Why One Woman Started a Fund to Support Canadian Olympic Athletes

From enduring a life-changing accident to raising millions for our Olympic athletes, Jane Roos is no stranger to overcoming hurdles.

For some of us, it can take years to discover our calling, but Jane Roos found hers early on—or, rather, it found her. “My goal was that I was going to go to the Olympics,” says Roos, who grew up in the woods of Quebec, winning races and securing a track coach by grade four. “When we moved to Ottawa, I took that on full-time. That was my dream.”

But for the aspiring heptathlon star, it wasn’t meant to be. While accompanying her best friend on a round trip to the airport, tragedy struck. “We drove her parents to the airport, went to Montreal for dinner and, on the way home, she fell asleep at the wheel for a minute and we went off a cliff,” says Roos. “She died, and I lived. It was so sad. I lost my track career, lost my best friend and had two back operations. My entire life as I knew it stopped.” Roos was just 19 years old.

Working through the physical, emotional and mental trauma, Roos found her greatest strength and a new lifelong goal. “The worst day of my life became the best learning of my life,” she says. “For a few years, I had survivor guilt and had to get people to help me get over that.” Roos names sports psychologist Peter Jensen and late Olympic track and field coach Andy Higgins as her biggest champions. “They saw something great in me that I couldn’t see—something past the athlete,” she says.

At the time of Roos’ second operation at Toronto Western Hospital, she was struck with the notion to do something meaningful. With the help of nurses, she organized a fundraiser and raised $40,000. She designated the money to Canadian athletes to help them realize their Olympic dreams.

Fun-raising 101

In 2003, Roos’ Canadian Athletes Now (CAN) Fund achieved charitable status. Since then, it has gone on to raise over $43 million and support more than 80 percent of Canadian Olympic athletes. “None of our athletes wants a handout, but you can’t be world class without support,” she says. “It’s not set up that way in Canada. Most of our athletes go into debt representing our country.”

Postponing the Summer Olympics in Tokyo to 2021 due to the COVID-19 crisis has created additional pressure, as participants extend training and all of its costs for an additional year. But Roos knows they’re uniquely equipped to make it through.

“To be the best in the world, represent your country and wear the maple leaf is an all-in thing,” she says. “It’s a huge commitment. The best thing about athletes is that they’re totally resilient because every day of their lives is uncertain. When they’re training full out, they might get injured. But this is what they’re made of. They have so much tenacity. There is no pity party here.”

Never one to rest and having put the majority of fundraising on hold during the national stay-at-home order, Roos went full force in her own way. “I wanted to enjoy that self-isolation time and make the most of it,” she says. “I wanted to inspire people to play more and shift the focus from thinking about surviving to thinking about thriving.” Using her time to give back included making masks with her family for health care workers, initiating daily CAN Talks livestream events that feature athletes speaking on themes like failure and mindfulness (you can watch those online now) and running art contests for kids of all ages.

Roos’ reaction to the unprecedented changes that occurred earlier this year was rooted in her call to being of service. “The best lesson I got from my car accident was that I don’t worry about the how anymore; everything is about why,” she says. “Why am I here? What’s my purpose? I learned that really young. It just became very clear to me that my purpose is to help people succeed and get Canadians to really recognize that we have amazing talent. It’s in everything I do.”

Using her creative skill set (she is also an accomplished painter and runs a gallery in Toronto) and her passion for connecting people, Roos is known for her outside-the-box fundraising initiatives. She launched the Pre-Game Meal program in 2017. Available coast to coast, it allows anyone to host a dinner party at home or in a restaurant with an Olympic athlete as the guest of honour.

“The athletes play specific sports, but their stories are universal,” says Roos. “It’s about never giving up and overcoming crazy obstacles. They have dinner with your guests and then we raise money to help Canadian athletes become successful on the world stage. There’s no minimum. Some have raised $1,000, while one person raised $48,000.” It’s a vision that’s illuminated by the experience, not the final tally. One particularly memorable meal was a casual birthday barbecue thrown by a 13-year-old girl and attended by swimmers. “I remember looking around and thinking, ‘This is my dream: It’s full of Olympic athletes and kids asking all these questions,’” she says. “More athletes have had bad injuries, been cut from something or been told they’re not good enough, and I think at any age we need to hear more of that.”

Jane RoosPhoto Credit: Jane Roos

Another year bolder

Having recently celebrated her 50th birthday, Roos is moving full steam ahead on everything that ignites her passions. “I feel like I’m really going for it right now,” she says. “I just launched Random Acts of Magic—I think it’s the next level of the Random Acts of Kindness campaign. It has nothing to do with the fund or the gallery; it’s all about getting people to be part of changing other people’s lives.” Her secret to doing it all? “I say no more than I used to. At this point in my life, I realize that if I say yes to everything, then I’m saying no to things that really matter to me.”

This summer, she will focus on kicking off the crunch time that leads up to any global competition. “We get a do over!” she says. “I’ve never done a second one-year countdown for the same games.” She will also be making time for the evolution of CAN Fund #150Women, another Roos innovation that links female donors with female athletes. With a donation of $150, a woman will find out which athlete she is supporting (and vice versa) while accessing the growing network of donors who are also participating in the initiative. “The whole premise is that we’re supporting female athletes and supporting one another,” she says. “We’re sharing our own passions, knowledge and interests. It’s pretty bold to be the best in the world, and every woman wants to be the best she can be.”

Having celebrated #150Women with an inaugural full-day summit last year, Roos is excited to see the effects of the program on women of all ages. And she doesn’t have to look far: Besides being an incredible success, Roos took away one of her proudest moments from the full-day event. “My oldest daughter got onstage and read a Rupi Kaur poem,” she says. “She changed the ending a bit and spoke about what she expects from older women. She asked if they’re living boldly. It was so powerful. She is watching—they are watching—and we have to walk the talk.”

Next, find out how Phylicia George, a three-time Canadian Olympian, is training during COVID-19.

Originally Published in Best Health Canada