Olympic Day: Freestyle skier Tracy Evans on a mission to break down barriers in Rwanda

Three-time Olympian Tracy Evans knows better than most just how powerful a tool for change sport can be, and she intends to put that knowledge and her network to good use for this year’s Olympic Day celebrations on 23 June.

In 2008, the freestyle skier founded the non-profit organisation Kids Play International (KPI) with the mission of using sport as a catalyst to promote gender equality in communities impacted by genocide. The American will celebrate this year’s Olympic Day in Rwanda by hosting five days of fun-filled events, in partnership with the Rwanda National Olympic and Sports Committee, with the aim of encouraging local children to engage with sport and enjoy the many benefits that sport can bring.

Evans has visited Rwanda many times but the veteran of three Olympic Winter Games (1994, 1998, 2002) was particularly keen to tie this latest visit in with Olympic Day.

“As an Olympian, I’ve celebrated Olympic Day back in the States in previous years and so obviously the Olympic values of excellence, friendship and fair-play have always meant a lot to me in my day-to-day life,” she says. “Those values are things that we’ve instilled in our programme here in Rwanda and so it felt like a really natural fit to combine everything and celebrate Olympic Day with these events.”

Sport can improve healthy living; we use it to help resolve conflict and it can help with sportsmanship, leadership, confidence and women’s empowerment Tracy Evans

The former athlete is not hosting these Olympic Day events alone, though. Accompanying her on her trip to Rwanda is a host of fellow inspiring Olympians as well as NFL players. Along with Evans, the group consists of Ibtihaj Muhammad (2016 bronze medallist, fencing), Nick Goepper (2014 bronze medallist, U.S. Freeskiing/Slopestyle), Faye Gulini (2010, 2014 Olympian, Snowboarding, Bordercross), Jerry Attaochu (NFL player for the LA Chargers and Walter Payton Nominee), Marcus Roberson (NFL player for the Houston Texans), Jerious Norwood (Former NFL Football player for the Atlanta Falcons), Cameron Myler (1988, 1992, 1994, 1998 Olympian, Luge) and Anne Poulin (NCAA and Professional Soccer Player and Coach). They will take part in activities in Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali, as well as KPI’s programme site in rural Gatagara.

Every athlete who has competed at the highest level is mindful of how many valuable lessons it can teach and Evans is particularly keen to make sure that the children she works with benefit from sport in the same way.

“Sport can improve healthy living; we use it to help resolve conflict and it can help with sportsmanship, leadership, confidence and women’s empowerment,” she says. “It’s a vehicle that breaks down barriers and it helps boys and girls to learn together. One of the things our programme does specifically is to introduce lesser-known sports, like lacrosse, rugby and baseball that the kids are not as familiar with so that automatically levels the playing field between boys and girls and that allows them to learn side-by-side without any preconceived ideas about who should be better at that particular sport.”

Evans’ programme focuses primarily on gender equality and she uses sport to break down cultural gender social norms between boys and girls, as well as helping to build better relationships between them starting from a young age.

It’s amazing for me to see what sport can do. Tracy Evans

“It’s just really about getting the boys and girls to interact and getting boys to see the capabilities of girls,” says the Olympian. “One of the major things in Rwanda is that it’s a very patriarchal society so it’s really important for boys and girls to interact and sport is such a great way to do that. Sport is also a great way for the kids to see how boys and girls can both contribute to a better, healthier, more equal society.”

With Evans having enjoyed the privilege of being an elite athlete for over a decade, she knows exactly what sport can do for an individual in terms of building resilience and determination. These are, she hopes, qualities that the children she works with will also develop as a result of their involvement in sport.

“It’s amazing for me to see what sport can do,” she says. “It’s really the obstacles and the difficulties you face that make you grow as an athlete and as a person. It’s not the wins - you learn so much more from your losses and from overcoming obstacles than you do from winning. And I think it’s like anything else - when you get knocked down, it’s about how you get back up and dust yourself off and figure out how you’re going to move forward.”

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