Cindy Klassen met a young Palestinian woman this week whose knees were a wreck. She’d been playing soccer on concrete, because the actual pitches in the West Bank are reserved for men.
“Concrete is really hard on the body,” Klassen said.
Canada’s most decorated speed skater is in Israel and Jordan with Canadian Lutheran World Relief. The highlight was opening a women’s sports centre in Bethlehem, a safe haven for young women who have been confined to kicking around balls in back alleys.
“Women in the West Bank don’t get that many opportunities in sports. It’s really looked down upon for women to be playing sports,” Klassen said in a phone interview from Amman. “But progress has been made and more and more women have become involved so now they do have some teams. But they really don’t have any place to play.”
The new Dar al-Kalima Sports Hall has room for soccer, basketball, volleyball, tennis and gymnastics.
The 34-year-old Klassen is a six-time Olympic medalist with one gold, two silver, and three bronze. She’s tied with fellow speed skater Clara Hughes as Canada’s most decorated Olympians.
The trip has been a huge eye-opener, Klassen said.
“Growing up, all of my friends who are girls, we all played sports. It was just a natural part of growing up,” the Winnipeg native said. “These women don’t have many opportunities, so I think this is really a great stepping stone for them.
“It also instils confidence and teaches them about well-being and I think it will also help them in the future, when they’re trying to find jobs. And overall, it just in increases gender equality in that part of the world.”
Klassen travelled from Bethlehem to Jordan to visit Syrian refugees last Wednesday, handing out sweaters, blankets, rugs and heaters to the families living in the Za’atari camp.
“It’s been very eye-opening and very special just to be able to see this part of the world, see what people are going through,” Klassen said. “It is really such a huge honour and a privilege and especially with how much I’ve been given in my world and through sports. I just hope these women will have opportunities in their lives because of their involvement in sports.”
Klassen had double knee surgery prior to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and didn’t make the podium at those Games. She rebounded to help Canada win gold in the team pursuit at the 2011 world championships and silver at the event a year later.
She laughed when asked about her speed-skating future.
“That’s a good question. It’s something I’m still trying to figure out,” Klassen said.
She’s going back to school to finish her psychology degree at the University of Calgary. “And I’m still trying to figure out if I’m done skating or if I will try for another year,” she said.
Klassen watched some of the speed skating at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where Denny Morrison’s silver and bronze medals were Canada’s only podium performances in long-track competition.
“It was tough to watch because I would have loved to have been there, but it was exciting to cheer my teammates on and also to watch all of the sports, our country did so well at these Games so that was really exciting to see,” she said. “It really made me want to get back out there.
“But I’m getting older and I’ve had injuries, so I really need to figure it out and I just want to make the right decision.”
In the original version of this story, The Canadian Press erroneously reported that Klassen won two Olympic medals in cycling. In fact, Clara Hughes, who is tied with Klassen with the most Olympic medals won by a Canadian, won two in cycling.