By Barbara Grinder
Born and raised in Calgary, Helen Vanderburg won the gold medal in synchronized swimming for both the solo and duet events at the World Aquatic Championships in Berlin in 1978. She was named Canada's Outstanding Female Athlete of the Year for an unprecedented three consecutive years and has been inducted into the International Aquatic Hall of Fame, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame.
Though Vanderburg says that she’s had a lot of excellent teachers, the one who was most memorable was her Grade 1 teacher at Belvedere Elementary School, Mrs Robertson.
“I suppose I remember her partly because she was my first teacher, but beyond that she stands out because she set me up for success for the rest of my educational years. She wrote in my journal, when I was six years old, a phrase that I carried with me the rest of my life: ‘You will be the best at whatever you decide to be.’”
“The message I would like to share with all teachers is that encouragement, inspiration and creating a positive learning environment at a very young age affect children for the rest of their lives,” Vanderburg says. “Mrs Robertson did that for me. She had all the usual attributes of a good teacher, but her outstanding quality was that she made her students feel successful; she made us feel smart.”
Vanderburg says that her memories of her Grade 1 teacher came rushing back to her when she attended her daughter’s Grade 1 parent–teacher interview. She also heard from Mrs Robertson a few years ago.
“She called me after she’d seen an article I wrote for the Calgary Herald. It was as if all the years that had passed were only a short period of time. I think we both have the same philosophy of life—that success breeds success. Children need to feel success at an early age, as it will affect them positively for the rest of their lives and careers,” Vanderburg says. “It seems simple and logical, but it’s not easily practised. I applaud teachers who achieve that.”
Vanderburg retired from competition in 1979, earned a degree in physical education from the University of Calgary, and is currently owner and operator of Heavens Fitness and Fountain Park Health Club in Calgary. As a fitness instructor and a speaker on fitness-related health issues, Vanderburg has also won many industry awards and received the Global Calgary Woman of Vision award for her outstanding contribution to fitness leadership. She has also been team leader for the Canadian Nike presenting team and a fitness columnist for the Calgary Herald.