ABBOTSFORD — The official records will tell you, that in the history of Canadian university sport, the 2020-21 season simply did not exist.
Whistles were not blown. Eligibility was not taken. Games were not played.
Yet despite the bottom-line realities of COVID-19, there was, thankfully, nothing stopping this country’s student-athletes from still being students.
In honour of today’s National Girls and Women In Sport Day, that seems a most fitting way to introduce Tripat Sandhu, who as both a visionary and fourth-year midfielder with the Fraser Valley Cascades women’s soccer team has come to define the powerful platform for positive change available to student-athletes across Canada despite their cancelled seasons and the presence of a global pandemic.
“I would have loved it if my career didn’t have to end this way,” admitted Sandhu, a three-time U SPORTS academic All-Canadian, and her school’s first-ever female student-athlete to serve as UFV Student Union Society President (2019-20).
“I would have loved to have had my Seniors’ Night, just to have that closure,” adds the criminal justice major, who over recently-completed fall semester posted a perfect 4.33 GPA on UFV’s 4.33 GPA scale.
Yet in lieu of that ceremony, over a season which did nothing but take opportunities away from its student-athletes, Sandhu has achieved closure on her own terms by finding a way to give back to her team within the biggest picture possible.
Appointed by UFV’s Office of the President to its Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) task force, Sandhu has helped play a leading role in shaping vision and best practices for creating a campus-wide environment in support of those ideals.
And although she will leave the cozy confines of her hometown campus to begin pursuit of a law degree in the fall, Sandhu will do so knowing that her work with the school’s EDI task force will be beating particularly strong within the heart of the women’s soccer program.
Working in concert with newly-appointed UFV head coach Niko Marcina, plans are afoot for a leadership group of Cascades’ women’s soccer players to share the EDI message in their community.
“It’s something that Niko wanted to bring into the team,” Sandhu, 21, says. “We are making presentations to youth regarding equity, diversity, inclusion, anti-racism… and we think having it come from we, as student-athletes, it’s a much more influential way to have these kinds of conversations with our youth.”
Marcina, a former star and two-time national champion during his playing days at UBC, had spent five seasons as a UFV assistant before being hired Tuesday as the new Cascades head coach.
And he was quick to admit that in this time of pandemic, the example set by Sandhu serves as a sustaining legacy for younger players.
“Tripat understands the platform she has, and she had been motivated to use it in the most positive way,” said Marcina, 37. “By watching and witnessing what she has done internally, as a student-athlete… by someone almost half my age… that has been inspiring to me.”
Yet her want to help extends well beyond the confines of the UFV campus.
Since early 2019, she has been a victim services volunteer with the Abbotsford Police Department, helping provide resource- and emotional-based support to those in need.
“I also attend crisis call-outs, when a police officer needs immediate support for a victim because they may not have a support system,” she explains.
Sandhu also volunteers as a co-facilitator and mentor with Abbotsford Restorative Justice, and as a coach with the Abbotsford United Soccer Club.
She has also been involved in the local protests in support of farmers in the Punjab, the same state in India where her father Jagmohan and mother Karmjit both hail.
Quite logically, her parents have inspired her along her path of community outreach.
“The roots of this are definitely from my parents,” she begins. “They have always instilled in me service, respect, empathizing and helping others. Just seeing them serving the community, coming from India, they are blessed and grateful to be in Canada for the opportunities it has provided their children, including myself.”
By extension, it’s what inspired Sandhu to take her own first few bold steps to help support her community at the grassroots level while still in Grade 11 at Abbotsford’s Dasmesh Punjabi School.
That’s when she and fellow classmate Jaspreet Sahota formed the Sikh Sewa International Society of Youth (SSISY.org), a non-profit which seeks to inspire youth to help the more vulnerable in society, both locally and internationally, by hosting events like soup kitchens, bottle drives and international medical camps.
“In Abbotsford we always saw the narrative of South Asian individuals being involved in gangs,” said Sandhu of the days back in 2015, when she and Sahota decided to launch their own initiative.
“One day we just said ‘Let’s do it,’” she continued. “So we decided to create our own organization, one that unites all different types of youth and inspires them to serve the community in any possible way. Medically, educationally…”
Back on campus at UFV, despite the fact the soccer season was cancelled, Sandhu has remained a positive presence, savouring her final few months with the squad.
“Soccer is my stress-reliever, it’s something that I can lean on,” she says, adding that despite her academic goals and a plethora of community initiatives to keep her busy, she never considered dropping the sport.
“I didn’t want to let go of the relationships I’ve built on this team,” she adds. “I wanted to stick it out and give it my best for my teammates.”
None of that is lost on new head coach Marcina, who while set to guide his first Cascades team in Canada West play next season without Sandhu on the roster, remains grateful for what she was willing to give in what has been the toughest season of all.
“I have been inspired by her because she has an ability to find solutions regardless of the adversity presented her,” Marcina begins. “She refuses to give excuses. She has set a precedent within the team where she has shown the players that we all have the ability to do these kinds of things, and that there is nothing that can get in our way.”
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