11/18/2014 04:35 EST | Updated 01/18/2015 05:59 EST

Horn-Miller hopes Pan Am Games role helps raise awareness about need for sport

TORONTO - Sport was always about much more than medals for Waneek Horn-Miller.

Sport was the hand that lifted the former Canadian water polo star out of the violence of her childhood. It made her strong. It gave her self-belief.

"Sport in the native world is more than just something to be physically active. It's a suicide preventer. It's a self-esteem creator. It's a leadership developer," she said.

Horn-Miller and racquetball player Josee Grand'Maitre were named Canada's assistant chef de missions Tuesday for next summer's Pan American Games, and Horn-Miller hopes to use the platform to help inspire aboriginal youth.

It's what she's been doing for more than a decade.

Horn-Miller was one of Canada's most inspirational stories at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Ten years earlier, as a 14-year-old from the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, she was stabbed in the chest by a bayonet during the final days of the Oka Crisis. The injury nearly killed her, and the photo of her tearfully clutching her four-year-old sister remains one of the most memorable of that violent summer.

She went on to co-captain Canada's women's water polo team that won gold at the 1999 Pan Ams, finished fifth in Sydney where women's water polo made its Olympic debut — 100 years after the men — and won bronze at the 2001 world championships.

"I know what sport did in my life, going from the Oka Crisis to the Olympics in 10 years and how it helped guide me and shape me and gave me a stress reliever," Horn-Miller said. "Overcoming what I did and getting to the heights of my sport, it was an unreal journey. I remember walking into the opening ceremonies at Pan Ams in Winnipeg and we were being escorted in by native dancers, and there were chiefs there, and I thought 'I'm finally doing it in front of my people.' And I got to win gold."

Another memorable photo of Horn-Miller: she posed nude, a feather in her hair, holding a strategically-placed ball, on the cover of "Time" magazine just prior to Sydney.

After retiring from competition, Horn-Miller "went back to the native world," and is now working to encourage sports development in indigenous communities.

"That is why I work so hard in the native world because I can't even put words to how proud I was, and the feeling of empowerment (competing for Canada)," she said. "There were no special spots on the Olympic team for native athletes, they don't reserve spots, you have to fight tooth and nail to get it. And just that whole fighting tooth and nail and what that instills in a person, is so important for so many people to learn.

"And I want to give that opportunity and help make the avenue a little bit easier for more athletes as they rise up and come behind me."

The 38-year-old, who is married to judo Olympian Keith Morgan — the couple has two kids — teamed up with the Aboriginal Peoples' Television Network on a documentary series called "Working It Out Together" that follows First Nations in their quest to get healthy and fit.

"I can't say I was the most talented athlete, I really wasn't. I just worked so hard and I fought so hard and I took that little bit of talent and I made it something bigger," she said. "I want (First Nations youth) to know that it's attainable, and by going to the communities, maybe one person will say: 'You know what? I believe in myself. She did it, I can do it too.'

"It's like a bridge. And that's how I've been my whole life, creating that bridge, and bringing home my story of being an Olympic athlete."

Grand'Maitre brings the experience of competing at four Pan Am Games to the assistant chef position. The 53-year-old from Longueuil, Que., won bronze in doubles in Santo Domingo in 2003. She also competed in Mar del Plata in 1995, in Winnipeg in '99 and in Guadalajara in 2011.

The 14-time national champion said being on staff for Pan Ams is particularly special, as it's the one multi-sport Games that includes racquetball.

"It becomes our Olympics," she said. "It's a great opportunity for racquetball to be showcased. We are medal contenders. So I hope this promotion can leads to future athletes coming into the sport. There are the clubs, there are the facilities. so let's hope it helps grow the sport."

Horn-Miller and Grand'Maitre, who were introduced at a news conference in downtown Toronto on Tuesday, will work alongside chef de mission Curt Harnett, a three-time Olympic medallist in cycling.

"I'm going to need the support of these two people because it's going to be a crazy fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants few weeks," Harnett said.

The Games are July 10-26. The Parapan Am Games are Aug. 7-15.