IWD 2021: Leading in Sport - Gail Hamamoto

On International Women’s Day it’s important to celebrate and recognize the work and accomplishments of women in sport, we’re profiling our Executive Director Gail Hamamoto who’s a Parasport leader at the provincial, national and international level passionate about increasing opportunities for women to lead in sport!

Beginnings in Parasport and Early Lessons in Advocacy

Gail first starting working at BC Wheelchair Sports in 1994 and initially planned to stay for two years before returning to school full-time and embarking on a completely different career path, but thanks to timely intervention of mentor Kathy Newman, Gail’s still at BCWSA and is now our fearless leader.

"Initially, I turned her down, but after much soul searching, I realized I believed so strongly in the mission and values of the organization and the people we serve that I couldn’t leave.  I have never regretted this decision!”

 

Gail’s early and continued motivation has always been to push Parasport forward and create more opportunities for people with disabilities to get physically active, engage in sport and develop as leaders, but along the way, she has also transformed into a strong leader and fierce advocate.

“Early in my sport career, I was often the youngest at the table, often the only woman, and often the only person advocating for people with a disability in sport – this could be very isolating.  I felt that the weight of responsibility was on my shoulders and if I didn’t speak up or advocate strongly enough, then I would be letting the people down that I was there to serve. “

While challenging these experiences have helped shape her advocacy and informed much of the approach that she takes today not only as BCWSA’s Executive Director but also in her roles as the Vice-President of the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) and a Board Member of the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation (IWRF).

Some of the key lessons that Gail’s taken from her early and continued advocacy are:
 “Leadership, particularly in advocacy, can be lonely, you have to make hard decisions, that are sometimes unpopular, sometimes you have to call out others, call out systems and organizations and you can’t be concerned with being liked if and when you stand up for something that’s important."

 
Embracing Mentors and Paying It Forward To The Next Generation

No one can succeed alone and Gail has always been a strong believer in the importance of building and having a strong team beside you. As an established leader in Parasport, Gail aspires to pay it forward and help develop more leaders.
 

“I want to help mentor the next generation of leaders – both female and male in a way that honors the incredible gift of mentorship that has been given to me.”

Some of Gail’s key mentors include many leading women in Canadian Parasport and are listed below with short anecdotes from Gail.

  • Kathy Newman – I was blessed to work for Kathy for 18 years!  Her vision, the way she takes care of people, her commitment and relentless optimism in finding a solution and changing systems for the better, all have influenced the way I serve as ED today. She created a working environment that let me put my family first, supported new opportunities, she supported my mental health, and showed me how to lead through her example. 
  • Cathy Cadieux, CEO of WRC – Her belief in me and unending support and friendship.  She is the reason why I served on the IWRF Executive Committee (before it was an independent organization) and ran again in 2018.  When I became a single parent, she used her air miles to bring my then two-year-old son with me to international meetings so that I could continue to serve.
  • Carla Qualtrough -  As President of CPC, Carla recruited me to the board of the CPC – I had to run and win an election, but she helped me believe that I could
  • Laurel Crosby – As our steadfast president of BCWSA, Laurel has provided sage advice and unending support over the years
  • Karen O’Neill, CEO CPC – Karen is an incredible role model, sounding board and supporter.  She challenges and elevates my thinking and I’m continually learning from her.
  • My Mom – Her example, her strength, her resilience; – Her example, her strength, her resilience as a Japanese Canadian, having been raised by a widowed mother in an internment camp during the Second World War; saying to me at the most challenging periods of my life that I only need to make it through one day at time, just one day, not any more than that.  And for someone who is a planner, who is prepared, who considers every eventuality that was huge.  She told me I could do it on my own.

Looking To The Future

There’s been incredible progress made by women in sport and women in leadership throughout Gail’s 25-year career and she’s encouraged by many recent developments throughout the Canadian sport system.

“If you look at Canada’s leading sport organization – OTP, COC, CPC, CAC, viaSport and many of the CSI’s, they have incredible female leaders in either the CEO or President’s roles, so clearly we’ve come a long way.” And she’s thrilled with the amount of young leaders coming up through the ranks, “ I’m so excited by the group of intelligent, educated, diverse and aware young women forming the next generation of sport leaders in Canada!  I’m excited to learn from them and listen to their ideas.”

However, she acknowledges that there’s still work to be done especially in regards to representation in the board room and in respect to intersectionality.

“If you look at statistics regarding the number of female board members in sport across the system, the number of female athletic directors at post-secondary institutions and the number of head coaches of national teams, it is clear we have a long way to go. Furthermore, if you look at the intersectionality of leadership, and whether female leaders of colour, female leaders with a disability, and other aspects of diversity are considered, it is clear we have work to do.”

Work that she believes is of vital importance and that can only be accomplished through direct action.

“It’s important understand that this isn’t going to happen by accident.  We need to be intentional about our actions in creating inclusive leadership.  We need to recognize when the faces in the zoom room or the board room do not reflect the diversity of the society that we serve, and then do something about it.   Simply saying everyone’s welcome is not enough.  You have to be willing to invest in the solutions. Celebrate diversity in leadership – tell the stories, highlight the role models, lift one another up.”

 

Gail has some strong words of advice for young women hoping to begin a career in sport.

“Believe in yourself and know that you have a place at the table – claim it!  Don’t wait to be invited.  Seek out mentors and supporters, both male and female, to support your development and expand your network.  Volunteer!  There is so much to contribute and to learn through volunteer leadership roles.  Do work in keeping with your values, so that you can speak and advocate with true conviction and feel proud of the impact you have.  Lift and hold each other up and share in success – we can do so much more together than we ever can apart.”

 

We’re incredibly fortunate to have a leader like Gail at BC Wheelchair Sports who’s working hard internally and externally to create a positive, and inclusive Paralympic Movement and Parasport community in BC. She’s a role model to many in the sport world and we hope that sharing her story motivates more young women to break down barriers, bring new perspectives and lead for the next 25 years.