From Olympic glory to festival fun

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Stephen Bourdeau has made a career of organizing big events

The Northern Alberta International Children’s Festival has a new festival co-ordinator.

Stephen Bourdeau’s large-windowed office faces the winding Sturgeon River with its lush green banks and decades-old trees.

But once the festival rolls into high gear next week, the avid cyclist will slap on a helmet and jump on his bike. Yes, he’ll be the slim guy wearing Buddy Holly glasses tooling around the grounds greeting kids and running errands.

Bourdeau has never managed a children’s festival prior to St. Albert’s event. However, he has travelled to 43 countries organizing international triathlons and was employed as part of press operations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

“My favourite saying is never miss an opportunity to make a memory,” said Bourdeau.

He’s done just that, many times.

Bourdeau’s Pineview home is the United Nations of keepsakes from across the globe – a jade Buddha, a Celtic knot, African skin drums, an Australian boomerang, a mock Ming vase and a sheepskin rug from New Zealand, to name a few.

Easy going and laid back, he has a wholesome neighbour-next-door charm that is completely disarming. Many have described his string of past careers as “dream jobs.”

However, those dream jobs come with a lot of pressure and he has a knack for seeing things for what they are and not losing his cool.

“There are those things that aren’t controllable. There’s nothing you can do about it. You have to go with the flow. Events are very fluid. You don’t know what’s around the corner, but you have to get to the end.”

Sports and management

Born in Ottawa, Bourdeau moved with his family to St. Albert when he was four. A 1998 Paul Kane High graduate, he was a sports fiend for hockey and dabbled in numerous summer sports including soccer, tennis, softball and roller hockey. A high school buddy suggested cycling, the beginning of a long-term love affair.

Bourdeau’s initial career choice was accounting. However, once at the University of Alberta, he realized a business management degree would open more doors.

During a trip to Italy, where he met his wife, Bourdeau returned with renewed energy and obtained double degrees in marketing and international business.

After his 2003 graduation, the traditional business route was to complete a practicum. When Sheila O’Kelly, event director for the World Cup Triathlon held at Hawrelak Park, offered him a summer contract planning and organizing the sports event, he accepted.

“The Edmonton World Cup Triathlon was a benchmark event on the world circuit. It had the most money and was the best organized.”

When fall rolled around, O’Kelly expanded the events and needed a permanent events manager. Bourdeau was hired and organized the World Half Marathon Championships, Masters Games and any big league sporting event at the park.

“That was our niche. We didn’t do anything below a national championship.”

On the side Bourdeau volunteered for the International Triathlon Union, an international governing body for several disciplines.

Through his volunteer efforts, Bourdeau displayed a keen grasp for organization. He was offered a job in Vancouver travelling across the globe organizing 18 to 25 world cup events a year.

“This was the opportunity I had dreamt of in university,” he said.

By March 9, 2006 he was on an airplane for a two-month trip to Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Jordan.

What started as two-month tour of the Middle East turned into an eight-month overseas trip that included the Singapore World Cup and Australian Commonwealth Games.

“I was fortunate to have a loving wife. At that time I wasn’t married which made it even more remarkable,” said Bourdeau, adding that home was in White Rock.

By the time the 2008 Beijing Olympics were announced, Bourdeau’s career was on an upswing and the thrill of the Games was still fresh.

However, from the get-go Beijing only wanted their countrymen in key positions.

“Eighteen months before the games started, they realized they didn’t know what to do and hired professional experts. The local media crew had never put on an international event. They had never dealt with 300 members of the media bumping and jostling into each other.”

Once again Bourdeau was seconded to plan press operations, a job that entailed setting up a media centre for a phalanx of world reporters, creating a photographers’ centre and navigating media tours.

But life as media gypsy lost its lustre after daughter Natalie was born in July 2009 and he handed in his resignation shortly after.

“I was tired of reacquainting myself with my daughter. I would go away for two weeks or a month. When I came back she wouldn’t know who I was and it was painful for me.”

Reassessing the now family-oriented priorities, the Bourdeaus returned to St. Albert and bought a home in Pineview. No sooner had they moved the boxes and furniture in the house, then a call from Vancouver arrived for a six-month Olympic contract.

The sports nomads once again loaded their car and headed west.

“I was offered the pick of any venue. I don’t know why I chose Cypress Mountain. I dug my own grave,” he chuckled.

Within a month, the world media was focused on Cypress Mountain, which handled moguls, free-style skiing and snowboarding events. But temperatures were hovering at zero and there was no snow.

The Vancouver Olympic standards required a five-metre base snow pack. The solution was to truck in snow from the Coquihalla Pass.

“We needed a base of five metres to pull it off. Someone came up with the brilliant idea to do the first three metres with straw bales layered with plywood, and the final two top metres with snow.”

“But as the straw decomposed, it heated the snow from the bottom and there would be huge sink holes and there was a mad panic to fix it before people and the media arrived.”

Prior to the Olympics and during, Bourdeau described Cypress Mountain as a war zone.

“Helicopters were flying in snow and tractors were moving it. For three weeks there was an endless stream of trucks all day every day. It was amazing. We pulled it off. On TV it looked great. But in person on the hills there was just this white ribbon on brown.”

After the Olympics Bourdeau received an award for best press operations by his peers, the world media and his supervisors.

“I was at the pinnacle of press operation. I’d given it my best. At 29, I’d accomplished everything I’d wanted, and I didn’t know what to do.”

Full circle

Returning to St. Albert, Bourdeau was hired as event director for the Alberta 55 Plus Games. After the games were finished, he was hired at United Cycle in a key management position and was groomed for succession.

But the hours were too long and when a friend emailed him a notice for a children’s festival co-ordinator, Bourdeau applied.

“I’d come full circle. My community is important to me. It always has been. It was here I built up a skill base and it tickled me to apply it to the community. To make it better for my family and friends put a smile on may face.”

As the festival co-ordinator, his main focus is to develop and expand its multicultural aspect.

“I’d love to bring more international culture in and I see us doing that through food vendors, site activities, roving artists and the visual arts.”

And if you see him cycling down the festival paths, stop him, mingle a bit and pass on your thoughts. He is ready to welcome the world with open arms.

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About Author

Anna Borowiecki

Anna Borowiecki joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2000. She reports on local people and events in the arts, entertainment and food industry. She also writes general news and features.