I may not be a household name, so let me introduce myself. My name is Mandy Bujold. I am a Canadian Olympic athlete and a loving mother to my beautiful two-year-old daughter Kate. But because I am both of those things at once, my Olympic dream was nearly taken away from me.
Starting a family is no easy feat for a female athlete. Our bodies are our livelihood, and pregnancies take an enormous physical toll. It’s nerve-wracking. Will I be able to get back in shape? Will I be able to perform at the highest level? But in the end my desire to start a family overshadowed any doubt. And I had the determination and support to understand more clearly that I didn’t need to choose between my personal and professional goals. I could achieve both.
And so, my journey to start a family began.
I had just returned from the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. It was my first Olympic experience, and it didn’t exactly go as planned. I fell ill the night before my quarter-final fight and spent the night in the hospital. But I didn’t let that stop me. I still fought the next morning and while I was eliminated from medal contention, I returned home to Canada with a sense of pride and an excitement that someday soon I might be a mother.
In November 2018, that dream came true. My daughter came into the world. And my whole world completely changed.
Being an Olympic athlete is an obsession. Before my daughter, my life revolved around that obsession. Eat, sleep, train. Eat, sleep, train. Repeat. But now there was a new priority in my life. I learned to find a balance between the two. I fell in love with being a mom, but I was also driven to reclaim my place as an Olympic-calibre boxer.
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It wasn’t easy getting back in shape. But mom strength helps. My daughter quickly became the fuel that propelled me through training. To push that little bit more, even when I was at my breaking point. I became so determined to be a role model for her. When she is old enough to understand she could look back on my Olympic journey and know that with hard work and determination she can do anything she puts her mind to.
I was almost there. Almost.
The Tokyo Olympic qualifying process began in 2019 with the Canadian Olympic qualifier in Montreal. At that point I had just returned to the international competition after being away from it for almost two years, but I was ready and I came away with a gold medal and earned one of the spots available to represent my country at the next qualifying event to take place in Buenos Aires, Argentina. That event would represent the culmination of my journey back from maternity leave to solidify my place as an Olympic athlete once again. And while I wasn’t seeded heading into the event, I was confident that I would be able to finish as one of the four boxers in the flyweight division travelling to Tokyo to compete on the world stage.
But that qualifying event never happened. It was cancelled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, rescheduled to May 2021, and then cancelled again. Shortly after that, the International Olympic Committee’s Boxing Task Force announced that boxers from Pan American countries would qualify for Tokyo based on their rankings at three tournaments held in 2018 and 2019. All three of those tournaments took place during an 11-month period while I was pregnant or postpartum.
WATCH | In the ring with Mandy Bujold and her daughter:
I sent a letter to the IOC pleading my case and that of other women that might find themselves in the same situation. I felt confident they would be receptive once they were made aware of the discriminatory effect of their decisions. After all, it had only been a few months since the IOC publicly renewed their commitment to gender equality, inclusivity, solidarity and non-discrimination.
But the IOC did not respond. And the stage was set for my first Olympic fight to take place outside of the ring. The legal battle that followed was mentally draining, but I continued to train. I needed to be ready whether things went my way or not. My daughter made things easier. She is now becoming more involved in my passion, like short visits to the gym to watch me train. It might seem insignificant, but having her in my corner was all I needed to keep me going.
The decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport was released on June 30, 2021, and I am excited to say that my legal battle was won. The court ruled that the qualification criteria must include an accommodation for women who were pregnant or postpartum during the qualification period.
My Olympic dream is still intact.
What matters is gender equality
I had an incredible legal team fighting this battle with me, led by Sylvie Rodrigue of Torys LLP. We would have done the sport of boxing a disservice if we hadn’t left it all in the ring. It was one of the biggest fights of my career, but also the fight with the most meaning. I was standing up for what I believe is right and for the dream I had worked so hard for. And I am so proud that we’ve set a human rights precedent for female athletes now, and for the generations to come.
My Olympic berth is not what matters here. What matters is the recurring pattern of gender inequality in sport. Women should not be punished for being women. They should be respected for the unique challenges they face and continually overcome. And that’s why my story is so important to me.
It’s an outlet to continue the narrative that is being written by countless women like Billie Jean King, Serena Williams, Megan Rapinoe, Sue Bird, Hilary Knight and so many more. It’s an important narrative that deserves a new chapter. One that has transitioned from achieving gender equality to maintaining it. We shouldn’t have to achieve or fight for gender equality. As human beings, we have earned the right to it. And I only hope that my story can help educate those within sport and outside of it that might think otherwise. I owe it to myself. I owe it to other women. And most importantly I owe it to my daughter. There is no more room for excuses and ignorance anymore, we need leaders and organizations with the strength to stand for change.
I want to send a strong message to all the female athletes who have put their personal goals and dreams aside because they are afraid of the consequences: You don’t have to pick one or the other. You can be a mom and perform at the highest level. You can be a wife or partner and win championships or medals. You can be a friend and break world records or hit personal bests. You have the ability to view obstacles not as barriers, but as opportunities to overcome. Go over them. Go around them. Go right through them if you need to. But never for one moment feel as though you’re limited because you’re a woman.
The sky is the limit for you.