Olympian Cindy Yelle believes in the power of philanthropy

March 4, 2021 by Sarah MacFarlane - A&S News

When the warm weather rolls around, Cindy Yelle trades the hustle and bustle of Toronto for the serenity of Muskoka Lakes. From the window of her cottage in Bala, Ontario, she can see the water — her happy place.

“I wake up to it every morning and I’m in it every day,” she says. “For me, swimming is this sense of freedom and weightlessness. Swimming is the closest I'll ever get to flying. It’s just this beautiful experience every time I'm in the water.”

The Faculty of Arts & Science alumna was an avid athlete as a child. She loved ballet and all sports — but swimming was always her passion.

“My dream from the age of nine or 10 was to represent Canada,” she says. “I convinced myself that it wasn't a matter of if it was going to happen, but when it was going to happen.”

And it did. A 14-time Canadian National Champion, Yelle captained the women’s swim teams at the Canadian World Championships and Commonwealth Games and was a member of Team Canada at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics.

“At the time, it was amazing, but now, decades later, I think I appreciate it more,” she says. “Who doesn't want to wear the Maple Leaf and be part of Team Canada?”

Yelle began her post-secondary studies at the University of Florida, where she became a two-time National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) champion and record holder. In 1987, she moved back to Canada to finish her bachelor of arts degree in geography and economics, graduating from U of T in 1990 as a member of University College.

When she returned to Toronto, Yelle began training with the U of T swim team. It was at the Athletic Centre swimming pool that she met her now-husband, Paul Yelle, a fellow Olympic swimmer and U of T alumnus.

She trained with the team until 1988, when she decided to dedicate more time to her studies.

“I wanted to really focus on academics,” she says. “I’d been to most of the major international championships and broken a number of records. I felt like I had done my thing and was ready to move to the next phase in my life.”

She recalls several professors at U of T who were “extraordinary,” adding that she was particularly inspired by Professor Neil Field in the Department of Geography & Planning, who died in 2008. “He was such a great guy and very encouraging. Because of him, I had toyed with the idea of doing a master's in planning.”

My motivation has always been to see if I can do some good, to inspire people to believe in potential and step forward through philanthropy. It’s making people believe that we can do better together. It’s a team effort, and positive things can come to fruition.

Yelle ultimately decided to start her career after undergrad and began working for a fundraising consultancy based in the U.S. In 1995, she returned to the University of Toronto as executive director of advancement at the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering. She played a key role in U of T’s Great Minds campaign, which raised a total of $1.1 billion by its conclusion in 2004.

“U of T factors into my life in a major way,” she says. “I spent nine years working there, and I feel like I learned from the best.”

Yelle has since become a leader in health-based philanthropy, serving as senior vice-president of the SickKids Foundation and president and chief executive officer of the Toronto Rehabilitation Foundation.

In February 2020, she was appointed CEO of the Canadian Olympic Foundation.

“It was really meaningful from a personal point of view,” she says. “It’s philanthropy, partnerships, promoting the essence of Olympism and pride in Canada. My life has come full circle, which is kind of crazy but wonderful.”

But only weeks after her appointment came the announcement that the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics would be postponed to July 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My heart goes out to these athletes, but it’s amazing how resilient athletes — and people in general — are,” Yelle says. “I’m pushing the foundation really hard to help with Team Canada and the future. We believe sport will be part of the healing process and has the potential to bring people and countries together like nothing else.”

From U of T to the Canadian Olympic Foundation, joining organizations she believes in has been a key characteristic of Yelle’s career. “My motivation has always been to see if I can do some good, to inspire people to believe in potential and step forward through philanthropy. It’s making people believe that we can do better together. It’s a team effort, and positive things can come to fruition.”

Yelle believes U of T is a prime example of that principle. “We all take on a piece of the puzzle. Whether you're a fundraiser or an alum or a student, we're all intertwined. U of T has had success with fundraising over the years, and in a big way, that’s because of alumni who are grateful for the opportunity to have gone to such a great university to get their start.

“I'm enormously grateful to the University of Toronto. My life would look very different had I not gone to U of T.”

Yelle adds that while academics are important, university is about more than textbooks.

“University is about the connections you make, personally and professionally. You learn about yourself, get a sense of what interests and motivates you. It's about the whole life experience.”