When softball was cut from the Summer Olympics back in 2005, Sara Groenewegen was a 10-year-old budding star with the White Rock Renegades.
In the 15 years since, she has grown into one of Canada’s biggest stars in the sport, excelling both at the University of Minnesota and on the international stage with the Canadian national women’s team, where she is one of the top pitchers, alongside another former Renegade ace, Danielle Lawrie-Locke.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The Tokyo-hosted Olympics were pushed forward to the summer of 2021, and Groenewegen and a legion of other would-be Olympians were left in a pickle, trying to survive for another year – financially, physically and mentally.
On the financial front, many athletes have been supported by the Canadian Athletes Now (CAN) Fund, which provides funding to individuals who apply – hundreds each year. It’s a program Groenewegen has availed herself of twice, and has helped keep her afloat despite the stress of the last 10 months.
Groenewegen said the Olympic postponement was a tough pill to swallow at first, but given a few months to reflect and continue training, she’s simply happy that it’s still on the calendar at all.
“The thought of waiting 12 years for this one moment in our careers, then (having it) thrown up in the air was devastating to think about. At this point, we can’t be anything but grateful that the Olympics are still planned,” she told Peace Arch News earlier this month.
It hasn’t come easy though, for Groenewegen, nor for her teammates, many of whom are Lower Mainland residents.
“I think the biggest thing that has been weighing on me recently is living out of a suitcase for another year and putting ‘life’ on hold, especially in the middle of a pandemic,” explained Groenewegen, who over the last 12 months has lived in South Surrey/White Rock, Kelowna and Halifax as she chased training opportunities.
“At this point, our team’s plans have changed so many times, we’ve passed… ‘Plan Z.’ But I am an adaptable person and I am trying to be as grateful as I can be that I am even in this position.”
Groenewegen has also been grateful to CAN Fund, which has supported Canadian athletes since the 2004 Games in Athens – upwards of 80 per cent of them, according to founder Jane Roos.
Since the pandemic hit, the fund has struggled to attract the same level of support as in a typical year – “Donations are down 50 per cent,” Roos said – and added strain has come from the postponement of the 2020 Games; now, the program is trying to fund 2020 athletes for an additional year while simultaneously supporting 2022 winter Olympians, too.
Athletes receive $6,000 each time they are approved. In addition to Groenewegen, other local athletes to have been recently helped include Surrey’s Christabel Nettey (long jump); Darthe Capellen (wrestling); and Suki and Balraj Panesar (field hockey), as well as a handful of softball players, including Maple Ridge’s Larissa Franklin and Victoria’s Emma Entzminger and Jenna Caira, among others.
Groenewegen, 25, said the money has helped her pay rent and other living expenses. It’s also helped pay for plane tickets as she’s travelled the country to train. With gyms closed at various points over the past year, Groenewegen also used some of the money to buy a spin bike and other fitness equipment so she could train at home.
It’s also the reason she is trying to drum up support for the program.
“I can confidently say that I would not be able to chase this Olympic dream without the help of CAN Fund, and I know that my teammates and the rest of the athletes can say the same,” said Groenewegen, who had to quit a full-time position at Lululemon a year ago in order to start centralized training with the national team.
As well, she notes, quitting a full-time job meant a loss of health insurance – a problem for Groenewegen, who has Type 1 diabetes.
“CAN Fund helps me pay my living expense, and also to simply survive.”
CAN Fund relies primarily on donations – either monthly or larger one-time donations – and has had to get creative in the ways it raises money over the past year, Roos noted. The organization has held athlete talks via Zoom – which Groenewegen has participated in – while also fostering a community of Olympians and athletes that has seen donations be made from now-retired Olympians to others, including many Canadian NHL players.
“They all feel really connected… it’s a real community,” Roos said, adding that building the organization’s base of monthly donors is her top priority.
Though CAN Fund has struggled through the pandemic as many non-profit organizations have, Roos – who was a high-level athlete herself before a serious car accident dashed her athletic hopes – said the recent push from athletes like Groenewegen has made her realize how important the organization is. She said December in particular was her “favourite month ever doing this.”
“In the last month, the athletes have really rallied,” Roos said.
“It’s such a critical time for all of them. It’s all or nothing, and I love that. They are just going for it – every athlete has a different story, and they’re making it work. I don’t think it’s really well-known that athletes go into such debt to do this, and its my goal to find people who want to be part of that journey and help them.”
Groenewegen agreed, noting that Olympians often toil in obscurity in between Games, but the work doesn’t stop.
“I don’t think anyone other than the people doing it will ever truly understand how much of a grind chasing the Olympic dream is,” she said. “It’s a full-time job. Every decision I have made from the time we knew softball was in the Olympics has been made based off this opportunity.
“Knowledge is power, and if it takes us athletes asking for help for people to get a better idea of our lifestyle, then I am more than willing to try to help people understand.”
And while the CAN Fund will continue to adapt to the changing COVID-19 landscape, the biggest challenge will simply be finding people who want to help and want to be a part of the Olympic experience.
“When nobody is out there, we are there asking people to care.”
For more information on the Canadian Athletes Now Fund, as well as the different ways to donate, visit canadianathletesnow.ca