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Canada's Charest hopes to use platform to encourage girls to play sports


TORONTO — If not for a no-girls rule, Isabelle Charest might have ended up shooting pucks instead of skating in circles.

Canada's chef de mission for the Pyeongchang Olympics followed her older sister Nathalie into speedskating. Nathalie had her mind set on hockey, but growing up in the eastern Quebec city of Rimouski, a half a day's drive from Montreal, "this little city did not allow a girl to play hockey," Isabelle said.

Lucky for speedskating. Isabelle Charest went on to win three Olympic medals and seven world championship medals as one of Canada's greatest short-track skaters, and she wants to parlay her success in sport to get more girls involved.

"It's actually the legacy I would like to leave from being chef de mission," Charest said. "If I have a voice, I want to use it for that."

Among Canada's sobering statistics: Only two per cent of girls between 12 and 17 are getting enough physical activity. And if a girl hasn't participated in sports by age 10 in Canada, there is only a 10 per cent chance they'll be physically active as adults.

Outside of her work as the Canadian team's spokeswoman, mentor and head cheerleader for Pyeongchang, the 46-year-old Charest works in communications for the Val-des-Cerfs school commission southeast of Montreal. She's seen the drop-out firsthand.

But she also knows the opportunities are there.

"It's funny because when I went to Rio (as an assistant chef for the 2016 Olympics), it was obvious to me the diversity of sports, and how everybody can find their passion," said Charest. "It could be a sport that's more artistic, it could be a sport that's more powerful. You see that whole range of bodies. So, there is something for everyone."

Perception might be skewed, Charest said, by the overwhelming success in Brazil where women won 16 of Canada's 22 medals.

"It feels like it's kind of a vicious circle, because people think 'Well, girls are good, they're successful,'" she said. "But no. We need girls to be involved in sports because it's for their life, it's for their well-being." 

Just 99 days out from the Pyeongchang Olympics, Charest spent her morning at a Toronto public school as part of the Canadian Olympic School Program, which offers online education resources aimed at promoting safer and more inclusive sport environments, inspiring Olympic values, and engaging kids in healthy, active lifestyles.

Charest was originally a soccer player, and took up the game again three years ago. She's married to Steve Charbonneau, a former Montreal Alouettes and Edmonton Eskimos defensive lineman, and they have two kids.

She competed at the 1994, '98, and 2002 Winter Games, winning a silver and two bronze, all in the 3,000-metre relay. She captured three gold, two silver and two bronze medals over four world championships.

Canada's team, which is expected to number around 230, hasn't announced a specific medal target to South Korea. A 222-member team captured 25 medals, including 10 gold, at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Charest said she's put any medal prediction at the back of her mind.

"Because we want to focus on the process, and we make sure we have the environment for the athletes to perform," she said. "And even for the athletes at this point, you don't think about the medals, you just think about what you need to do to be ready. But we know if we put (in place) this optimal performing environment for the athletes, we can have quite good results, because we've seen it in championships and in World Cups.

"So we could be among the best countries, if not the best country, at the Games."

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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