Canadian para snowboarder Sandrine Hamel was unaware her sport existed until she was 19 years old.
Despite being born with severe double scoliosis and having sports as a central part of her life, she grew-up believing she was ineligible to compete in the Paralympics.
“I didn’t know I could qualify,” said Hamel, given her ability to walk independently. “When people think Paralympics, they think about wheelchairs.”
Hamel has just returned to her Saint-Sauver, Québec home after placing eighth in para snowboard cross, and 10th in banked slalom at Beijing.
In an interview for the CBC Sports series Breakthrough, the Montréal native credits a commercial promoting the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics for sparking her interest in competitive para snowboarding.
“In the commercial, there was a para swimmer that was walking towards the pool, and what caught my attention was that she had the same walk as me, which was a first for me,” said the now two-time Paralympian.
The advertisement prompted Hamel to visit the CBC’s website, where she discovered para snowboarding and learned of her eligibility to compete. Her discovery was a complete fluke, unassisted by any educational institution, recruitment effort, or targeted marketing.
“It’s crazy that me and my teammate Lisa [DeJong] found out about our sport so late in life, especially as people living with a disability,” said Hamel. “Even if you have potential as a kid born with a disability, it’s hard to set goals for something you don’t know exists.”
The experiences of Hamel and silver medallist DeJong, who in Beijing won Canada’s first medal ever in para snowboarding, begs a simple question: how many disabled Canadian youth are missing out on competitive para sports?
According to Hamel, recruitment has been a struggle for the Canadian Paralympic Committee, especially for newer winter sports such as para snowboarding. Passionate about its growth, Hamel jumps on every opportunity to promote it whenever she finds the bandwidth.
“If I get the chance to do media like this, I try to do as much as I can to bring awareness to the sport,” said Hamel, in a Friday afternoon video call with The Toronto Observer. “I found out about my sport with a commercial, but also because I saw one of the athletes who used to be on the national team.”
Undeterred by recent struggles, the para snowboarder is hopeful that interest in the Paralympics will continue to grow in Canada.
“I think it was already better for Beijing because I’ve heard friends and family saying they saw me on TV. PyeongChang was mostly online,” said Hamel. “I think every Games it’s getting better.”