Colette Bourgonje knew from a very young age that she wanted to be an athlete. At recess time in elementary school she would be the first one out the door to play soccer, or whatever other sports were offered. By the time she reached her teens she was a national-level cross-country runner. In her final year of high school in 1980, a car accident left her paralyzed from the waist down. What followed, she says with understatement, was a bit of a transitioning period. Suddenly she was not only entering university, but doing so using a wheelchair. She began studies for a Bachelor of Science in Physical Education at the University of Saskatchewan that fall. She was the first person to graduate from the Physical Education program in a wheelchair when she received her degree in 1984. She received her B.Ed. from the U of S the following year.
While attending university Bourgonje acquired a racing wheelchair, competing in her first 10 kilometer race in 1984 with more than 200 other runners. She placed around 80th in that race, but within three years she could say that if another competitor beat her, she hadn’t had a good race.
Beginning in 1992 Bourgonje competed in three summer and seven winter Paralympic Games, at first in wheelchair athletics and then in sit-skiing, winning ten Paralympic medals. From 2000 on she focused on sit-skiing because it was a great workout, fun, similar to cross-country running, and she wanted to be on the podium. The two silver medals she received at Nagano and the silver at Vancouver are particularly significant to her; the medals at Nagano because they were her first in Nordic events, and the one at Vancouver because it was the first Canadian Paralympic medal won on home turf. At the closing ceremony in Vancouver she received an achievement award - a pure gold medal - recognizing her determination to overcome adversity through sport. Among the many amazing opportunities that sport has opened up for her, Bourgonje says competing during Canada’s first Paralympic Games in our countries history, and winning the first medal was a significant moment in her racing career.
In 2011 Bourgonje was named Sask Sport Female Athlete of the Year. She was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2019, the Paralympic Hall of Fame in 2019, and into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame in 2021. She is an advocate for physical activity and participation in sport, promoting the Riki Walkathon for the Saskatchewan Abilities Council, and being an ambassador for the In Motion program. Bourgonje lives outside of Prince Albert, working as a substitute teacher at Muskoday School and coaching young athletes who are training for cross country skiing. She shares her experience and knowledge through speaking engagements with the International Indigenous Speakers Bureau and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, and is involved in the online “Never Give Up” series with the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame.
Receiving an honorary degree from the University of Regina is “certainly a surprise and honour,” Bourgonje says. “Accepting this great honour will give me the chance to congratulate the graduates and send a message of hope for the future.”