Like so many things in the modern world, it all started with an email.
It was from the office of the Order of Canada, telling Stephanie Dixon they had very exciting news but were having trouble getting in touch. Could she provide an additional phone number?
“I thought, ‘Holy moly.’ I’m pretty sure I know what this is, but I don’t want to jump to conclusions,” said Dixon, a 19-time Paralympic medal-winning swimmer.
That email reached her inbox a few weeks ago, and days after replying, Dixon received a phone call while sitting in Midnight Sun Coffee Roasters.
“Just to get a bit of privacy, I went and found a corner in Icycle (sport bike shop) and they told me I was going to be receiving the Order of Canada later this year,” said Dixon. “Tears filled my eyes. I don’t think I was quite prepared, even though I had received the email. I don’t think there is really anything that prepares you to find out you are receiving the Order of Canada. It feels larger than life.”
Dixon is one of 125 new appointments to the Order of Canada announced by the Governor General Dec. 29.
Already a member of multiple halls of fame, Dixon said this is the biggest award she’s received, but that she initially didn’t really understand what the nature of the Order of Canada was.
“Previously, I kind of looked at it as a lifetime achievement award and something that was very elite and exclusive, so I was kind of in disbelief at first.”
She felt she wasn’t “quite there yet” and that she had much more to give.
After reading up on the award, Dixon began to see things differently.
“I think that it’s a bit of a misconception that it’s a lifetime achievement type of award. It’s more recognizing Canadians of all walks of life, of all ages, and recognizing people as they are accomplishing things instead of towards the end of their life,” said Dixon. “I tried to change my perception of it a little bit, but it’s still by far the biggest award I’ve ever received and it’s an incredible honour.”
There are four ceremonies each year in Ottawa and recipients have the choice of when they make the trip. Dixon said summer is the plan right now.
“Ottawa is an incredibly beautiful city, but I think it’d be nicest in the summer. Hopefully some friends and family will be able to join me.
Born in Brampton, Ont., Dixon moved to attend the University of Victoria where she was a member of the swim team. For most of her competitive career she was based in Victoria.
It was Dixon’s best friend from university and teammate, former national team member MacKenzie Downing, who initially planted the seed that led to Dixon relocating to Whitehorse.
“I came up to visit her and her family and do a little bit of work with the swim club back in 2005,” said Dixon. “Her dad took me up in an airplane and I got to fly a two-seater plane around in the Yukon and just experience the beauty of living in the woods and the incredible wilderness. It really took my heart back in 2005 when I visited and I hoped and dreamed to someday move back here.”
After Dixon finished university, her mother moved to Whitehorse for work.
“When I was done school I decided to come up and visit her. Once again, it captured my heart so the visit turned into a permanent move.”
She travelled to London for the 2012 Paralympics, her first games after retiring, and didn’t know what to expect. Watching the 100-metre backstroke, an event she held the world record in, she thought it might be difficult.
“So I’m watching the race, and there was definitely part of me that wished I was in there racing with them,” said Dixon. “The person who won missed my record by tenths of a second.”
A few seconds faster, and Dixon may have launched a comeback.
“If she had beat it, I would have gotten back in the pool.”
The winner, Australian Ellie Cole, is a friend of Dixon’s.
“We happened to be sitting beside her parents in the stands, so immediately after the race she came up into the stands to see her parents and I got to congratulate her so it was actually a really neat experience.”
Ultimately, Dixon is happy to be on the other side of things.
“I competed for almost 15 years and I left everything I had in the pool, so I’m really happy to be sharing my passion for swimming and for sport in other ways.”
Dixon has stayed active in the parasport community, serving as assistant chef de mission for the 2015 Toronto Parapan American Games and as an ambassador for the Paralympic committee. She was also a mentor for young athletes through a now-defunct program called CIBC Team Next, but still keeps in contact with the athletes she met.
She travelled to Rio de Janeiro as part of the CBC broadcast team for the 2016 Paralympic Games, a role she’ll be reprising in 2018 for the Winter Games in South Korea.
“I haven’t been retired that long, so I still know many of the active athletes,” said Dixon. “It was really neat to be on the other side and to help bring home awareness and coverage of the games back to Canada.”
Dixon recently became an official ambassador for Canadian Tire’s Jumpstart initiative for inclusive and accessible sporting equipment.
It’s clear that Dixon’s passion hasn’t waned.
“It’s still an ongoing thing and I hope to be a lifer in the Paralympic movement because I feel very, very passionate about it,” said Dixon. “I just feel very strongly about the importance that sport, recreation and health has for everybody.”
“It’s also a huge honour to be recognized for something I just feel so passionate about.”
Contact John Hopkins-Hill at email@example.com