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For First Nations Triathlete Jonathan Courchene, Racing Serves a Greater Purpose

By racing at Ironman St. George, Courchene wants to show the students he works with in First Nations schools that they have an Ironman inside them, too.

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When Jonathan Courchene, a First Nations triathlete from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, signed up for his first triathlon 10 years ago, he was newly out of drug and alcohol rehabilitation and going through an extremely stressful period in his personal life, but he remembered watching the Ironman World Championship as a kid. Even back then, he loved the amateur stories.

“It was the perseverance these people were demonstrating, not just in the physical race, but often, in their lives, that attracted me,” he said. “It stuck with me all those years.” He realized he’d need that kind of perseverance in his recovery, and the challenge of a triathlon seemed like a good addition to his plan, even though swimming, cycling, and running hadn’t been a big part of his life.

But he didn’t jump right into long-course. “My first triathlon was called a Foil Man competition,” he said, laughing. “So, you can imagine, Ironman versus Foilman—there’s a real disparity of distances. It was shorter than a sprint!”

As it turned out, starting with a shorter distance was a smart move, because he quickly realized just how much he didn’t know about the sport. He showed up with a mountain bike, his baggy swim trunks, no goggles, and zero experience open water swimming. “I didn’t know about sighting,” he said, “and I veered off course by a long shot.” He ended up near some rocks, and a safety volunteer in a kayak paddled over to him. “The person asked, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know!’”

That moment gave him pause, but he knew how important it was not to dwell on feelings like doubt or shame, especially in recovery. Besides, deep down, he truly believed in himself. “The doubts went away as quickly as they came,” he said. He went on to complete the race, making up some time on the run.

A year later, as he raced his first half-Ironman, he remembered thinking he’d never want to do a full. But recovery is a process, he said; if you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail, and he’d fallen off his recovery over the years. “I needed to make another goal for myself,” he said, “so I tried a full Ironman in 2018, in Louisville.” However, he went out too hard on the bike and couldn’t complete the run, and he knew it was because he hadn’t put in the work necessary.

This time around, in preparation for Ironman St. George on May 7, he’s trained with a coach and alongside other athletes, which he thinks will make a big difference, and he’s made some gear adjustments too, like tubeless tires and red tape. (“We all know that red is the fastest, right?”) He’s prepared to remain focused on his race, not on the athlete next to him—and aside from all that, he’s got bigger reasons for racing than his personal goals.

A reason for racing

While the presence and mindfulness he plans to incorporate on race day is absolutely part of his recovery, he’s not just racing for his own healing, but for his First Nation community’s healing, too.

As a certified school clinician working to meet the mental health needs of students in many of the First Nations schools in his province, Courchene understands the importance of representation better than most. And he knows that his participation in the sport—and at this race in particular—sends a message to his students and community, which is of particular importance right now, when suicide rates there are higher than ever.

Courchene at work with students at Sagkeeng First Nation. (Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Courchene)

Additionally, he’s dedicating his race to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman and Girls (MMIWG) from his First Nation community, where they’ve had more MMIWG cases than in most other parts of in Canada. “It’s my responsibility, with my education and my personal knowledge, to speak on it and to raise awareness,” he said.

In his 20 years of working in social services, he’s realized how vulnerable some people in his city are—and that was even before MMIWG became a true movement. “I’ve observed and come into contact with a lot of horror stories involving women and girls,” he said. “What I’ve found is that, if I had a CFS [Child and Family Services] case, it was always the women connecting with the social workers, going to court, trying to fight for their families. The men weren’t there. It’s always the women stepping up, trying to make a better life, trying to correct the issues.”

It’s not only his work that drives him to take a stand for MMIWG, but his family and community experience as well; specifically, with his grandmother, who helped him understand that what he’d noticed in his community was nothing new. “My nana was born and raised in our Sagkeeng First Nation community, and she told me that, in those days, the grandmothers had safe houses where women could bring their kids when their partners came back to the homes intoxicated,” he said.

He points to the forced residential schools as a major cause of the trauma experienced by these First Nation communities, because the men, having endured various abuses while growing up, would turn to alcohol as a way to cope with their trauma. Women like his grandmother, who was one of countless Indigenous children taken from their homes and forced into a residential school, grew up with almost no contact with their parents. “She’d be the first to tell you she had no idea how to be a parent,” he said. “She was in a residential school 10 months out of the year, all day, every day. She saw her parents for one hour on Sundays, but they weren’t allowed to touch, or hug, or kiss, and that physical contact is such a huge part of being a parent and being a child. And then, extend that to being taught that you’re less-than, and you’ll always be less.”

And, he added, “Residential schools didn’t finish with those who attended residential schools. Those things are inherited. They’re intergenerational. It didn’t just stop with them. It led to the destruction of a community.”

An identity lost and found

That loss of identity is something Courchene felt acutely; it’s what led him down his troubled path. “It’s tough, growing up knowing you’re not accepted by this culture, but that your culture is gone,” he said. “It’s a human need to know who we are, where we belong. We need to feel good about ourselves. If you don’t have those things, you look for them in other ways.”

In Courchene’s case, “I would look for self-esteem, I’d look for power, I’d look for belonging in drugs, alcohol, crime and violence,” he said. “They were things that made me feel good at a young age, like, I’m somebody now. I matter.”

Fortunately, between his work in the community, his triathlon training, and his dedication to his recovery, Courchene now has a strong sense of identity. And he’s hoping that he can use his story to inspire children in First Nations communities who are experiencing the challenges he faced.

In fact, he’s created a presentation that he takes to the schools, where he can talk to the students about what he’s been through and what he’s overcome. “I want to use this presentation to inspire them, and to help them realize they have an Ironman inside them as well.”

And on May 7, when things get tough—and he knows they will—he’ll remember that cold, dark walk back to T1 after his unsuccessful Ironman attempt in Louisville. “I told myself, “I’ll do this. I’ll rededicate myself and I’ll do this,’” he said. “I won’t be concerned with the person next to me. I’ll try to use this as a means of healing and growing—and use it for the work that I do.”

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