Susan Stewart has seen good days and dark days, but for her, every new day is life’s greatest gift.
Stewart represented Team Canada at the 1996 Summer Olympics, won back-to-back CIS National Championships, and was even baptized in the Indian Ocean, yet it was April 8, 2005 that was one of the most memorable days of her life.
The former Laurentian Voyageur slipped in the shower and hit her head, sustaining a concussion. She then aggravated the injury a few days later, falling because of dizziness from her original accident, severely injuring her brainstem for the second time in as many days.
Stewart was taken to the local hospital and fell into a coma.
“It was tough hearing that Chaplain read me my last rites on that hospital bed,” said Stewart. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s it? That can’t be it, I have more I want to do.’”
Stewart, a now brain-injury survivor, says the situation has given her a greater viewpoint on what is important in life. Three pillars helped the two-time CIS National Champion through those tough years: love, faith, and basketball.
“It was an eye opening experience, one that I will never ever forget,” said Stewart. “Never will I take my life for granted, I’ll live each day to the fullest. It taught me a lot of lessons, and it really helped me put things into perspective. I’ve got a second chance at life.”
The Mississauga, Ontario native had to re-learn the most basic human movements. From walking up a flight of stairs, to learning how to talk, to figuring out how to dress herself and chew food, every action was work. She explains that when she first started learning to talk again, she sounded like Mickey Mouse. Her vision went from a -2 subscription to -4, and she is unable to drive because of lingering effects.
“I’m still learning stuff now too, the journey is not over,” said Stewart. “I’m thankful for my parents, and sister, for my niece and nephew, for my aunts, uncles and cousins, grandmother and the prayers of many people – including the nurses who cared for me, and all my former teammates who supported me through the journey.”
Stewart says the love and encouragement from her support circle kept her going even on the darkest days. She chronicled her story and was inspired to write an autobiography called “Unbreakable” that was published in 2015.
While Stewart is grateful for her progress and the support she has received, she admits rehabilitation has been slow. The resilience and perseverance the Mississauga Sports Hall of Fame inductee learned through her 22 years of basketball experience, (including 12 years on the Senior Women’s National Team) was pivotal throughout her recovery process.
Stewart played soccer and ran track growing up, but was eventually inspired to pick up a basketball after watching Magic Johnson and the “Showtime Lakers” in the 1980s because of the joy they displayed while playing the game. She joined the Streetsville Secondary School basketball team in grade nine and was named the school’s Athlete of the Year from 1985-1988. Then she played on the Metro Juniors travelling team before eventually becoming involved with the National Junior Development Program and the Senior National Team.
“I played with passion and a love for the game that I still have today,” said Stewart. “I was gaining success along the way and that obviously motivated me to get better, but the focus wasn’t really on myself. I played with other great players that helped me excel.”
Stewart had a storied career at Laurentian University, winning five Ontario University Athletics (OUA) titles (1989-1995) and back-to-back National Championships in 1990-1991 while earning her Bachelor of Arts with an emphasis in Law and Justice. Stewart was a five-time OUA All-Star and in 1991-1992 earned Player of the Year honours - both provincially and nationally - and was honoured with the Voyageur Award when she graduated into 1995. In 2003, she was inducted into the Laurentian Voyageurs Hall of Fame.
“Winning is nice, but it’s who you win with,” said Stewart. “It’s not so much about the basketball per se, but the relationships that I gained through that journey. I met some great friends through playing the game of basketball, they are all over the world, but I stay in touch with some of them to this day. We still have our memories and they will never go away.”
Stewart cherishes her time both at Laurentian University and playing with the Senior Women’s National Team. She does, however, remember being the lone Black athlete on the Canadian National Team at the time. Despite this, she had a passion for the game that consumed her and allowed her to zone in on the task at hand.
Stewart wore the maple leaf on several occasions, and represented her country with pride. Notably, she competed at the 1991 Pan American Games, 1994 FIBA World Championship, and 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
“I loved playing the game and it didn’t prevent me from doing that, but I did realize I was the only one” shared Stewart. “I once had someone ask me if there were any Black people in Canada.”
“I was a very confident woman because I was surrounded by very strong women that nurtured me so I wasn’t shy or awkward about being the only one but I did notice it, I was aware of it,” said Stewart. “Having grown up around strong women like my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and the people that surrounded me at Streetsville and Laurentian, that helped me to not focus on my colour but on the game.”
Stewart was inspired to play for the Senior Women’s National Team after attending an exhibition game between Canada and China at York University. She saw Carol Hamilton, a Black athlete, playing at the national level and realized this was a goal that she also wanted to pursue.
Stewart has left her mark, and is excited to see what the future holds for the program. The Canadian’s passion for the game also led her to coaching for a period of time, and she is proud to have mentored the likes of Tammy Sutton-Brown, and more recently, Justina King.
“What I set out to do was win a medal for Canada, that was my mentality,” said the level three NCCP Coach. “When the next generation wins that medal I will have tears of joy in my eyes. They will have me cheering them on the entire way.”
Stewart became involved with coaching as a way to give back to the game she loves. The Ontario Basketball Hall of Fame inductee was an assistant for both the University of Toronto Varsity Blues and then with the Ram’s Women’s Basketball team the following year.
Unfortunately, Stewart was unable to find a full-time job in coaching. She now works in terminal operations for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, but remains a valued member in the basketball community. Her current dream is to be involved with player development - whether it’s with the Canadian national teams, the National Basketball Association (NBA), or the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).
“I would love to have a place where I could mentor athletes in the four main areas - physical, mental, social and spiritual - and develop players in that way.”
Strong faith has been another pillar that has helped Stewart persevere through her journey. Stewart found this renewed faith after taking part in an Athletes in Action tour. Her team travelled in a tour bus all across the United States, playing 17 games in two weeks and sharing their faith. While she admits she originally joined as a way to play basketball in America, her faith was strengthened and proved vital when she had her accident.
The motivational speaker explains there is a need for helping athletes develop while they’re playing sport, but also in retirement. She believes she would add insight and be able to help athletes through this transitional time.
Stewart’s journey is nothing short of incredible. From being one of the first Black women to wear the maple leaf, to her perseverance in surviving a likely-fatal brainstem injury, and the grit she has displayed through the recovery process has shown everyone just how far love, faith, and basketball can take you.
Thank you Susan for paving the way, and for inspiring the next generation of Black dreamers.