The Sochi Experience

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As she guided Canadian paranordic skier Margarita Gorbounova towards the finish of the 15km classic race at the Sochi Paralympics, UBC alumna Andrea Bundon – who was giving instructions to Gorbounova through a speaker – suddenly couldn’t even hear her own voice. The fans had figured out that Gorbounova was a Russian native, and they were giving her a hero’s welcome. It was like competing in front of a home crowd.

“I thought that racing in the Vancouver Paralympics was loud, but the Russian crowd was amazing,” said Bundon. “They kind of adopted us. That first race, we were actually in last position, we’re coming into the final stretch and the crowd was going crazy!”

Throughout each of their four races, which also included the 1km sprint, the 5km free, and the 12.5km biathlon, Russian coaches were yelling encouragement from the sidelines. After one of their races, a photographer yelled out Margarita’s name, and it turned out he knew her father from St. Petersburg. “We did feel like we were getting an extra boost,” said Bundon.

The entire two weeks was a fantastic experience for both of them. When they arrived on March 3, temperatures of 150°C had turned the snow on the race course into the consistency of mashed potatoes. But in the coming days the weather got colder, and the organizers worked to ensure that the course improved. While the fields were small, with only five countries sending athletes (Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Canada and Germany), she and Gorbounova were very pleased with their races, especially the 5km freestyle. Gorbounova finished in eighth position and completed the course in 15:42.2, a personal best by several minutes. “Right from the gun we felt we were really zoned in,” said Bundon. “We had a lot of fun in that race and we were really happy to go out on a high note.”

Bundon’s PhD research at UBC looked at how different online platforms, such as blogging, Facebook, and Twitter, were being used in the Paralympic Movement.

They also competed in the biathlon, which is included under the umbrella of paranordic skiing. Athletes in this event wear headphones equipped with a sonar device that produces a high‑pitched beep, turning to a steady tone when their rifle is pointing at the target. In paranordic events, athletes with three levels of visual impairment compete together. Judges adjust the finishing times at the end. For example, those with between zero and five per cent vision have two per cent subtracted from their times, and those with no vision have 14 per cent subtracted. Gorbunova, with five to 10 per cent vision, is in the most sighted group and has no time subtracted.

Andrea Bundon’s research explores sport and disability. Photo: Scott Grant/ Canadian Paralympic Committee
Andrea Bundon’s research explores sport and disability.
Photo: Scott Grant/
Canadian Paralympic Committee

For Bundon, a sports sociologist now completing postdoctoral research at Loughborough University in the UK, the competition was also a great chance for her to consider questions related to her work. She wonders why the number of women in the Paralympic Movement is not growing at the same rate as the women in the Olympic Movement. “I don’t think anyone’s investigated that yet,” she said. “I’m curious to find out why.”

Bundon has been involved in sport for most of her life, and her work naturally merges with her recreation. She grew up in Regina, and competed in rowing through high school and her undergraduate degree at the University of Calgary. When she came to UBC in 2006 to complete her master’s degree in the School of Kinesiology, she was captain of the rowing team for three years.

Her family spent a lot of time in Canmore, so she skied frequently and competed at the provincial level. But in 2008, she was skiing at Cypress and met a coach with the Nordic Racers Ski Club. He asked her if she was interested in guiding a skier with visual impairment, and her enthusiastic response shaped her future academic career.

Bundon’s master’s in kinesiology looked at how complementary and alternative medicine (such as massage, acupuncture, cranial sacral therapy, herbal treatments) was being incorporated into sports medicine at the national team level. After meeting the coach, she began guiding Courtney Knight from Burnaby, working out twice a week at Cypress and travelling to the Callaghan Valley on the weekends. “I was in the final stages of my master’s project, and starting to think about my PhD research,” recalls Bundon. “They basically convinced me that disability sport was the way to go. I thought I could do some research that would be of value to that group.”

In 2009, she and Knight qualified for the Vancouver Paralympics. They raced on trails they knew very well at the Callaghan Valley, in front of a huge group of family and friends. After those Games Knight retired, and two years later Bundon connected with Gorbounova, who lives in Ottawa. They corresponded by email and met up at training camps and races.

Bundon’s PhD at UBC was about Paralympic sport and online communication. She looked at how different online platforms, such as blogging, Facebook, and Twitter, were being used in the Paralympic Movement. “This project was different because it was collaborative and community based,” she said. “I was actually blogging with athletes and we created a website and we would take turns blogging about topics related to disability sport. That could be media portrayals of athletes with disabilities, or someone encountering something in their club that was discriminatory and getting ideas on how to deal with it.”

Because of their relatively small numbers, athletes with disabilities often find themselves alone in their clubs. “We looked at how you can use online networks to create community and build support, as well as sharing information and resources. We tried to replicate that team atmosphere that able‑bodied athletes have locally.”

Working largely online themselves, she and Gorbounova went through an intense time before the Sochi Paralympics. Bundon was finishing her PhD in the fall of 2013. Gorbounova experienced the loss of her sister‑in‑law two months before the Games. “Our plans kept changing,” Bundon recalls. “We met up in Germany in January, right after I moved to England. We had great races in Germany and that sort of proved to us that we were ready.”

Now, for the first time in 20 years, Bundon can’t say when her next competition will be. She’s joined a rowing club and explored running trails at Loughborough University, which is known for its sports programs.

She is completing her post‑doctoral research at the Peter Harrison Centre for Disability Sport. Her project, which is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, looks at the experience of youth in disability sport in the wake of the London Paralympics. She is using digital media, including photographs, voiceovers, text, and illustration, to create digital stories about young peoples’ experience in sport and physical activity.

There were many programs put into place after the Paralympics to encourage youth with disability to participate in sport. But looking at the straight statistics of youth competing in sport, or the economic spin‑offs of the Games, are traditional takes on the idea of “legacy.” Bundon is interested in a more personal impression. “On the ground level, that child who was in a PE class with a bunch of able‑bodied classmates – has their experience changed as a result of hosting Paralympic Games? That’s where I’m going with this, to get some individualized accounts.”

The first part of the project is to collect and create stories, and the second part is to share them in many ways: online, in community centres, with sport groups, and in schools. She looks forward to seeing how they will be used. There’s a lot of great research, she says, about storytelling as a way of influencing policy. “You can give a policy maker statistics and numbers, and that goes part way, but often what will connect with someone is a story.”

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