London, ON: Olivia Ghosh-Swaby is a women’s football coach, a current PhD Candidate in Neuroscience, and is a strong advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion in academia and sport. The Mississauga, Ontario native is the Founder of the Ontario Women’s Intercollegiate Football Association (OWIFA), Canada’s largest women’s football organization. Olivia is also a mentee in the BCCA’s Black Female Coach Mentorship Program, supported by the Coaching Association of Canada (CAC). Recently, Olivia was named a recipient of Canada’s most prestigious doctoral award, the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (CGS).
Leadership Through Sport : Equity Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in Women’s Football
Olivia has leaned heavily on her academic and sports experience for her journey thus far as an equity, diversity and inclusion advocate. Originally a multi-sport athlete competing in sports such as volleyball and track and field, she was first introduced to flag football during high school, and she quickly fell in love with the sport.
“As a young woman in high school, it was empowering to be on the field and be one of the best in the game. When I went to university, all I wanted was a varsity-level experience to compete against the best in Ontario and Canada. When I got to Western, I realized there was a need for more high-level sporting opportunities for women during their academic careers. This led to my idea to create the Ontario Women’s Intercollegiate Football Association (OWIFA) in 2017.”
OWIFA represents 10 Canadian university teams and is comprised of 430 athletes and 71 student-athlete coaches. The competitive nature of football and travelling across Ontario to play has built a community and passion for the game in hundreds of women throughout the province.
According to Canadian Women and Sport, 62% of young women leave sport after high school. Olivia sees her work with OWIFA as one solution to the issue of recruitment and retention of women in sport at post-secondary institutions. Olivia believes flag football provides another chance for continued athletic competition and to build a community for women.
“Football feels so behind when it comes to EDI. There are few opportunities for women to play or coach in Canada. And as a person of colour, to play in a game that is predominantly led and coached by white men, it often feels as if there is no space for me or others like me in the game.”
Olivia also lists a number of challenges her organization has had to overcome since OWIFA’s inception. Despite the fact that all of the women’s football teams are directly housed at Canadian universities, because they are only recognized as a club sport they receive little to no support for funding, administrative and scheduling tasks. Coaching education is also an area of need for OWIFA. Many U Sports male football players serve as OWIFA coaches, and enjoy learning and teaching the game to their female counterparts. However, given that Canadian student-athletes are not awarded full athletic scholarships, player-coaches are often tasked with working part-time or taking on student loans just to afford their housing, meal and tuition fees. This makes it unlikely that they can afford or would be willing to pay for coach certification costs. To remedy this, Olivia and her executive team at OWIFA have been seeking strategic partnerships with organizations such as the Black Canadian Coaches Association (BCCA) and the Ontario Football Association (OFA) to support coach education and certification to create a new pipeline of future flag football coaches.
“Women have had to create their own opportunities for competitive-level football in Ontario, and I’ve been fortunate enough to lead this movement. Even with the hard work of relying on ourselves to provide our own sporting experience and the pandemic slowing our momentum down and halting the 2021 season, the reward of more women in the game and getting out on the field makes it all worth it. We hope to continue to grow until women’s flag-football is officially recognized as a varsity sport across Ontario and Canada.”
An Uncommon Path: A Black Female Neuroscientist
On July 15th, 2021, Olivia was announced as 1 of 55 recipients of Canada’s most prestigious doctoral research award. Named after Major-General Georges P. Vanier, the first francophone Governor General of Canada, the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (Vanier CGS) program helps Canadian institutions attract highly qualified doctoral students to conduct research. Valued at $50,000 per year for three years, the applicants were selected from a national candidate pool from Canadian universities based on three equally weighted criteria: academic excellence, research potential and leadership.
Olivia notes that she has come this far only with the help of her strongest supporters:
” There were moments of adversity in my journey that motivated me in pursuing neurology, particularly the passing of my baby cousin due to a neurological disorder, known as Lissencephaly. My aunt has also been a role model, one of the strongest & most intelligent people I know. Along with the lab, I consider football as my second home. I have a family of 50 women who play on Western’s women’s football team and I’ve made some of my closest friends from this group.” She adds, “Competitive sports have always been a part of my life and I credit my experience as a student-athlete, coach, and administrator for shaping who I am now in my pursuit of becoming a neuroscientist.”
“Not often do you see someone who looks like me as a neuroscientist. This is for the Black & Brown girls out there interested in STEM & have other passions. I am honoured to be a #VanierCanada Scholar! I truly care about bettering health for all & enhancing the student experience.”
To learn more about the Ontario Women’s Intercollegiate Football Association (OWIFA), visit: https://owifawomensfootbal.wixsite.com/about
To learn more about the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships, visit https://vanier.gc.ca/en/home-accueil.html
Leadership Through Sport – We Are Stronger Together!