Chris Kowalczuk (HBSc 2009)

Chris KowalczukFormer Canadian football guard, Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Chris Kowalczuk had been into football and fitness since high school, but when he started at U of T Mississauga in 2003 his priority was academics. Study hard, become a teacher: that was his plan. Then his plan changed.

Kowalczuk, who played for the Canadian Football League‘s Winnipeg Blue Bombers, spent his first two years on campus concentrating on his double major in history and geography, but he always felt like something was missing.

“I always had the drive to get back to playing football,” says Kowalczuk. “But I was concerned about being able to juggle it with my school work. I didn’t want to be in a position where I was compromising my studies.”

Prior to the construction of the Recreation, Athletics and Wellness Centre (RAWC), Kowalczuk spent five days a week working out in U of T Mississauga’s Fit Stop and Olympic weightlifting room. One day, he started chatting with some of the other bulky football-sized guys around the facility, some of whom turned out to be Varsity Blues players and some who were Toronto Argonauts, who have been practicing and training at U of T Mississauga for years.

“They told me they all found ways to balance athletics with academics and that, if my heart was still in it, I should try out for the varsity team. They said, ‘You don’t want to go through life looking back on things you could have done and didn’t do.’ I took that philosophy to heart and that’s really what got me to where I am today,” says Kowalczuk.

When Kowalczuk made the varsity team in his third year at U of T Mississauga, he not only maintained his grades, he improved them, a feat he attributes to rising to the challenge of a more demanding workload. While he believes he has always had a strong work ethic, he says it got even stronger when he intensified his training regime because it forced him to manage his study time more efficiently. It also helped that he had the support of the varsity coaching staff and a U of T Mississauga faculty member. Kowalczuk says Ron Buliung of the Geography department was one of his favourite professors because he was always very enthusiastic about the material he taught.

“I also seemed to run into him all the time outside of class. I’d see him at the gym, in the halls, in Spigel Hall and he knew I played football so he’d always ask about the team and how we were doing,” says Kowalczuk. “Having one of your professors rooting for you is so encouraging.”

Kowalczuk, who always had the size to play professional football, never considered it a career option until he saw how drastically his skills were improving with the Varsity Blues—and he credits part of this drastic improvement to the opening of the RAWC in 2006.

“Having these great new facilities was an inspiration to train harder and to get better. There were eight to ten of us on the team who worked out together every day at the RAWC. It was really a place we all wanted to be: it had everything we needed to succeed,” says Kowalczuk, who, because of his knowledge of the facilities and equipment, started becoming the person younger players on the team approached when they had training questions.

But even now, as a professional athlete, Kowalczuk keeps up on geography—he brought one of his old U of T Mississauga textbooks with him to read during downtime—and he still has thoughts about becoming a teacher when his playing days are over. So it is no surprise that he relishes opportunities to volunteer his time in the community, particularly during February’s I Love to Read Month in Manitoba, when he makes appearances at local elementary schools.

“I get to go in there and read to these kids for a while. It’s very rewarding. I talk to them about the importance of reading, how it should be something you enjoy,” says Kowalczuk. “When you make reading a priority, when you focus on your education, you never know what opportunities might present themselves. I’m living proof of that.”

Originally published in the U of T Mississauga Magazine.

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