Basketball, Sports

Sylvia Sweeney: Trailblazer, leader, visionary

Montrealer Sylvia Sweeney has had a career that is nothing short of extraordinary. As a member of the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame, World Championship MVP and bronze medalist, an original board member of the Toronto Raptors, member of the Order of Canada, and Canada’s “First Lady of Basketball,” Sweeney has proved to be a tremendously talented athlete. Since retiring in 1984, Sweeney has continued to make an impact outside of the world of sports, telling stories in documentaries and spreading cultural awareness through the arts. It is no wonder that U SPORTS and TSN have honoured her with the creation of the Sylvia Sweeney Award, presented every year to a women’s basketball student-athlete who is well-rounded and dedicated to both athletics and academics.

Sweeney’s first experience with basketball was facing off against boys in her neighbourhood. She would bet them a quarter that she could beat them one-on-one and would happily accept her coins when they underestimated her. Years later, she made waves in the world of Canadian university sports when she set the record for most points scored in a game playing for the McGill Martlets in 1973. Sweeney later played for the Concordia Stingers in 1977 and the Laurentian Lady Vees from 1978 to 1979, taking home the national championship in her final year with the Vees.

When women’s basketball was first introduced to the Montreal Olympics in 1976, Sweeney played for Team Canada. She was made captain in 1979 and led her team to a fourth-place finish at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, which remains the team’s best showing to this day. At the 1979 Pan American Games in Mexico, Sweeney received the honour of bearing her country’s flag at the opening ceremony. The Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame recognized Sweeney’s achievements in 1996, making her the first woman inducted into the Hall for excellence in basketball.

After her basketball career, Sweeney turned her talents to media. She worked as a researcher, journalist, anchor, and sportscaster for CBC and CTV. Sweeney founded Elitha Peterson Productions Incorporated, a motion pictures production company and studio in Toronto. Sweeney also produced several award-winning documentaries, and was eventually named an executive producer of the National Film Board of Canada in 2002. One of her 1992 documentaries, In the Key of Oscar, told the story of her uncle, the legendary jazz pianist Oscar Peterson.

In addition to sports and media, Sweeney also holds a clear passion for the arts. She studied classical piano in the Department of Performance during her time at McGill, and managed the funk/R&B band Tchukon while working at CBC. She has continued to combine her love for arts and sports, most notably in her production of the 2008 Marriage of Excellence concert series, which featured disabled artists in performances that occurred between the Olympic and Paralympic Games. She recently directed her efforts toward ArtsGames, a global competition that she founded to celebrate artistic achievement in media arts, literature, visual arts, dance, and music. During her 20 years working for the ArtsGames, Sweeney staged several concerts and festivals, including the 1999 Blueprints Arts & Entertainment Festival in Toronto and performances at the 2004 and 2008 Paralympic Games.

Sweeney’s mission, whether in her athletic career, media work, or artistic endeavours, has always been to build bridges between communities and foster connections. She believes that excellence should be visible and celebrated, and used as a tool for promoting cultural awareness, acceptance, and education. Her presence as one of the first Black players on the Canadian National Team and one of the first Black women on CBC television has led to a greater platform for Black women in sports and the media, and has opened doors for those yet to come.

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