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Coquitlam Olympian says women athletes should stop 'settling for less'

Female athletes' lot in competitive life has improved since Coquitlam's Leah Pells was a top middle distance runner who competed at three summer Olympics from 1992 to 2000.
Leah Pells
Coquitlam runner and former Olympic athlete, Leah Pells, continues to stay fit by running through Mundy park.

Female athletes' lot in competitive life has improved since Coquitlam's Leah Pells was a top middle distance runner who competed at three summer Olympics from 1992 to 2000.

But women still have a long way to go to attain equal billing with male athletes, said Pells, who will be one of the featured presenters at this year’s Wine, Women and Sport, to be held Feb. 1 from 7 to 10 p.m., at Centennial secondary school.  The event benefits the school’s senior girls' soccer team.

Pells said the players on that team, as well as all young women in sport, are competing in an environment that offers them more and better opportunities than she had in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when she had to train with a group of men. But they’re still flying largely under a radar that is more focussed on the achievement of male athletes.

“I still don’t see the women being promoted the way they should be,” Pells said. “A good athlete is a good athlete.”

Pells said her own athletic success — which culminated with a fourth-place finish at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and a silver medal at the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg — came as much from her own inner drive to overcome her impoverished and abusive childhood as her love for running.

And more often than not, she had to achieve in spite of a support system that favoured men.

“There just wasn’t the same opportunities as there was for males,” she said. “There wasn’t the same funding, we didn’t make the same prize money, we just weren’t marketed to the same degree.”

That’s changing — slowly.

A 2017 study by the BBC showed the gender prize money gap was narrowing but last year only one woman — tennis star Serena Williams — was among the list of 100 top-earning athletes in the world as compiled by Forbes magazine.

Pells said becoming a top athlete is a full-time job. so things like endorsements and sponsorships are key to keeping a roof over their head and food on their plate while they train.

Women also need to be supportive of one another, Pells added, by creating a community that empowers each to strive for more.

“It comes down to us not settling for less,” she said. “Inequality is still woven into the fabric of society. We must question in a deliberate way the things we do.”

It’s not an unattainable wish, Pells said. More women are choosing sport as a career and they’re becoming more vocal about the environment in which they work. Those whose competitive days are done are becoming coaches and leaders, mentoring the next generation to carry the torch further.

Pells said she believes the day will come when the gender gap in sports has been bridged but, until then, it must be challenged at ever turn.

“As women, we must work together to get there,” she said. “We must question societal norms and not just go along with what has been.”


Other women being featured at Wine, Women and Sport are: Michelle Tremblay, the founder of MPower Lives Company; former Olympic synchronized swimmer and current TV sports journalist Karin Larsen; physical performance coach Carmen Bott; and dragon boat paddler and breast cancer survivor Deb Middleton.

Early bird tickets for $40 are available until midnight Jan. 25, at which time they jump to $50, plus processing fees. Each ticket includes tapas prepared by Centennial’s culinary arts teacher, Chef Jonas, as well as a glass of wine from Township 7 in Langley. Tickets are available at [email protected].