I know Adam van Koeverden. Or at least I think I do, having sporadically seen him on my TV screen over the past fifteen years, especially during the summertime when the Olympic Games have taken place. I recognize the Olympic flagbearer during the Athens and Beijing Summer Games, proudly leading the way for his teammates during the opening and closing ceremonies. I’ve seen him triumphant alongside Justin Trudeau, hands in the air, after winning his seat as the Liberal MP of Milton, Ontario. A funny thing happens when you see people in the media–you start to believe you know them, and that you know them well. But I don’t know him. I know of him, which is a different beast entirely.
March in Toronto means we’re in the middle of Fake Spring, the phenomena most Ontarians fall prey to every year when it looks like we can go outside without a jacket on, but we are actually contending with crisp single-digit temperatures. What we perceive is sometimes very different from reality. Today is no different–beautifully sunny outside, but still very much sweater weather once the windows are thrown open–when Adam van Koeverden’s resonant voice comes through my laptop screen, right on time. I am a big fan of punctuality. Timeliness aside, as our conversation warmed up, it occurred to me that the public has had a very polarizing view of who Adam essentially is. On one hand, he is a revered Canadian athlete, someone who is extraordinarily gifted and inspirational; on the other, he is a politician, and we all know everyone has very strong opinions about political leaders these days. But over the course of our short meeting, I realized that there is no disconnect between Adam the Olympian and Adam the Public Servant. He, like every one of us, doesn’t exist on the ends of any spectrum. Unlike our deceptive weather, what you see is exactly what you get–the steady through line is simply someone who is an idealist, looking to make a difference in this world.
With four Olympic medals under his belt in the Canoe-Kayak-Sprint categories–a gold, two silver, and a bronze–and the most of any Canadian paddler, Adam was always an athlete that belonged to the people. In Canada, we tend to feel very patriotic toward our athletes, especially ones that represent our great country on an international scale. Having participated in four Olympic Summer Games over the span of twelve years, he very much looks and performs like the picture-perfect Olympian who rightfully belongs on the front of any cereal box in my pantry: strong and chiseled, with a wholesome, good-natured sense about him. Following the Summer Games in Rio in 2016, what he considered to be the last chapter of his Olympic Games quartet, he seamlessly transitioned from Olympic podium to political platform. In 2019, after victoriously securing his elected position as Liberal MP for the city of Milton, just west of Toronto, ousting long-tenured Conservative MP Lisa Raitt by a wide margin, he began to officially work for the people. Suddenly, he wasn’t out of reach anymore–he was right down here with us, in the trenches.
At first, the media grappled with his unlikely pivot from sport to politics. What would an athlete know about bylaws and legislations? Scratch the surface, however, and it makes complete sense why Adam would take to politics like he took to the water all those years ago. Politics, much like the Olympics, is a long game. Nothing monumental is gained overnight. It calls on drive, physical and emotional endurance, grit, determination, teamwork, and mentorship–qualities that are naturally learned and fostered in an athletic training environment. Throughout his athletic career, Adam was very active in his philanthropic endeavors, serving as an ambassador for Right To Play, a charitable organization that teaches children, through sport and games, life skills to help them overcome the effects of poverty, conflict, and disease. He was also deeply involved with Special Olympics Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation, as well as WaterAid, causes that catered to his unique skill set and his growing interest in giving back to the world that gave him so much. The ambition that fuelled his singular focus to stand on podiums is the same ambition that still exists, sport or no sport. The hunger that he has to reach his goals, the commitment to see them through, the tenacity to understand the nature of setbacks–these are the very characteristics that would make him an ideal politician. We need people who won’t give up on us. In speaking with Adam, it becomes clear that he not only understands that there are no quick fixes, but also expects roadblocks and detours in order to achieve the things that he wants to for his community. If anyone has the stamina to endure the frustrations of public service, it would be him. “What I gained most through my time in sport wasn’t time on podiums, listening to the national anthem. It wasn’t about finish lines. It was about travel, exposure, insight, and perspective. It was an opportunity to give back and to recognize the value in service, the value of dedicating myself to something bigger than myself. As a first generation Canadian, I love my country. I love Canada, but I know Canada didn’t happen by accident. My commitment to getting involved in federal politics was part and parcel due to the recognition that great countries require a little bit of building every day. Countries need work and people deserve representation. And I wanted to pitch in.”
“I think it’s anybody’s choice the degree to which they get involved through public service or give back to their community, but I think everyone has an obligation to see themselves as a part of the bigger picture.”
Returning to the suburbs where he grew up in the midst of this career transition, Adam started to remember why he had such strong political leanings in the first place. “From a really young age, I came to understand the importance of leadership and good government and how the decisions that governments make have an impact on our daily lives,” he states. Having grown up in the Chautauqua co-op in Oakville with a single mother who was a fervent supporter of non-profit housing and who worked for Homestarts, an organization that built co-op housing, he quickly understood the advantages of co-op communities as a solution to poverty, allowing people both social and economic mobility. The political seed was planted then, as he witnessed the real-time support that certain social programs allowed, giving struggling groups of the population a fair shot in the world. Because of this early lived experience and through his altruistic initiatives during his Olympic career later on, he became acutely aware of the disparity that exists not only globally, but also locally. As such, his recognition of the same struggles within his community enabled him to zero in on the needs of the city he lived in. There are problems to solve everywhere; but it all starts at home.
The primary pillar of politics has always been about the people. The role of an elected politician is to represent these voices, a mission that seems to have diluted in recent memory, not only in Canada, but the world over. Adam’s current political platform is one that focuses on diversity, inclusion, gender equality, the environment, housing, and food insecurity. He is diligent in his dedication to the people. When asked how he prioritizes needs of the community when everything feels urgent, he tells me about the acrostic he often repeats to children when they ask about his leadership style: “Leadership isn’t about me being first or being the boss. The letters in ‘lead’ stand for listen, empathize, advocate, and dedicate and if you can do those four things for people, then you’re actually a leader.” Is his earnestness naïve? Perhaps. But don’t we all need hope these days? Isn’t it encouraging to see someone who is making a real effort and rallying on behalf of all of us when we’re just so tired of everything? Life feels Sisyphean lately. It feels nice to be looked after.
One of Adam’s passion projects is his fight against the CN Intermodal Rail Project, which would establish a truck-rail hub in the middle of residential areas in Milton, causing significant, adverse effects to human health and the environment. At press time, the application to establish this hub has been passed by the federal government, but with 325 conditions. Not a win, but also not a loss. Since he has been active in office, he has never relented on this cause. Even now, after what appears to be a setback, he continues to fight for his constituents, saying, “It’s a stumbling point; it’s a small loss in a large battle and it’s far from over.” What does he draw on when he is faced with these challenges? Is it the same resilience he drew on when he lost races, when he couldn’t get past a physical plateau? Yes and no–in times of frustration, he points to his caucus, a group of peers he is especially proud to work with, as a source of his perseverance. “One of the most essential aspects of an ecosystem is diversity for its long-term health and viability. Experiences, backgrounds, knowledge, insight–that makes groups effective. In my caucus, we have scholars, academics, a Nobel laureate, astronauts, scientists, athletes, third-generation politicians, doctors, pharmacists, bus drivers–that heterogenous nature of our group is our strength.” In looking to others, he is able to find the support he needs to figure out a way through a problem. He has gumption, yes. But he also understands that in order to succeed, he has to look outside of himself, and surrounding himself with a diverse group of people with different perspectives and ideas is vital to moving forward. “Leveraging and creating an environment where it becomes a tool, where diversity becomes an asset and can be used effectively is key. I am really proud of that group [caucus]. It is a really effective symphony.”
“Our group functions in an environment where we don’t agree on everything. We disagree without being disagreeable and move past it so we can work on the next issue. We don’t let small differences get in the way of bigger progress. The country suffers if we do.”
While Milton is ranked nineteenth of the wealthiest communities in Canada by riding, beyond the shiny aesthetics, it is still a city that suffers from food insecurity and acknowledging this reality is the first step toward accelerating a community into action. The perception of a fortunate town doesn’t preclude it from experiencing its own struggles. Here, Adam’s primary objective is to find funding in order to support the ambitions of hard-working groups with a mission. By sourcing program-based grants and financial support via the federal government, the city is able to strategically invest in a variety of different programs that are tuned into the immediate needs of the community when it comes to putting food on tables, be it immediate purchases like refrigerated trucks or renovations in order to streamline efficiency. Among many groups tackling food insecurity in the city, Country Heritage Park, a not-for-profit organization rooted in farm, food, and rural lifestyle heritage, is paving the way to feed the community. Here, the idea of sharing flourishes, where resources are distributed not only within the city, but outside of it as well. Adam points out, “They have a few thousand chickens, livestock, and a commercial kitchen. They harvest a few thousands eggs every week and they deliver those to communities in need in Toronto.” They also have a food hub partnership with the grassroots Toronto Black Farmers and Food Growers Collective, who aim to grow good food and to get it into the hands of people who need it the most. The park provides the land, and the collective provides the food; the idea of a community is immediate but is also expansive to include neighbouring areas. Some for you, some for me. Sharing is such a simple concept, but the rewards are infinite.
As for the future, Adam wants to leverage his unique contribution to athletics in order to make more meaningful investments in sport, physical activity, and recreation for everyone in Canada. “One of the unfortunate realities that I’ve seen in terms of the research coming out of the epidemiology of COVID-19 is that countries with a higher obesity rate also have a higher mortality rate due to co-morbidities. That’s a preventable lifestyle-related illness. It’s related directly to our physical activity and what we eat. It’s a cultural problem and we can do better.” He points to investment into education and the elimination of recreational and food deserts, where there is a lack of access to physical activity and healthy food. He is a vocal proponent of physical literacy in children, where they learn, alongside intellectual studies, “to live a physically active lifestyle for the rest of their lives.” He is looking to prioritize the health of Canadians as insurance for the future.
As we neared the end of our conversation, I asked Adam what his hopes were for the rest of this year. He plainly stated, “I don’t have any personal goals for this year.” His response surprised me, only because I assumed a former Olympian would be the type of person who would always have summits to reach. But after we hung up, it all made perfect sense. “My only hope is to get through this pandemic, and we can get back on track. Kids can get back to school and parents don’t have to worry about whether or not they’re going to come home healthy. Seniors can continue to live in long-term care with security and comfort and not have to worry about people coming in for a visit. I just hope we can put this behind us as quickly as possible.” This year isn’t about him; this year is about everyone else. It is about the comfort of those around him, for better days ahead. And you know what? I can’t think of anything more golden.
Photography by: Getty Images/Adam van Koeverden