Sandra Murray-MacDonell leaves a lasting legacy with the CCAA

By Colleen Parette
Sandra Murray-MacDonell leaves a lasting legacy with the CCAA
After 31 years of exemplary, dedicated service to the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) Sandra Murray-MacDonell (far right) is retiring.

After 31 years of exemplary, dedicated service to the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) Sandra Murray-MacDonell is retiring.

Although she would be the first to downplay the impact she has had, it would be difficult to find another individual that has performed as significant a role in a Canadian National or Multi Sport Organization. Murray-MacDonell has been the Chief Executive Officer (Executive Director) of the CCAA since 1995. A three-decade period at the helm of any organization is unprecedented, but her tenure speaks volumes to her character.

“Sandy has been a remarkable leader, admired by her staff and invaluable to every iteration of the CCAA Board for three decades,” said Mary Winkenweder, CCAA Manager of Finance and Admin and Murray MacDonell’s colleague for 24 years.  “She put the CCAA on the map in a crowded Canadian sport landscape and built positive internal and external relationships that strengthened the Association.”

Accomplishments and challenges accompany any career, but Murray-MacDonell’s numerous achievements have shaped the CCAA into the Association it is today. She set objectives for the CCAA with growth and stability always front of mind.

“National Championship expansion, the progression of women’s sport and setting hosting standards were early priorities,” said Murray-MacDonell.

ImageUnder her guidance, a CCAA Hosting Manual was developed to aid members, Women’s Soccer advanced from probationary status to a Level One Championship, Golf and Cross-Country Running became new CCAA events, and Curling returned after a two-decade hiatus. She was also instrumental in the establishment of the Female Apprentice Coach Program in 2005, giving recently graduated student-athletes the opportunity to pursue a career in coaching, which was a program ahead of its time.

Aside from programming, Murray-MacDonell advanced several key changes for the CCAA at the governance and administrative levels. She initiated Human Resources and Governance changes to reduce conflicts of interest at the Board level, establish industry equitable benefits for CCAA employees, and establish clear operational roles for staff, committees, and hosts. She ensured the CCAA was at the forefront of emerging matters such as Coach Certification, Drug Education and Testing, Safe Sport and Risk Management. She was also essential to Manitoba’s return as a Member Conference in the CCAA.

“Sandra’s dedication, quality of work, people skills and astute vision has guided the CCAA through the ever-changing sport landscape,” said June Lumsden, former MSVU Athletic Director and CCAA Board rep. “She built a wonderful team at the CCAA Office and the outstanding work that CCAA members receive nationally is a reflection of her.”

It was with a bit of good fortune that Murray-MacDonell and the CCAA became connected. After graduating with a Masters degree in Sociology of Sport from Queens University, she pursued a career with Softball Canada, which had been the subject of her thesis. She earned an eight-month contract with the NSO but there were few long-term prospects available. However, Softball Canada’s next-door neighbour at Canada’s Sport Centre in Ottawa, did have an opportunity.

In March 1993, Murray-MacDonell was hired as the CCAA Coordinator of National Programs, joining a staff that included Executive Director Clare Gillespie and Pam Robinson who served as the Association’s Executive Assistant. As Coordinator, her role primarily involved assisting hosts and convenors with National Championship preparations. Her portfolio also included working with NSOs and the CCES, conducting Rankings and Award programming and working on Women’s Sport Development including the National Coaching School for Women.


Within in two years time, Murray-MacDonell found herself in the role of interim Executive Director, upon Gillespie’s departure, and by 1996 she officially took on the role. She immediately faced a series of challenges – most notably the loss of funding. Sport Canada had changed its national focus to improving Olympic performances and the CCAA, along with several other NSOs and MSOs, had their funding reduced by half in 1995-96 and eliminated entirely the following season.

“It was an extremely challenging time,” noted Murray-MacDonell, “and looking back now I am not sure how the CCAA and I managed.”

The loss of funding resulted in the CCAA staff being reduced to just Murray-MacDonell and a need to secure a new, affordable national office. A main priority became the sustainability of the National Championships, and she coordinated creative solutions such as semi-permanent Hosts to cut costs and increase sponsorship opportunities. Never complacent, Murray-MacDonell and members of the CCAA Board lobbied MPs, Parliamentarians and Sport Canada representatives until Federal Government Funding was re-established late in 2000.

“Sandra couldn’t have taken over as CCAA Executive Director at a more challenging time,” said former CCAA President Ivan ‘Chuck’ Gullickson. “It wasn’t a pleasant experience but Sandy was not only up to the task but proved to be an excellent problem solver.”

“Over the years, Sandy became the glue that kept us all together,” added Gullickson. “Even as the office grew in staff and responsibilities, she continued to do the heavy lifting and provided excellent leadership to our association.”

While the loss of funding was an external threat, it was internal conflicts that Murray-MacDonell found the most challenging.

“Human conflicts involving member institutions and conferences related to CCAA policies and procedures always tore at me the most,” said Murray-MacDonell. “I strived to always follow the policies in place and educate members on proper process and how change could be made in the CCAA.”

The diversity of member institution locations, enrollments, and academic programming often presented challenges, particularly in terms of student-athlete eligibility. It was most concerning when rule disputes could not be resolved by the CCAA’s appeal mechanism and escalated through Human Rights Commissions and Sport Dispute Resolution mechanisms.

Former CCAA President and CCAA Hall of Fame Inductee, Judy Smith shared that “Sandra was always at the forefront of changes she saw happening in the sport community and as a result kept the CCAA ahead of the curve. As confirmed by all who have worked with her, Sandy is a talented leader and has had an exceptional career working on behalf of the CCAA.”

Even during these turbulent times, Murray-MacDonell noted that, “there was always a willingness by all involved to work towards a solution to create an equitable playing field for student-athletes.”

Murray-MacDonell will leave a remarkable legacy on the CCAA, but she will also take with her many fond memories.


“The best thing about the CCAA is the people,” said Murray-MacDonell. “Laughing and learning alongside so many dedicated leaders has left me with friendships that will last a lifetime.”

In particular, she recalled:  jewelry shopping in Montreal with Mark Kosak and Pam Robinson at her first AGM; getting sunburned in November at her first Championship with John Davidson and Diana Drury; sharing rooms and laughs at championships and meetings with June Lumsden, Judy Smith, Michele McConney, Theresa Hanson, and Diana Drury; admiring Glenn Ruiter ’s dedication to the CCAA (and his cookies); and Judy Smith’s straight-shooting attitude (and contagious laugh).

She is also likely to miss the competitive spirit and atmosphere that so many find endearing about sports.

“The most memorable championship moment I ever witnessed was the 1997 Men’s Soccer final between Mount Royal and Ahuntsic,” said Murray-MacDonell. “The game featured men versus boys, English versus French, West versus East and was decided in penalty kicks. Both teams were exhausted but embraced each other out of admiration, giving those in attendance an honest display of True Sport.”

“It is what the CCAA is all about”.

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