Christine Girard excited to carry the weight of being Chef de Mission at Santiago 2023
She intends to be much more than just a figurehead team leader at the quadrennial multi-sport event taking place in the capital of Chile from October 20 to November 5.
“I want to be the one that keeps us together and helps people get to what they really want. The Games exist for [the athletes] so I’m there for them,” said Girard.
Having competed at three Pan Am Games herself, which were highlighted by a gold medal at Guadalajara 2011, Girard is most excited about the opportunity she will have to share her vast knowledge and unique experience with Canadian athletes.
“I just want to be the quarterback. I want to be there when [the athletes] come back. I want to be there to support them. I want to be there if they need an ear… Basically, just understand what they’re going through because I’ve been there.”
It has been more than a decade since Girard last competed internationally; she came home from London 2012 with a bronze medal in hand. Six years later, she was finally and rightfully awarded the Olympic gold medal in the 63kg event from those Games (along with a bronze from Beijing 2008) after several of her competitors were retroactively disqualified for doping.
In the four years since that highly emotional medal ceremony in Ottawa, Girard has kept herself plenty busy.
In addition to raising three young children (now ranging in age from almost five years old to eight years old), she earned her Master of Health Sciences degree in Occupational Therapy from the University of Ottawa in 2021. A meeting with an advisor at Game Plan, Canada’s total athlete wellness program, helped send her in that direction. Until then, she had no idea what she wanted to pursue, only that she desired a more regular work schedule as her kids were growing old enough to attend school.
She now specializes in helping people on long-term disability return to the workplace, finding it to be a natural extension of the coaching she had already been doing and enjoying.
Girard is also doing important volunteer work. She sits on the International Weightlifting Federation’s Anti-Doping Commission and is an Education Ambassador with the International Testing Agency, which manages anti-doping programs for International Federations and others. Those positions have seen her travel to competitions around the world and participate in various seminars to speak to athletes about the importance of clean sport.
“When they know my story, I get credibility. People are like ‘oh, you do understand our sport and what we need to fight,” she explained. “The more I do it, the more I gain respect for what values I want to pass on.”
Girard also acknowledges that sweeping culture change is not easy to implement.
“It will take time and it will take patience and it will take guidance. I am very happy to be in the education part because athletes just need to know the impact [doping] will have on their body and their mental health and their overall health. I think that is where we can get the culture change that has already started.
“Also, how do you want to feel when you do get that medal? Value-based sport is really important and we are lucky that in Canada it is well established but that is not the case everywhere. So that is what we promote.”
As she now embarks on her next mission of being Chef de Mission, Girard is thankful for the relationships she had with her Chefs de Mission when she was a competing Olympian. It was the look in their eyes and the support they provided that she most wants to emulate for the athletes she will mentor in Santiago.
“Mark Tewksbury was one that was really so dear to my heart,” Girard said of the Olympic champion swimmer who served as Canada’s Chef de Mission at London 2012. She’s also been influenced by her “really meaningful” relationship with Olympic champion diver Sylvie Bernier, Chef de Mission at Beijing 2008 and Assistant Chef at London 2012.
“When you’re at the Olympics, you go through intense emotion in a world that most people don’t get. It is not a natural environment. And to be able to come back to the Village and look at someone who gets it… If you’re happy, upset, you have trouble, you have issues, to just be able to have that connection of understanding to begin with and then build a relationship on top, it was so helpful and important to me.”
Girard knows that each athlete will experience Santiago 2023 differently. For some, the Pan Am Games will represent the pinnacle of their careers. For others, it is one more competition on the road to the Olympic Games. For still others, it is where they will have Olympic qualification as their central focus. There are 21 sports disciplines that will have quota spots for Paris 2024 on the line in Santiago.
Between now and then, Girard is looking forward to meeting her team of athlete mentors who will help her make the Pan Am Games experience a positive one for all Team Canada participants.
“Now it’s a good time for me to just try to help. I was lucky to have a Chef de Mission that was really impactful for myself, so I am just hoping that I can give this back.”