three women hockey players on the ice
Goaltender Gabriella Durante on the ice with the Dinos women’s hockey team. Jacob Mallari

March 8, 2024

Breaking barriers: Celebrating women in sport at UCalgary

From students to donors, women are increasing their visibility in sport

As a young soccer player, Heather Ambery spent time flipping through newspapers and magazines in the hopes of tracking down photographs of female stars. Her hunts were rarely rewarded. Even online searches yielded little.

So, when she scored tickets to a Team Canada soccer game in 2003 — without television broadcasts, this was the only way to see the women in action — she made sure to be among the first 1,000 there to receive a poster of her heroes on the women’s team.

For Ambery, today associate director of athletics (operations) at the University of Calgary, that had been a keepsake worth treasuring. “It was just amazing.”

Heather Ambery

Heather Ambery

David Moll

That type of game promotion would pack less of a punch nowadays because, deservedly, there has been a transformation. The prominence of women and girls in sport is rising dramatically. Readily apparent is the increased profile, such as the emergence of the Professional Women’s Hockey League and Caitlin Clark’s well-publicized pursuit of NCAA basketball glory.

And opportunity for females — to participate, to emulate, to engage — continues to grow.

“Things have changed,” says Ambery, who also coaches a soccer team of teenage girls. “It’s by no means equal (to men), but it’s building momentum, which I think is so exciting.”

Legacy gift to Kinesiology boosts women and girls 

This surge in attention had been anticipated by Joan Snyder, Hon. LLD’11. A longtime supporter of women’s sport, she envisioned a revolution — then helped to ensure it happened.

Snyder, who died in April 2022, left a landmark $67.5-million legacy gift to UCalgary, including $30 million to establish the Joan Snyder Fund for Excellence in Kinesiology. Already known as one of the top sport-science schools in North America, the Faculty of Kinesiology has unveiled its new five-year strategic plan, which includes initiatives to leverage the Snyder gift and become a global leader in research with women and girls.

Snyder earmarked an additional $2 million for the expansion of the Joan Snyder Program of Excellence in Women’s Hockey, which was created at UCalgary in 2011.

“Honestly, she was a trailblazer,” says Gabriella Durante, BSc’23, grad student and the Dinos’ starting goalie. “It’s the thing to do now — support female athletes — and she was doing it before anyone else. She knew what the future was going to hold.

“It’s super cool what she’s done, shining a light on female athletes and what we can do. She’s a household name in our program.”

Near the entrance to the Dinos’ dressing room is a plaque honouring Snyder, who is fondly remembered as the grandmother of Canadian women’s hockey. “Walking by that every day just reminds you of the impact she’s had and how we get to reap the benefits of her philanthropy,” says Durante.

New display celebrates women in sport

Another tribute to Snyder — and a celebration of female athletes on campus and across the country — is the permanent exhibition unveiled last month near the atrium of the Kinesiology facility. 

Women in Sport display

The Faculty of Kinesiology recently unveiled a new Women in Sport display, located near the atrium in the Kinesiology Complex.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

“It’s that visual impact — a display case dedicated to women and women athletes and their stories and the amazing things they’ve done,” says Ambery. “That has impact — I can’t overstate that.”

Snyder’s gift continues to resonate. When someone as highly regarded as she was devoted resources to women’s sport, the hope is that others will be inspired to follow suit.

“The optimist in me hopes that’s true,” says Christine Biggs, coach of the Dinos women’s volleyball team. “A donation of that magnitude, of that profile, does have a really large ability to make an impact on how we perceive what we have to offer as women.”

Beyond the monetary donation, Snyder left to the university an immense collection of sports memorabilia, which is being auctioned off in four lots. The first batch raised more than $15,000, with proceeds directly funding women’s student-athlete awards on campus.

Work remains to achieve gender equity

While no one can dispute the elevation of the profile of women and girls in sport, work remains. Hopeful strides toward equality end up being “baby steps,” according to Durante.

Adds Biggs: “There are days that punch you in the gut.” She points to the persistence of cultural and societal pressures for girls “to look a certain way or be a certain way. There’s a lot of challenges and contradictions.”

volleyball players and coach on the court

Dinos women's volleyball coach Christine Biggs with the team.

Chris Lindsey

Which may explain why girls drop out of sports at a higher rate than boys. 

“Because people are not feeling that it’s the right fit anymore — why is that?” says Biggs. “How do we manage self-esteem, how do we manage the enjoyment of activity, when being a sweaty mess is still not perceived as a good look for girls?”

Durante, though, remains optimistic about the future of women in sport, and about the potential to flip the narrative.

“There are some great powerhouses who are leading the way right now, which is awesome,” she says. “Sometimes, it feels like it’s changing; sometimes it feels like it’s not.

“But it feels like it’s changing at the University of Calgary, that’s for sure.”

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