Every athlete has a story worth telling, but there are a few rare ones whose story forces you to stand back and shake your head in wonder.

Sonja Gaudet is one of those.

Facing obstacles throughout her amazing journey, she has approached every challenge with the mindset of ‘what CAN I do?’ rather than can’t. And in the process she raised the bar for wheelchair curling in Canada.

Growing up in North Vancouver, Sonja played a wide array of sports but gravitated to basketball and equestrian. She was aware of curling from her dad’s interest in it, but ironically thought it was ‘boring’ when young.

“Ha! Yeah I was aware of it!” she laughed. “My Dad loved to watch curling either on TV or at the North Van Rec Centre. So when Dad came to pick us up from swimming, there he’d be waiting for us watching curling. I remember thinking, ‘Are you kidding me?! What are those people even doing out there?! Come on Dad, this is like…boring!’ I never thought about curling. I didn’t know anything about curling. I had no desire to try curling.”

That would change later on. After moving to Vernon in 1988, marrying husband Dan, and having two children, Alysha and Colten, Sonja was working at a local restaurant and raising a family. Everything changed in 1997, when she was seriously injured while riding her horse, becoming paralyzed from the chest down. With support from her family, the community of Vernon, and others like Rick Hansen, she made a miraculous recovery. After just a month in hospital and two more rehabbing at GF Strong, she returned home.

“Everyone says you had a choice,” she said. “But in my mind I never had a choice. Why would I choose not to go ‘Ok how are we going to do this?’ I had two kids, a family. Not choosing to move forward and get on with it, whatever ‘getting on with it’ looked like, it wasn’t an option. So where’s the option? I’m not going to lay in bed and be miserable. And not live my life. And not look after my kids. And not get on with it and enjoy what I enjoyed before just in a different way. So I actually never felt I had an option or a choice.”

She tried other wheelchair sports but only discovered wheelchair curling in 2003 due to a bathroom reno project at the Vernon Curling Club that sought her advice on accessibility. Wheelchair curling was to be a new Paralympic sport in 2006 and Sonja had no idea she’d end up being one of the new athletes recruited for it.

With the support of Sharon Morrison and Jan Mori, who took Sonja and future long-time national teammate Ina Forrest under their wings, Sonja progressed rapidly and broke into the national team program in 2005. She made her first international appearance for Canada at the 2006 Paralympics in Torino and remained a constant in the lead position for Canada’s national team for a decade.

In that time, Sonja helped Canada win three straight Paralympic gold medals in 2006, 2010 in Vancouver, and 2014 in Sochi. The highlight of her career came in the latter, selected as Canada’s Opening Ceremonies flagbearer at Sochi. She matched her three Paralympic gold medals with three world wheelchair championships as well, in 2009, 2011, and 2013. That remarkable five-year period from 2009 to 2014, where Canada was virtually unbeatable with a largely all-BC based line-up, will likely never be surpassed in Canadian wheelchair curling history.

While still competing, in 2013 Sonja became the first wheelchair athlete inducted into the Curling Canada Hall of Fame. She also became the first inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2020.

After representing Canada at the 2016 world championships, the eighth appearance of her career, Sonja retired from competition. Two years later, she was featured on a Canada Post stamp.

“That stamp, gosh, it’s just such an honour to even be considered,” she said. “I hope this is just the beginning of more recognition for Paralympic sport and para-athletes. We’re not disabled athletes. We’re athletes who have adapted and learned to excel with the abilities that we have. We do things differently, but we are not disabled.”

As the world’s most decorated wheelchair curler, Sonja is living proof of that.

Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.

To read more on the career of Sonja Gaudet, please see the July 2020 Curator’s Corner article here: https://bcsportshall.com/curator-corner/sonja-gaudet-its-what-you-can-do-not-cant-2020-inductee-spotlight/