Standing tall among sporting giants

(Edmonton) There’s nothing more rewarding for University of Alberta professor Vicki Harber than spreading the word about the importance of girls’ and women’s participation in sport and physical activity for their well-being, helping coaches understand what young female athletes need for healthy development, and promoting physical literacy so every child learns the fundamental skills they need to play and enjoy sport for life.

On Jan. 17, Harber’s lifetime contribution to the field as an academic and an athlete was honoured—for the second consecutive year—by the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS), which named her in its annual list of the top 20 most influential women in sport.

“I was surprised initially,” said Harber of the recognition, “but also very grateful because CAAWS is such a strong organization and agency. Their support and backing enables me to do the things I’m passionate about—getting the message out about sport and physical activity for girls and women, and sharing it with organizations that find what I have to say beneficial.”

Harber, an exercise physiologist and former Olympian in rowing, is one of the leading academic voices with Canadian Sport for Life (CS4L), a body seeking to improve the quality of sport and physical activity. Her paper for the organization, “The Female Athlete Perspective,” has been dramatically changing the way parents, coaches and physical education teachers think about girls’ healthy development as athletes. This opportunity at the peak of her academic career to share her knowledge broadly through CS4L is exciting to Harber and, in many ways, the perfect junction of an academic career devoted to the study of female athletes and a lifelong love of sport.

“I feel as though I’ve lived this journey all my life. Being physically active was as natural as breathing. I have been competitive, sport-minded and driven by sport my whole life,” she said. “That accounts for the choices in my academic direction. I’ve also walked the road of an elite athlete and participated in the Olympics. Paralleling that with my graduate studies, investigating the female athlete’s physiology, when I became a member of the CS4L group it was as if I finally knew what I wanted to do when I grew up!

“I have always been passionate about sharing my academic experiences: the evidence, the literature, and being able to parlay that into tangible, meaningful messages for people that can benefit from them.”

Harber notes that although there is more respect and understanding of female athletes’ participation in sport, change can be slow and complex. “People still marvel that the first women’s Olympic marathon was in 1984! But I feel confident that we’re moving in the right direction. I think many of the obstacles that are in the way of girls and women participating in sport and physical activity are really obstacles for all. If we can work hard at removing those, it might make it easier or improve the atmosphere in which girls and women compete.”

Related links

Read Vicki Harber’s publications on female athletes’ development