Natalie Spooner on Champions Fund, $100,000 in grants to Canadian female athletes

Canada's Natalie Spooner waves the Canadian flag as she celebrates with teammates after winning their gold medal ice hockey game against Team USA at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games February 20, 2014. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (RUSSIA - Tags: OLYMPICS SPORT ICE HOCKEY)

There's been plenty of recent discussion about the challenges for female athletes, from poor conditions in the NWSL to sexist comments from tennis executives to the low levels of media coverage, and there's no question that it's exceptionally difficult for many of them to chase their sporting dreams. This is perhaps especially true on the financial side; sports can be incredibly expensive, both for young talents trying to reach the elite levels and for elite athletes who don't have a lucrative professional league to play in. That's why women's hockey forward Natalie Spooner, who won Olympic gold with the Canadian national team in Sochi in 2014 and silver at the last two world championships, is involved with a new effort to help Canadian female athletes overcome financial barriers.

Spooner is involved with the Champions Fund, a new program from Canada's dairy farmers as part of their larger "Fuelling Woman Champions" initiative (which she's an athlete ambassador for). The fund will award $5,000 grants to 20 deserving female athletes, teams or organizations this year, with applications taken through September 29 and the grant recipients announced in November. Spooner spoke to Eh Game last month and said this program could be a critical source of help for many promising female athletes.

"The difference between men's sports and women's sports, looking at it, you don't get the same coverage, the same compensation," she said. "Having this, especially for those who aren't to the professional level but are trying to make it there, there's a lot of costs. In hockey, there's the cost of the ice, the cost of treatment, there's so many different costs that have to be covered. So that's going to be exciting for a lot of girls. $5,000 can go a long way in a year. And for organizations, if they're in a small town or just getting going, that would be a lot of money for them. And just to get girls to be active and keep them in sport is so important. Growing up for me, I played sports my whole life, I played every single sport I could get my hands on. Obviously I had success with hockey, but I learned so much through sports that I want other girls to have the same opportunities."

Spooner said she got involved with the fund through her larger work with Fuelling Women Champions, and she was excited to work on this given how important these grants could be for many Canadian athletes.

"I'm an ambassador for Fuelling Women Champions, which is also by the Canadian dairy farmers," she said. "There's me, there's Desiree Scott, there's Kaillie Humphries, there's Jennifer Jones, and there's Chantal Petitclerc. So this is an extension of that program, the Champions Fund, and I thought it would be really cool to be involved. Growing up, you don't have the resources. This is exciting for girls and organizations, so if I can be one of those people to help decide who gets it and who deserves it and be involved with that, I think that's exciting."

Spooner said her sport in particular carries a lot of financial barriers.

"Hockey is getting so much more expensive just to get on the ice even," she said. "It's crazy. Even since when I was little, the cost is now so much more even to get a skills coach."

The challenges aren't just for young female athletes, as there still are financial concerns even for elite talents like Spooner. Between stints with the national team, she plays for the Toronto Furies in the Canadian Women's Hockey League, but while that's excellent competitive experience, it doesn't pay the bills.

"The NHL versus where I play, the CWHL, obviously we're nowhere close," she said. "We don't get paid for playing yet. They're hoping to pay us eventually but it hasn't got to that point. It would be nice to make a career out of just playing hockey and just be able to focus on that. There are so many girls on my team who have a full-time job and then come to these games at night. The guys being able to focus on hockey the whole time, I think it also makes the hockey that much better. In Canada, too, you'd have so many more great hockey players if that could be our main focus."

Spooner's very grateful for the CWHL, though, as it provides a level of top-tier competition that didn't always exist between national team events.

"It's really important," she said. "Once we graduate from university, if we didn't have the CWHL, I don't think we'd be able to keep improving as players. It would be playing that high, elite level every four years and kind of not really knowing what to do in between that. So, being able to have the CWHL as somewhere to train and keep improving every year with the best players in Canada, I think it's been really beneficial for me, and I think for a lot of the girls."

There are plenty of roadblocks to getting women's sports to a point where more female athletes can make it their full-time career, but Spooner said it can start with even small movements, such as more fans coming to games.

"I think it's kind of a mixture of everything," she said. "I think it starts with the fans and getting more people to the games. I can relate it back to hockey again: you get so many people watching us during the Olympics and cheering us on, and in between, people forget about us, or don't really know where to watch us or how to follow along. If we had some of those people in the stands at our CWHL games, putting people in the stands, getting people interested, then the sponsors are going to want to come and support the league more. It would definitely help to grow the women's game, and have little girls know that there's a league they can play in when they get older."

As for Spooner herself, she's keeping busy this summer with a combination of national team events, fitness training, and scrimmages, and she has more on her plate this fall.

"At the end of May, we had the Team Canada fitness testing camp. Now we're just back in the gym, making improvements from May to September. September will be our next Team Canada camp. So it's mostly in the gym right now, but in July we start up with a few skill sessions on the ice, a few scrimmages just to get going.

She said she's eager to help judge the grant applications, though, as she thinks they'll make a significant impact for many Canadian female athletes.

"I think it's going to make a big difference," Spooner said. "I've been part of Fuelling Women's Champions now for just over a year, and I've already seen such a huge difference. They're also involved with the CWHL, and just for our league, they've done tremendous things. Just the exposure to the game and helping little girls want to be involved. So I think that this is really exciting. There are 20 people every year that are going to get $5,000. So that's a pretty big help. I think it's going to hopefully change some people's lives for that year, and let them get started if they're an organization, or if they're an athlete, get overseas to train or have a tournament or whatever they need to do. So I think it's going to be really exciting."

More information on how to apply for the Champions Fund grants, and the applications themselves, can be found here. Spooner said the grants are very wide-open to help them find the most deserving people.

"It's pretty much anyone," she said. "You can be an individual athlete, or an organization, or a team. It doesn't matter, you just can't be professional or being paid to play, because you probably wouldn't have a use for the fund then. You just submit your application online at womenchampions.ca, and they'll narrow it down and we'll go over the top 50. Anyone in need of this or anyone who can put this towards a good cause to keep women active or get girls into sports or start up their sports organization, I think it would be an awesome fund for them to apply for."

Details on the Champions Fund and how to apply can be found at womenchampions.ca. You can follow Spooner on Twitter at @natspooner5.