It is already difficult for an Olympic athlete to find sponsors and make ends meet. The task is Herculean for a Paralympic athlete.
To be part of the Canadian wheelchair basketball team, Cindy Ouellet must pay an annual fee of around $2,000 out of her own pocket.
And this is just one example.
“Tell yourself that we have to spend on our sport,” she says. A basketball wheelchair is $15,000. »
The 34-year-old has devoted most of the past 17 years to a low-paying sporting career.
In his photos, two things are striking. His broad smile, first. His large hands, then.
Hands that have grasped weights, balls, wheelchair wheels, ski poles. And life, above all.
She was diagnosed with bone cancer at age 12, which caused her to lose the use of her left leg.
“It is certain that my life has taken a little bit of a turning point,” she expresses in a monumental understatement that says a lot about her resilience.
A sportswoman from childhood, she started para sport around 15 years old. At 17, she was accepted into the national wheelchair basketball team.
With the Canadian team, she participated in the Paralympic Games in 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2020 (in 2021). She firmly intends to put another ball in the basket in Paris in 2024.
” This is my job main »
She gives this telephone interview on Friday, February 3 from her home in the Quebec City region. The next day, she must fly for a week and a half stay in Japan, where she must participate in a basketball tournament. ” This is my job main,” she said.
The expenses for the trip to Japan are covered by the Canadian team, “but when it’s not sanctioned tournaments, we pay”.
She also pays for her training in CrossFit, hockey, sledding, boxing.
She has maintained this diet for 17 years.
And when you start, we agree that you don’t have this support from the national team and you don’t have a salary either. To get to the highest level, you have to pay.
And that’s what she did?
“Actually, my parents,” she replies.
“I have really good parents who have always supported me through it all. They never saw me as different. This is what allowed me, I think, to continue in the sport. »
Student and sports debt
“I have always been in school precisely to prepare for my post-career, because we amass more debt than money while we are in our sport. »
School ? This is another euphemism steeped in humility.
“I stayed 11 years in the United States,” she says. I did a baccalaureate, two masters and the beginning of a doctorate there. »
Recruited by the wheelchair basketball team at the University of Alabama, she had moved to the United States at age 17, halfway through her college career, because no Canadian university offered this program.
The tuition fees for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees were covered by her scholarships. But “the food, the apartment and the equipment, it was me who paid,” she says.
She then enrolled at the University of Southern California for a second master’s and doctorate in biomedical engineering. Without a scholarship this time: “I have accumulated a debt of approximately $100,000. »
Income that does not always come back
His income? Out of season, she devotes a few hours each week to her parents’ business, Evo Concept, which designs and manufactures adapted sports equipment.
She also works with the anti-bullying organization Sport’aide de Québec. During the off season, she tries to give two to four conferences a month, organized by her agent Dominique Ladouceur.
The Performance Bégin sports store in Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures offers him his winter equipment.
She is also sponsored by Citi and Toyota, which gave her her vehicle.
“It’s not free money,” she says. I have to give talks, take part in interviews with them, do posts on the Internet. It’s still work. »
In short, she is not paid to train.
But she immediately nuanced.
Of course I am very lucky to have this. When you are a Paralympic athlete, that adds a layer to the difficulty of obtaining money and scholarships compared to an Olympic athlete.
While the Olympics are televised 24 hours a day for two weeks, the Paralympics are virtually absent from screens, she points out.
“It is certain that the visibility for companies that support a Paralympic athlete is really less. »
With the Canadian patent, the tax credits, the sponsors, she estimates to collect $50,000 per year.
“When you’ve made $40,000 plus $10,000 in sponsorships, that’s a big year. »
This does not prevent her from owning a small house in the Quebec region, which she built with her father, to reduce costs. “It’s a great project that we had in mind to do, me and my father. »
It nourishes other projects, still.
“I am starting another doctorate in neuroscience in September here in Quebec,” she announces.
At the same time, she plans to put her sports career on ice. In her own way: She wants to train for Paralympic hockey in hopes of making the Canadian team at the 2026 Games.
“We have a good chance of a medal. I want to focus on that for the next year. That’s why we’re looking a little more for sponsors right now. I would like to reduce my working hours to focus a little more on my training. And continue my doctorate. »