Team Canada snowboarder Eliot Grondin glides through the air at the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games.

The importance of play in developing Olympic athletes

Olympic athletes are known for being hard workers. For having natural abilities, dedication, and passion. It might seem like only a unique type of person could become an elite athlete—a game-changer, a record-breaker.

While this is true in many ways, there’s also something incredibly simple about their beginnings.

They were once kids who were dreamers, who loved playing with their friends outside, who found magic in a quiet winter morning with family. For most of them, it began with a yearning for fun and a love of the outdoors at an early age. They were just kids, looking for something that many of us search for in life.

That is, the joy that comes from being with friends.

The simplicity of playing.

We asked three winter Olympians about where they came from, what some of their fondest winter memories from their childhood are, and when their love of sport developed. Here’s what they told us.

Kristen Bujnowski (bobsleigh)

Kristen Bujnowski grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario and her parents used to build a really big ice rink out back each winter. They had spotlights so the family could skate outdoors at night and the snow would build up around it, piling up into makeshift boards and seating.

“Friends and family would come over all the time to skate, it’s a really great memory of mine,” Bujnowski said. She recalled how her dad had a snowmobile and he used to tie a toboggan to the back so he could pull the kids around. “I used to think it was a pretty wild ride,” Bujnowski said. “Now I mostly stick to sliding.”

Team Canada’s Christine de Bruin and Kristen Bujnowski compete in the two-woman bobsleigh event during the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games. Photo by Leah Hennel/COC.

From a kid on the farm to getting started in bobsleigh at age 25

When she was just a young kid on the farm, Bujnowski never pictured herself as a winter sport athlete. Her winter sports were usually indoors, like running track or gymnastics, but because of the family farm, winter was when her parents had the most time to spend with her. 

“Going out onto the ice rink or snowmobiling are really great memories of mine,” she says. In fact, they’re where her love of winter developed. It was that love, combined with her track-and-field training, that eventually made her a great bobsleigh athlete.

From a kid playing outdoors to finishing fifth at the Olympics, Bujnowski loves a lot about the sport. “I love feeling fast and powerful and working as a team. I care a lot about my teammates and really want them to succeed. Bobsleigh can be addictive because of the team atmosphere—we live together for months and work together for hours every day, all working towards a common goal.”

“Don’t let their doubts, fears, and beliefs set your limits.”

-Kristen Bujnowski

When asked if she had any advice for kids today, the ones who might be starting out where she did—playing outside with her family, Bujnowski said this: 

“I was a dreamer from a young age but I really believed people when they said I probably wouldn’t make it. Sometimes people want to be honest with you to help you, they care about you. And you can listen to them, but don’t let their doubts, fears and beliefs set your limits.”

Jamie Lee Rattray (hockey)

For hockey player Jamie Lee Rattray, Canada’s game was always her first love. “Hockey was my favourite winter sport because my dad introduced it to me at a young age.”

When she was a kid growing up near Ottawa, some of her favourite winter memories were when she and her friends would play together on the outdoor rink: “We used to play for hours, no matter how cold it was!”

In fact, playing outdoors in the winter had a huge impact on her decision to pursue a career in hockey. As a kid on that outdoor rink, she was able to play simply for the fun of it, for the pure joy. “Back then, there were no rules, and so it sparked my creativity within the sport.”

Much like Bujnowski, there has been so much for Rattray to love about her sport, even before she became an Olympic gold medallist. “Hockey has given me endless memories and some amazing friends over the years. The best thing about playing a team sport is that you instantly have 20 best friends, 20 best friends that have one common goal.”

When asked what advice she might impart to young athletes today, Rattray suggested: “Play every sport you can! Play all the games you can, I truly believe that it allows your creative and athletic side to shine. Especially as a kid.”

Jamie Lee Rattray (#47) plays for Team Canada against Sweden during the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games. Photo: Andrew Lahodynskyj/COC.

Eliot Grondin (snowboard)

Before snowboarder Eliot Grondin knew even a single thing about the winter sport, he was a toddler, just two or three years old, and sliding down hills in his backyard in Sainte-Marie, Que. It was his mother who noticed and explained to him that snowboarding was a sport.

“Next winter she put me in lessons, and it all started from there,” Grondin said.

Like his fellow Olympians Bujnowski and Rattray, Grondin did a lot of playing outside with his friends as a kid. His time was spent between hockey rinks and snowboarding on the weekends. Mostly, he recalls, he was almost always outside.

For Grondin, going to play hockey after school every day is his favourite winter memory. “I would play for hours and hours every night, with all my friends, just playing hockey—such a classic activity—after school.”

Now, for most of the winter, he’s on the road for racing and training and doesn’t have as much time to be at home. “But when I come back, I go snowboarding and get right back to playing hockey with friends again,” he said.

As a snowboarder, Grondin has travelled around the world, experiencing the world outdoors in winter. It’s been incredible, but, he said, “The best has been spending time outdoors with my friends, enjoying those simple moments.”

Time goes fast, Grondin said, and when you look back on those days and remember them really fondly, that is an unmatched experience. “Maximize your time with friends. Just being outside and discovering new sports. Enjoy it all.” 

Enjoy it all.

Header image: Team Canada snowboarder Eliot Grondin prepares for the men’s snowboard cross event at the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games. Photo by Mark Blinch/COC.

Read more about Olympic journeys:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *