‘Swirling Butterfly Woman’ gears up for her final game with U of Winnipeg Wesmen

Before the start of every game, Robyn Boulanger’s parents bring her cedar to put in her basketball shoes. With that and a good sage smudge, she is ready to play. 

When she gets on the court, the star of the University of Winnipeg’s Wesmen’s women’s basketball team becomes her Anishinaabe spirit name, “Swirling Butterfly Woman.” 

The senior student athlete from Berens River First Nation is playing her final season with the Wesmen. 

The sport has always been a big part of her life, she says.

Boulanger, 23, began playing at the downtown campus in Grade 9 when she started school at University of Winnipeg Collegiate.

Love of the game

“I just love being on the court and being with my friends,” the team captain said. “It’s like a huge socialization aspect for me, right. I have a lot of friends who are going to be lifelong friends of mine.” 

She’s spent the last six years playing guard for the Wesmen. Typically, student athletes get five years to play, but since COVID-19 disrupted a season, she was eligible for an extra year. 

She says her sisters paved the way for her to be successful.

Robyn played her rookie year with her sister Skylar Boulanger with the UW Wesmen.

While her other sister, Raven Boulanger, played for the Red River College Rebels.

She says they’re her biggest supporters and role models. 

“I was always a competitive kid, and seeing them be successful I always wanted to achieve what they achieved — but, you know, even more so.  I kind of tease them a little bit about that.”

The team’s coach, Alyssa Cox, coached a provincial team for a summer when Robyn was in Grade 11, and has watched her play from the get-go.

“She’s always been a student of the game,” Cox said. “She’s always been a very smart player, and so its been really fun to kind of watch her grow and develop in different ways.

“With the U of W she really was somebody that was counted on for her shooting ability and her scoring. And then, as she’s gotten further into her career, she’s just kind of developed kind of all aspects of her game.”

An inspiration to younger players

Anna Kernaghan, a guard in her second year with the team, has been a teammate of Boulanger’s since long before they played on the Wesmen.

Kernaghan says Boulanger is a highly competitive player who likes to “talk a little trash” on court.

“She just always encouraged me to not pass up shots —  you know, look to attack, look for myself.” 

Points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks are important statistics for basketball players, but Boulanger says her favourite stat is steals. 

“I like steals. Usually people would say 3-point shots. If you’d ask in my first of four years, I would’ve been, ‘threes, threes, threes,’ but I like the feeling of stealing the ball from someone.”

In the summer of 2022, the university honoured Robyn and Josh Gandier, who is from Peguis First Nation, with a mural of the two of them standing side by side on court, in uniform, holding a basketball.

The large mural, painted by Emmanual Jarus, is on the wall of the bridge that connects the Duckworth Centre with the Axworthy Health and RecPlex. 

Mural of Indigenous Athletes Robyn Boulanger and Josh Grandier at UW in winter
A mural of Indigenous athletes Robyn Boulanger and Josh Grandier was unveiled outside of the downtown campus last summer. (Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC)

Boulanger says she is always willing to step up to mentor other Indigenous youth. 

“I just want to encourage any Indigenous athlete, if they think that they can play at the next level, they definitely can,” she said. “If it comes across their mind, I want to be a role model for them and show them that they can play at this level like I have.”

While the University of Winnipeg campus is a big part of Boulanger’s life, she says she’s ready to try something new. 

When she graduates in June, she will be certified as a teacher. She hopes to apply to a Masters program in Indigenous education after that. 

She’s also been exploring the possibility of playing pro basketball overseas now that her UW campus playing days are almost over. Her final home game for the Wesmen is on Feb. 11.

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