Eliot Grondin lifts his hands to his head in happy reactionLeah Hennel/COC
Leah Hennel/COC

The importance of play in developing future Olympic athletes

Olympic athletes are known for being hard workers; for having natural abilities, dedication, and, of course, 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. 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 active 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 Kristen and her family could skate 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,” Kristen 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,” Kristen said. “Now I mostly stick to sliding.”

Team Canada’s Christine de Bruin and Kristen Bujnowski compete in the 2-woman bobsleigh event during the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games on Friday, February 18, 2022. Photo by Leah Hennel/COC

When she was just a young kid on the farm, Kristen 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”. 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, Kristen loves a lot about the sport. 

Team Canada’s Christine de Bruin and Kristen Bujnowski compete in the 2-woman bobsleigh event
Team Canada’s Christine de Bruin and Kristen Bujnowski compete in the 2-woman bobsleigh event during the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games on Friday, February 18, 2022. Photo by Leah Hennel/COC

“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.”

When asked if she had any advice for kids today, the ones who might be starting out where she was – playing outside with her family – Kristen 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 favorite 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!”

Jamie Lee Rattray #47 of Team Canada heads to the dressing room after the end of the first period at the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games on Friday, February 11, 2022. Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/COC

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 Kristen, there has been so much for Jamie 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.”

Sarah Fillier #10 of Team Canada plays the puck as Jamie Lee Rattray #47 skates against Sweden during the first period at the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games on Friday, February 11, 2022. Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/COC

Jamie’s love of sport developed organically, not through intense training, but, in the very early stages, through play.

When asked what advice she might impart to kids today, Jamie suggests, “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.”

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, Quebec. It was his mother who noticed and explained to him that snowboarding was a sport.

Team Canada snowboarder Eliot Grondin trains ahead of the men’s snowboard cross event the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games on Monday, February 07, 2022. Photo by Mark Blinch/COC

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

Like his fellow Olympians Kristen and Jamie, Eliot 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 Eliot, 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,” Eliot said.

Eliot Grondin and Meryeta O'Dine raise their arms on the podium
Team Canada snowboarders Eliot Grondin and Meryeta Odine celebrate after winning bronze in the mixed teams snowboard cross event during the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games on Saturday, February 12, 2022. Photo by Leah Hennel/COC

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

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

This article was produced by Active for Life, a Canadian not-for-profit social initiative created to help parents give their children the right start in life through the development of physical literacy. The Canadian Olympic Committee has been a supporter of Active for Life since 2012. You can find more articles featuring Team Canada athletes on the Active for Life website, including Patrick Chan, Mélodie DaoustCarol HuynhMark NicholsMirela Rahneva, and Neville Wright in which they share their tips for parents about the participation of children in sport.

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