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Canada's Olympic athletes talk Black History Month and wanting to 'write history'

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Jordan Pierre-Gilles has a couple of goals in mind heading into this year's Winter Olympics in Beijing.

This will be the Sherbrooke, Que.-born short track speed skater's first Olympic Games, something that has always been a dream for the 23-year-old.

However, as one of the few Black athletes in his sport, Pierre-Gilles also wants to set the stage for the next generation of speed skaters.

"Mostly what I want to achieve, what I want to set, is an example for the others that are going to follow, and I want as much as possible a lot of diversity in the sport, so yeah, for sure I'm pushing for that," he told CTVNews.ca during a Zoom interview from Beijing.

The 2022 Winter Olympics will start Feb. 4 and continue through to Feb. 20, with short track speed skating among the first sports to see medals awarded.

February also marks Black History Month in Canada, serving as a time to focus on the contributions of Black Canadians. This year's theme is, "February and Forever: Celebrating Black History today and every day."

After deciding to commit fully to short track when he was 18 years old, Pierre-Gilles moved to Montreal with the ultimate goal of qualifying for the Olympics, an accomplishment he credits his family, friends and teammates, among others, for helping him achieve it.

"It wasn't easy, I had a lot of setbacks and hard moments, especially with COVID, but I managed and I'm very proud to be here today."

Although there weren't many other Black athletes in short track speed skating growing up, Pierre-Gilles cites his older brother, who got into the sport first, as a great motivation for him and someone he would always want to race and beat.

Beyond that, he says the sport was "really a white world."

"I've had my models when I was young starting with my dad," Pierre-Gilles said. "He's always been a great model for me, pushing me in sports, showing me the ways to be a good athlete and to grow as a person as much as an athlete."

As he thinks about his first foray in the Olympics and the recognition of Black Canadians through February, Pierre-Gilles takes some comfort knowing other Black kids will be able to watch him compete, and realize there are opportunities for them in these "insane sports that are actually very exciting."

Joined by short track speed skater and fellow Quebecer Alyson Charles, he says, "It’s actually great to have this representation in a Canadian team."

'I CELEBRATE BLACK HISTORY EVERY DAY OF MY LIFE'

Also among the Black athletes representing Canada at the Olympics is Josh Ho-Sang of Thornhill, Ont., a member of the men's hockey team.

The 26-year-old forward, picked 28th overall by the New York Islanders in the 2014 NHL Draft and currently playing for the Toronto Marlies, the top minor-league affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs, will also compete in his first Olympic Games.

"For me, it's been awesome," he said. "Just from the support that I've gotten from my friends and my family, I hope I can make them and the country proud."

Speaking to CTVNews.ca from Switzerland prior to his departure for China, Ho-Sang said the opportunity came at a strange time for him, when there were questions swirling about his character and the uncertainty last year of not knowing where he would ultimately land as a hockey player.

"I remember sitting talking with my best friend and just discussing what am I going to do, I've got nowhere to play right now, and now I'm playing in the Olympics. Who would have thought?" he said.

"So it's cool and I guess from my experience I would say anyone who's out there struggling, who feels alone or who feels like they've hit a wall, just trust me, just keep going and you can end up in fantastic places."

With Black History Month taking place at the same time as his Olympic debut, Ho-Sang says it's "amazing" to have a moment to acknowledge some of the contributions Black people have made.

At the same time, he says he isn't going into the Games thinking, "It's February, I got to turn it up."

"I celebrate Black history every day of my life, that's the reality," he said.

"I look for inspiration through Black people and white people, but I celebrate all countries, races, diversity, intelligence, contributions to society. To me, there's no boundary."

Ho-Sang says he sees the Games as a celebration of all athletes and ethnicities.

"I love learning about the contributions made by humanity, and that should be our focus I think, so I'm excited to see all of that come to fruition at the Olympics."

When it comes to exposing more people to his own sport, Pierre-Gilles says it starts with kids and reaching out to communities that may not have the resources to offer those opportunities.

Even though he may be a minority in the sport of speed skating, he says not once has that discouraged him from pushing forward.

"I want to break records, I want to do new stuff, and for me to be one of the first Black guy[s] in the Canadian team going to the Olympics, it's always been something I wanted to do. To be one of the first ones on a national team first of all, and then once I did that I wanted to go to the Games and write history in that regard," he said.

"So yeah, it could have dissuaded me, but I'm not that type of person that's going to get dissuaded easily."

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