“(Coaching) has been something very special to me – seeing athletes grow in many ways, watching them accomplish academic, athletic and personal goals. It’s a special reward for me.” - Michèle Bélanger
Kingston, Ont. - There was a time when Michèle Bélanger, a young and talented basketball player, was focused on playing for her country.
Then came the telephone call.
Dealing with an injury at the time, Bélanger was heartbroken after being informed that she had been cut from Canada’s National team. It was a huge let down, her hopes and expectations had been shattered.
Four decades later, Bélanger still recalls the conversation that took place on a spring day in May of 1979 - and it wasn’t the message she had hoped to receive.
But something good always seems to come from disappointment. Inspired by many, Bélanger re-focused on personal priorities and a career. Rather than be obsessed by anger, her thoughts about a bright future took over.
It wasn’t long after that piercing blow to her pride and playing dreams, that Bélanger chose to continue with basketball – but in a different capacity. At the age of 22, she took a risk, not knowing much about coaching and accepted a short-term contract to coach the sport at Canada’s largest educational institution, the University of Toronto.
She would begin a 10-month commitment, moving the competitiveness focus from player to confidant – all the while learning, gathering ideas, and strengthening her knowledge of the important role as a sports tutor. Thinking she’d only be coaching a year or so before moving on to something else, her energy level increased, but the modesty stayed the same.
Little did she know back then that, 40 years later, she would still be doing what she does best. Tack on respect and recognition from peers and athletes, and for Bélanger, there are no retirement plans in sight.
The spotlight as a player may be gone, but even brighter is the role of mentor for thousands, as Bélanger - engaging, responsive, and always prepared - went on to become one of the most successful women’s basketball coaches in Canadian university sports history.
While she didn’t suit up to play for Canada, she was the subject of awards – and there have been many. Step aside from playing and coaching, Bélanger, fluent in French, was an interpreter at the 1976 Olympics in Montréal and 10 years later, gave a series of coaching clinics in Africa when invited by Canada’s Department of External Affairs.
An eventual eight-time OUA Coach of the Year, Bélanger did end up wearing the national colors of Canada, but it was coaching teams in locations that included Russia and Sicily. In South Korea, at the World University Games, she had a huge role in Canada winning a silver medal.
At U of T, where the team had won five of 12 regular season games in her rookie coaching year, the program would go on to prosper with nine Ontario gold medals (the last one in 2002). They played at the National championships 17 times and captured one title in 1986.
Ontario University Athletics, the largest provincial university sports network in Canada, saluted the achievements of Bélanger with a “Women in Sport Recognition Award” at its inaugural luncheon highlighting the superb accomplishments of female leaders. It took place during the OUA annual general meeting in Kingston.
“It’s really the only job I have had,” said Bélanger, now 63 years of age and the dean of Canadian women’s university basketball coaches. “Looking back, (coaching) has been something very special to me – seeing athletes grow in many ways, watching them accomplish academic, athletic, and personal goals. It’s a special reward for me.”
“Being a role model, leaving a positive mark, contributing to their growth. Every year, when new young women come in, there are new challenges. It keeps you focused and motivated. In some ways, you’re like a parent; someone they can trust and turn to for compassion and empathy. I never thought I could enjoy doing this so much.”
The second oldest in a family of eight siblings, born in Montréal and raised in Timmins, Bélanger learned the game of hoops in Grade 9, and would become a multi-sport athlete in her days at École Secondaire Catholique Thériault. Athletics were fun, but her priority was always academics.
“We had a female teacher (at Therriault) who initiated a basketball program and my introduction to the sport was rather interesting … someone said I was tall and remember running up and down the gym floor,” recalled Bélanger.
“My parents wanted me to play sports. I was the day-to-day kind of girl focused on school. But basketball caught my eye. I liked the pace and the team aspect. Back then, I didn’t know that you could play basketball when you went to university.”
Passionate and relentless, Bélanger would mix excellence in basketball with school grades. She chose Laurentian University in Sudbury and would earn an Honors Degree in Kinesiology (she took a fifth year at the University of Victoria). On the hardwood, and a starter on her team, the awards rolled in and she would one day be inducted to the Timmins Sports Hall of Fame.
From leading the University of Toronto to its first National title in 1986, her teams have won nine OUA championships and appeared in Canadian championships. Bélanger has coached a remarkable 47 players to all-star honors – 38 in the OUA and nine to all-Canadian awards.
But it was never about her. In fact, she doesn’t like getting singled out.
“I like to keep a low profile and don’t like to bring attention to me,” she said. “I don’t enjoy the limelight. What can get me worked up, is when players don’t get the respect they deserve. As for what lies ahead for me, when I feel that I’m not relevant, I’ll pack it in.”
David Grossman is a multi award-winning communicator and storyteller with a distinguished career in Broadcasting, Journalism and Public Relations in Sport and Government Relations. In 2018, he was presented with the OUA Media Award of Distinction.