If Canadian hockey player Natalie Spooner had been an only child she may have never won an Olympic gold medal.

Fortunately Spooner’s three siblings made it possible for her to train throughout her childhood, represent Team Canada at numerous international tournaments, and eventually win gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

“Most of the time I got hand-me-down stuff, but it would have been nice to sometimes get your own things,” she said. “If I didn’t have older brothers I probably wouldn’t have been able to play because it’s so expensive.”

Spooner is now an ambassador for Fuelling Women Champions. The organization’s Champions Fund, supported by the Dairy Farmers of Canada, will award 20 grants of $5,000 to help athletes ease the financial burden that comes with competing at a high level.

“If you can take your mind off that and just focus on training and just on your sport, then I think you’re going to do a lot better,” Spooner said. “It makes you realize people are pushing for you and you have the support behind you.”

Building female champions

Playing sports has been shown to benefit athletes in all aspects of their lives, but a significant number of Canadian females are missing out.

A study by the Canadian Association for Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity found that 41 per cent of girls between the ages of 3-17 years don’t play sports - the number more than doubles to 84 per cent in adult women.

But in recent days international audiences have been treated to a host of female success stories at the 2016 Rio Olympics with plenty of inspiration for young girls. Canada’s first 12 medals were won by women until sprinter Andre De Grasse took home the bronze in an historic 100-metre race won by Usain Bolt.

Spooner maintains that her connection to athletics has resulted in valuable life lessons, strong friendships and an overall healthy lifestyle.

“I look back and it’s obviously been such a huge part of my life and I did learn a lot of key things through sports,” she said. “I’m probably the person I am today because of it.”

Applications for the Champions Fund grants have come from all across Canada, including a Surrey baseball team, a Vancouver table tennis player, a Kelowna trampolinist, and a Prince George swimmer.

Female athletes, teams and organizations can apply for the grants until Sept. 29 and the winners will be announced in November.