A young life, a full life

Attractive and successful, that's Amanda Brown. Talk to her for a moment and it's easy to figure out why there's so much happening in her young life.

Watson Lake

Attractive and successful, that’s Amanda Brown.

Talk to her for a moment and it’s easy to figure out why there’s so much happening in her young life.

This is a person of passion and commitment, someone who is ready for hard work. That goes a long way in explaining her many achievements.

Her vision of herself came early.

Born in Watson Lake 22 years ago, Brown grew up in a close and supportive family.

“I always had people who were looking out for me,” she says. “I had good role models, too: relatives and adult friends who were leading exemplary lives. People I looked up to. Even as a kid, I had a feeling I was different, that I was meant to follow my own path.”

“I was into sports as long as I can remember, all sports, with hockey being the one I most identified with,” says Brown. “I loved being the tough hockey player. My parents were behind everything I did; Mom sometimes worked two jobs to help pay for equipment, and travelling to tournaments.”

Then Ann Jirousek came to Watson Lake to teach and coach at the high school. She played a huge role in young Brown’s life right from the beginning.

“She said she saw something in me that told her I could be a good basketball player. Although I was into most of the sports available in Watson Lake at that time, basketball was something I hadn’t tried. When I tried it, I realized she was right; this was a sport I could really excel in. Basketball and Ann changed my direction, and having her for a coach changed my life.”

Brown realized she could make life-altering choices, and she started with moving to Whitehorse to live with Jirousek and her family in order to continue being coached by the woman who’d become her mentor and friend.

It was hard to leave everyone in Watson Lake “The community, my family, and the friends I grew up with had been supportive of everything I tried, and it wasn’t easy to move away. Some of my friends thought I was deserting them, and others said I was ‘big-headed’ and thought I was better than them,” Brown says. “But I was soon so busy with school and sports that I didn’t have a lot of time to feel homesick. I had known for a long time that I loved sports, and in Whitehorse I was doing exactly what I most wanted to do; sports were home to me.”

In high school Brown was so dedicated that she was called a ‘gym rat’; hours and hours of practice were no hardship for a girl who was living her dream.

She began to go out to tournaments, and from there to all-star camps; soon recognition of her outstanding skills was made evident with medals and accolades.

In 2002 she was a rookie at her first Arctic Winter Games, but her team won bronze. She was given awards for sportsmanship. The trip gave her a real taste for travel, and for meeting other people who shared her love of sports.

That was also the year she brought home a silver medal in wrestling from the North American Indigenous Games.

In 2004, the Arctic Winter Games found Brown declared third in her division for the whole of Canada

“When I was travelling and competing, the times off were the times I would go and watch other teams play. My coach and I would sit there and critique each player, figuring out who was most likely to be assigned to block me and how I could circumvent the play. I wasn’t interested in going shopping; for me those were times more valuable to me as a learning opportunity.”

She graduated from FH Collins in 2005, with the decision that she was committing her life to sports.

“I was totally clear by then that that was what I wanted to do for myself,” says Brown.

After graduation, she held down three jobs, biking and walking between them, eventually taking courses at Yukon College. At the time she was continuing to play and train.

In Colorado her basketball team was the only one from Canada to make it to the playoffs at the North American Aboriginal Games in 2006. This was another opportunity for Brown to spend her off time watching others at their game, studying and learning, honing her skills.

Brown went to her first Dene Games for Canada Winter Games in 2007, winning a bronze medal and a silver medal in events for which she’d had just one month to train.

“Those medals came because I am strong and I am stubborn; there is actually a lot of technique and skill involved in playing but I think my sheer will to win was what helped me there.”

The time came when Brown felt compelled to leave her home in the North and see what she could accomplish by herself, for herself, in a bigger world. She packed up her car and moved to Lethbridge, Alberta.

The college there was offering a diploma course in exercise science and Brown became one of the third group to go through this new and innovative training.

“It was my first time away from home entirely on my own, and I was scared,” Brown says. “I was also the only First Nations person in my class, and that felt weird at first. We all soon became support for one another and grew close as we struggled with the classes, and the homesickness. Sports, as always, provided me with an instant group of friends, too.”

In Lethbridge, Brown began volunteering at a seniors’ home – in honour of her beloved grandmother who had died a few years ago. She discovered a real love for the work and was eventually offered a job there. Her new life in Lethbridge was good; she was happy, and her plans for her future were becoming clearer.

Brown and her mother share a tight bond, and her mom not only visited her in Lethbridge a couple of times, but she and Brown spoke almost daily on the telephone. Her father was diagnosed with leukemia in 2009, but his illness did not stop him from coming with her mother to see Brown graduate.

“I still have half a course left to complete my diploma,” Brown says. “But the college let me graduate, knowing I was going home afterwards because my dad was sick.”

Her father’s illness was not the only reason Brown wanted to return to Watson Lake; she was moved by a strong desire to give something back to the community that had supported her early efforts in sports.

“Having grown up there, I know really well about the decisions the young people have to make for themselves, and I wanted to help, to show them there are opportunities for them through sports,” Brown says. “Since I got here and started working as a recreational programmer, my life has been like a ball rolling downhill; so much has happened and keeps happening. I tell people I haven’t had time to sleep.”

At her coach’s instigation, Brown applied for and won a coveted place on the team of 300 aboriginal youth ambassadors for Vancouver’s 2010 Olympics.

“I just couldn’t believe I’d been chosen,” Brown says. “And then when we got there it was even more unbelievable to think I was there. Nelly Furtado and Bryan Adams standing beside me, singing, and saying they were proud of us (the youth ambassadors) and wanting their photos taken with us. All the athletes wanted to meet us. I cried a lot at first; I was so overwhelmed with what was happening and with the fact I had a role in this huge event. It made me feel for the first time an incredible responsibility for what I do and who I am. It made me want to be the very best I can be, in every way.”

Brown reports she was a bit shy at first: freezing up in front of the cameras, and not knowing what to say to reporters. Part of her newly-realized responsibility, she felt, was to learn to open up and be more confident in these situations.

“I had so much I wanted to say!” she says. “I just had to get over my shyness and do it.”

Playing basketball brought her back to herself, as it always had, and she began to relax and enjoy what was a never-to-be-duplicated experience.

With the Olympics barely behind her, she hadn’t been home long before she got a telephone call inviting her on a two-week trip to Bolivia. It was organized by Public Service Alliance of Canada’s Social Justice Fund, and was a mission to visit some of the programs initiated by this organization; programs such as literacy, and occupational health and safety for the women who work in the mines in the Andean region of Bolivia.

She would also be attending the World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change.

“I found this whole journey to be a lot of emotional times for me. The people had such a rich culture, and they were so kind and generous, and yet their lives were full of problems. It gave me a tremendous appreciation and gratitude for where I came from and all the privileges I have enjoyed my whole life.

“And the women in the literacy programs – their passion for change was one I could share; I learned so much about myself, and the whole experience clarified my own vision for change at home.”

The climate change conference added another element to Brown’s growth as a human being.

“I came home with the certainty that for meaningful change for the world, everyone everywhere must work together. Nothing else will make it happen.”

“I moved back to Watson Lake with the idea that it would just take some enthusiasm and energy to get the changes happening; now I know it’s going to be a long, hard task,” she says. “The kids are coming out for sports, but they need parental support to maintain their interest, to make a commitment. There is so much raw talent here; it’s amazing, but it has to be nurtured by parents and helped by the community.”

Brown finds herself not only driving her aspiring athletes to and from the recplex, but often providing food for them. She was putting in so many hours that her supervisor told her she had to slow down or burn out.

“I kept telling her, ‘Don’t worry; I’m fine,’” Brown says. “There is such a lot to be done, and I feel like I have this huge energy for it, but she finally showed me how many hours I’d been working and now she has me on a schedule.”

So, why is it Amanda Brown, of all the local aboriginal kids, getting all these opportunities? Why not spread it around?

“I get asked that all the time,” Brown says. “And the answer is easy; I have worked hard for everything that’s come to me. The place in the youth ambassadors for the Olympics, for instance: there was an application form and I filled it out. Nothing comes without making choices and sticking to them.

“There’s lots of work and lots of commitment and lots of passion. I always say if I can do it, anyone can.”

Tor Forsberg is a freelance writer who lives in Watson Lake.