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Shifting the status quo: University of Toronto Women in Sport

U of T’s Women in Sport club works to advocate for and support our university’s woman athletes
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The women in sports club look to expand their outreach this year CHLOE MACVICAR/ THE VARSITY
The women in sports club look to expand their outreach this year CHLOE MACVICAR/ THE VARSITY

As a woman in sport, I’m unfortunately familiar with the challenges that come with being a woman athlete. There are certain issues you learn to endure — fewer advertisements for your games, stricter dress codes, or being seen as less capable than your male colleagues. At all levels of sport, there exist constraints on the success of women. The athletic world is one which fails to adequately prioritize and recognize its woman-identifying athletes, but here at U of T, the Women in Sport club is working to change these patterns.

In 2020, Lauren Dundee — a fourth-year student and member of the Varsity Blues women’s water polo team — founded the U of T’s Women in Sport club (UTWS) with the intent to provide a platform that recognizes and celebrates the achievement of our university’s woman athletes. The UTWS fosters a sense of belonging for the athletically minded members of the U of T community who compete in or work in sport, and I joined the UTWS as a club member because I understood the importance of the club’s impact. Now, I’m part of the executive team, acting as the Director of Social Media — and as part of the club’s leadership, I’m proud to say I work alongside a brilliant group of women who all share a passion for advocating for our university’s women in sport. 

The club’s major focus centers around providing its members with a space to meet like-minded people, share experiences, celebrate achievements, and access resources and opportunities to facilitate academic, athletic, and professional success. The UTWS draws athletes from multiple different sports, from curling to water polo, resulting in a supportive community that allows athletes to connect with individuals from other sports. 

Speaking as both a member and club exec, I can honestly say that, without the UTWS, I wouldn’t have been able to make as many connections with women on other teams. Everyone who attends club events has a similar love and understanding of sport, making it easy to form friendships. Knowing that I’m part of a group that was created specifically to celebrate U of T’s women in sport is empowering and encouraging, and it’s clear that all the club members and executives feel the same.

One of the reasons I appreciate the UTWS most is due to the club’s guest speaker events. In the past two years, the UTWS has brought in guest speakers to discuss some of the most common challenges faced by women in sport. I’ve found that there’s often a stigma surrounding certain issues, making it hard to talk openly. However, the guest speakers hosted by the club bring these issues to light in ways that make conversation easy. 

In November 2020, Katherine Tamminen — an associate professor of sport psychology at the faculty of kinesiology and physical education — spoke about stress and coping strategies for woman student-athletes, a talk which gave those in attendance the opportunity to discuss their past experiences dealing with stress. More recently, Katie Jessop, a registered dietician and U of T alumn, presented a talk titled “Fuelling your body: A focus on sport performance and disordered eating,” which provided club members with strategies to maintain a healthy and balanced relationship with food. Hearing from more experienced women helped me understand that the struggles I’ve faced as a woman in sport are not insignificant — and navigating these with others who face similar difficulties is a practical way to approach such problems.

Many of the guest speaker events focus on helping club members understand how to navigate the challenges of sport. However, other events allow U of T athletes to connect with professional athletes. In the 2020–2021 school year, I was able to attend two events hosted by the UTWS, during which we met online with two Tokyo Olympians: Jillian Weir, a Canadian Olympic hammer thrower, and Kylie Masse, a four-time Olympic medalist and U of T alumna. During these talks we had the opportunity to ask questions and learn more about the obstacles these women had to overcome throughout their career in sport, and being able to directly speak with such accomplished women was truly incredible. I remember walking away from those conversations with a much greater appreciation for the dedication and passion it takes to have such a successful career in sport, yet, at the same time, surprised at how similar many of their stories were to mine.

Throughout the summer, the UTWS executive board has been working behind the scenes to prepare for the upcoming year. Posting on social media platforms, reaching out to potential guest speakers, and creating a network of team representatives takes time and effort, but the more I talk to those on the exec team, the more it’s clear that all UTWS executives just want the club and its members to succeed as much as possible. For the 2022–2023 year, the club is planning more guest speaker events, a networking and careers night, and to work with a Toronto community group to make an impact on the wider community. As long as there are women in sport at U of T, the UTWS team will be working to support them.

There’s no one ‘right’ way to approach the challenge of being a woman in sport, and no two sports face the same challenges. But while there are differences between sports, this doesn’t prevent community. To me, the most meaningful aspect of the UTWS is knowing that there is a group of individuals who understand your struggles and will celebrate your successes. All women in sport are capable and talented, and deserve to compete in an environment designed for them to excel. 

The University of Toronto Women in Sport club will continue to advocate for U of T’s woman athletes, and provide a community conducive to success. To Lauren — the UTWS’ president — to the rest of the executive team, and to all of the club members: remember that your work makes a difference, and all U of T’s women in sport benefit from such a diligent and dedicated community. So thank you!