Helen Brownlee’s paddling career began over fifty years ago initially in river touring, and then competitively in Sprint. Her love affair with water sports soon blossomed into Slalom and Wildwater competitions where she won many State and National level events for Australia, including a third place in Llangollen, Wales which was Australia’s first International Slalom medal. In 1972, Helen was one of only two women appointed as an International Judge for the Canoe Slalom event at the Munich Olympics.
Upon her return to Australia, she worked tirelessly to develop Slalom and Wildwater events and to increase the participation on the World scene. This involved athlete and volunteer recruitment as well as Officials Development across Australia.
In 1978, Helen was the first woman appointed to the ICF Technical Committee for Slalom and Wildwater Racing. During this time, she assumed leadership roles as Chief Judge, Course Designer, Technical Official and Jury Member.
In 1985, Helen Brownlee was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia and also became President of the Australian Canoe Federation in 1985, a position she would hold until 1999.
Helen’s vision for excellence in sport development paralleled her professional ascent in her chosen profession of Education. She excelled as teacher, Deputy Principal, Consultant and eventually became Inspector of Schools. She was State Manager of School Sport (Primary and Secondary) from 1991-2000.
One of her proudest accomplishments came when she was given the opportunity to develop programs and initiatives for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Soon after, she accepted the 2000 International Fair Play Trophy on behalf of the teachers and students of New South Wales for their “ unreserved support of the 2000 Olympic and Paralympic Games in the spirit of solidarity, tolerance and fairplay.”
Her passion and commitment to Canoeing continued to flourish. She has been appointed to the Olympic Games as an Official/ Jury Member six times from 1972-2010.
Currently, Helen serves as President of the New South Wales Olympic Council and is responsible nationally for Olympic Education and Promotion of Women. She is also the Chair of the Women and Sport Commission for ONOC (the Association of Oceania’s National Olympic Committees) and a Member of the International Olympic Committee’s Commission for Culture and Education.
Recently, Rob van Bommel of Sportscene caught up with this very busy lady for an insightful interview about her work in Canoeing Development, Women In Sport and the future of Canoeing as she sees it. Below the interview (video) and some quotes that come from that interview. [video 0-6 min: Oceania Canoe Association, 6-15 minutes: global development paddle sports]
Helen’s main objective for Oceania is “to have as many Oceania countries participating and to involve the Island people in canoeing.” She elaborated on how Sprint was introduced to the Islands. “We offered Sprint as an alternative to Outrigger (their traditional sport) with no cost for the first five years.” Always sensitive to the culture of the Island people, Helen sees the future of the Islands as having lots of opportunity to enjoy the sport.
“Initially, it was 1-1, targeting individuals who needed their talents developed. Coaches went to them. We provided the resources. We wanted success to grow at the local level and decided to focus on Olympic disciplines.” adds Helen. She continues to point out that organization is better now. “Cook Island, in particular, is definitely on a roll.”
“The future for Oceania is “To stay in Outrigger Clubs, under the umbrella of the International Canoe Federation and to become self-sufficient, identifying talents on the Islands in the Olympic disciplines.....and to keep the local people enthusiastically running it.”
Helen says that “Australia has grown exponentially in Sprint....lots of development....and a lot more clubs. You need a strong base with lots of people to select from as you go up the triangle.”
When asked about how Canoeing has evolved during her lengthy tenure as President and now as Continental Representative on the ICF Board, she was happy to share her thoughts.
“We are not presently offering the same opportunities for men and women at the Olympic Games, or within canoeing generally,” adds Helen.
Helen envisions; “More equality for the girls, more women in decision making positions throughout the sport and to offer equal opportunities for girls and boys to compete in the Olympic disciplines.”
Even though an additional women’s event was added to the 2012 Olympic Sprint Program, Helen feels more change is required.
On that note Helen referred to Women In Canoe, saying that “Slalom is closer than Sprint. Slalom C-1 is very strong particularly in Australia.”
She feels that it is her challenge to change the ICF Board’s view regarding gender equity in our sport. Even though the International Olympic Committee supports equality, some countries “do not see the big picture.” She continues to say “If you want to make a change, you have to put it in the Olympic program. The effects will then cascade down to all other events and disciplines.”
In the beginning, Helen admits that “only a few at the ICF Board listened to her” but now, after over 20 years, they see her experience, her passion and her vision as something to give credence to. When asked what the ideal picture for our sport would look like, Helen has a clear image of where she thinks canoeing should be in the future.
She sees “Lots of paddlers to choose teams from, racing across all disciplines at a very high standard, a plan for recruiting and providing more incentives for volunteers and more opportunities for women to compete.”
Helen went on to say that paddling offers a variety of experiences and diversity within the sport. In her lifetime Helen has paddled down rivers, competed in Sprint, Slalom and Wild Water as well. Helen says that paddling provides a lifetime of diverse activities. These activities have given her the framework of her passion for the sport today.
Congratulations, Helen on all your firsts. You are, indeed, a pioneer in our sport and have been instrumental in shaping the history and the future of Canoeing.