

Canada Women & Sport, in conjunction with E-Alliance, consulted more than 5,000 Canadian families about the impact of COVID-19 on sport. The data collected for COVID ALERT Pandemic Impact on Girls in Sport showed a troubling trend, something Sandmeyer-Graves stressed needs immediate attention.

“To think that that many girls would be missing out on those benefits is really troubling. It would be a horrible legacy of COVID.”

For many girls and teens, their sports shut down and they told researchers they didn’t get anything out of Zoom workouts and meetings.

For girls aged six to 12, who participated in sport at least once a week prior to the pandemic, 93 per cent said they decreased participation in their sport or stopped playing all together.

For teens aged 13 to 18, the number was even higher at 94 per cent.

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That’s distressing, said Sandmeyer-Graves, because even before the pandemic, girls had faced barriers that pushed them out of sport.

“In a good year, girls are dropping out are more than three times the rate of boys.”

Read more: Teen girls are less active than boys, and it’s putting their health at risk. How do we fix it?

As girls age in sport, Sandmeyer-Graves said many struggle with body image, confidence and in some cases family finances which may make them more reluctant to go back.

She said urgent action is needed to give girls more opportunities, and school sports are critical.

“The good news is there’s still time, sport hasn’t fully resumed,” said Sandmeyer-Graves.

“It’s that moment where we can really intervene in their decision-making processes and encourage them to come back.”

That means talking to girls and young women to find out what would make them more comfortable and Sandmeyer-Graves said coaches, educators and parents must lead by example.

“Research shows that when you get out there and you’re active and you’re participating in sport, your daughters are much more likely to as well.”

Despite sport shutdowns over the past year and a half, Paterson said she’d call on her friends to join her at the track.

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She has noticed a drop in the number of girls competing — but for her, there’s motivation to keep up with her track training.

“I eventually want to go to the Olympics,” said Paterson. “I’m hoping.

“It would be hard not to have it in my life.”

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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