Waterloo Region groups pushing to get more girls involved in sport

As Canadians cheer on our athletes in Tokyo, there's a drive in Waterloo Region to score a culture change with youth in sports.

A new study from Canadian Women in Sport suggests once the pandemic is over, it may be harder to bring girls back to sports than boys.

The study finds one in four girls don’t plan to return to athletics post-pandemic.

Some groups in the area are aiming to change that.

"I know we have, in boxing especially, we have a push to get more females involved in the sport because there is a shortage," said Syd Vanderpool, elite coach and chief executive of Syd Fitness.

Vanderpool says a Boxing Ontario seminar helped him realize some small adjustments, including adding posters of female champions like local boxer Mandy Bujold, can create a more welcoming space.

"You can't just go, 'oh yeah, that's a problem, that's a problem.' Okay, where do I fit into that? Hence the pictures. I was like 'wow, you know what, I have men pictures everywhere and I don't have many female pictures, I need to change and be better,'" he said.

Boxer Kaitlyn Clark is trying to punch her ticket to the 2024 Games in Paris.

"Oh, it's so much fun. I love it. It's the best feeling in the world. You get so nervous beforehand but then that first punch is thrown and you're at ease," she said.

Clark found boxing after years of playing sports and seeing many peers get out of the game. She says the study findings are a sign a culture change is still needed.

"I think there's this stereotype as a female you get to a certain age, settle down, get married, have kids. I think that's something a lot of female athletes have to hear from people," she said.

The City of Kitchener is working with 44 sports organizations in the community to involve more girls, noting tourism can be a ticket to success.

Sports registration jumps after the city hosts a big sporting event, officials say.

"If one of the areas we need to target is women's, we'll be looking to some of our associations. How do we hold more provincial championships for girls softball, how do we hold more women's hockey championships?" said Kim Kugler, director of sport for the City of Kitchener.

She said the city also works with local school boards to identify barriers to play.

"Often we meet with not only the phys-ed staff but we'll meet with some of their other facility design staff, so what we can look at in the future that might make it more enticing or make more inventory available to make sure girls have a place to play," Kugler explained.

Abi Dixon with the Kitchener-Waterloo Diving Club has seen peers leave to focus on school or other interests but says the pandemic hiatus hasn't dampened her love for the sport.

"I think at the beginning I was very psyched, I was like, 'yes, a break,' but as time went on it just kind of dissolved into me feeling like I wasn't doing anything with my life and what am I supposed to do now?" she said.

Dixon hopes those who enjoy their sport spring back into action as soon as they can.