Growing up in the south-west end of Toronto with a single mom wasn’t always easy for Mateja van Gameren. Money was tight and being able to play sports was not something they could always afford. Kids in her school were always playing something – soccer, hockey, gymnastics – but not her. They could afford a program here and there, but nothing consistent. “I felt unstable, like I was someone who was working to come out of something difficult and different from the majority of kids around me,” recalls Mateja. Her mom spent a lot of time researching funding supports, and when Mateja was 9, her mom found out about KidSport. It was with a sense of relief that she was able to say yes when Mateja wanted to start playing minor hockey.

Mateja playing hockey

“Hockey was my first love – cheesy, but it’s true! It was my first experience of what people say ‘nothing else matters’ or ‘everything else fades away’. There was a different magic about playing,” Mateja says. “Throughout the years, it taught me grit, cooperation, patience in others and in yourself, accountability, for sure leadership, and to always stick up for yourself. It taught me this while integrating other things I loved like the winter, cold, friends, family bonding (extended family is big on hockey), and the fun of traveling with your friends. It gave me a sense of identity. A unique one especially considering where I was growing up”

She started playing higher level hockey when she was 14. Her competitiveness grew and her desire for more intensified. Then COVID hit. Hockey shut down and life became different. She spent a lot of time near Lake Ontario, where she had always noticed the people out on the water. Her curiosity took over, and with the restrictions in place, rowing seemed like something she could do outdoors in a safe way. So she gave it a try and was hooked from the start. She joined the Argonaut Rowing Club, and with the continued financial support from KidSport, she found a new love.

Remembering her first time on the water, Mateja says “I think I had been in team sports for so long, it was obvious that rowing was largely about personal growth and focus. This was something new for me, the idea that it was all up to me about how I developed, and that it wasn’t all about the team around me anymore. Rowing holds such an odd but special balance between an individual and team sport, and I am grateful I was old enough to recognize that and how special the people were who were around me.”

When she was 16, her family moved to Ottawa and rowing became her focus. It was a familiar friend in a unfamiliar space. She rowed with the Ottawa Rowing Club, setting her sights on competition, and she entered the NCAA recruiting process in 2022. “Rowing taught me resilience and integrity,” says Mateja. “Also to value what I have, in a physical sense. Sports have taught me that my ‘different’ body can do amazing things and it deserves to be cared for and valued.” She kept up with school, successfully balancing her scholastic achievements with rowing while attending Lisgar Collegiate Institute

As she wraps up her high school career, Mateja looks ahead to her next chapter at Duquesne University on a D1 scholarship where she’ll be pursuing a BSc in Health Sciences. “My plans are to come back to Canada after graduating and get my MSc in Speech & Language Pathology or Physical Therapy,” states Mateja.

Mateja has joined Team KidSport as the first Student-Athlete Ambassador. Her hope is that by telling her story, about why it was so important to her growth that she got to play sports, that more families will reach out for support so their kids can play too, and that sports organizations of all sizes will become more aware that everyone deserves a fair opportunity. “Without the help we received from KidSport, I would not be the person I am today. Much less the athlete. I do not believe I would have the opportunities or future that I have now. Nor would I have had the experiences I did in the past that led to the life I get to lead today,” Mateja says. “Being able to give back is a privilege for me and has been a goal of mine since I learned I was receiving KidSport funding. I would love to see more people getting involved with KidSport in any way they are able to, even if that means finding ways to spread the word about their amazing and impactful work.”

Follow Mateja’s journey at Duquesne University @duqrowing