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Tragedy, heartache shaped Aboubacar Sissoko’s path to the top of university sports

Aboubacar Sissoko would have loved nothing more than to celebrate with his mother, Yacine Coulibaly, after he found out that he was the winner of the 2020 Lieutenant Governor Athletic Award as the U Sports male athlete of the year last week. 

She was the one who encouraged him to stick with soccer after he tried to make the leap to the pros, but was cut by Forge FC of the Canadian Premier League last year. 

He recalls being demoralized when he was released, but her support convinced him to go back to the Université de Montréal to finish his degree and play one more year for the Carabins. 

“She came to all of my games,” Sissoko said.

“She took care of me. I can say it’s because of her today that I’m here.”

But a conversation with his mother wasn’t possible because she passed away suddenly on May 1, at only 57 years old. 

“It’s a tragedy but it’s life,” Sissoko said.

He says doctors told him her death was of natural causes and not due to COVID-19.

Sissoko, 24, already knew what it felt like to lose a parent; his father also died suddenly eight years ago. Like his mother, he was also only 57 years old at the time of his passing. 

Sissoko’s father was a diplomat from Mali and worked in aviation. He immigrated with his family to Montreal from Africa in 2006, when Aboubacar was nine years old. 

A brush with death 

While the path to success for any athlete is rarely a straight line, Sissoko has endured more hardships than the average person trying to make it as a professional soccer player. 

Aboubacar Sissoko is the first male athlete from the Université de Montréal to win the U Sports athlete of the year award. (James Hajjar/Montreal Carabins)

In addition to losing both his parents before the age of 25, he also had his own brush with death when he was a teenager. 

In 2014, after playing at a tournament with Mali’s national team where they qualified for the U20 World Cup, he returned to Canada, fell ill with malaria and went into a coma. 

“I was with my brother in his car, I got out of the car and it was ‘boom’ — it happened. Three days later I woke up in the hospital,” Sissoko said. 

He says the experience of lying in his hospital bed after he woke up from the coma changed him. 

“After that I was a new man. I enjoy my life, I’m happy to be in good shape and not sick. Being in the hospital was very hard. That experience helped me to be a better person,” he said.   

“I’m a survivor.”

Another shot at the pros

Sissoko recently had a trial with Major League Soccer’s Vancouver Whitecaps, but was released after their training camp this spring. Now he is back in the CPL with the Halifax Wanderers, where he is hoping to have a breakout season as a rookie.

The Wanderers’ roster has several players from Montreal, such as striker Omar Kreim who was Sissoko’s teammate for a few seasons with the Carabins, and he says that has made the transition to Halifax easier.   

“It’s a good team spirit. We are all brothers,” Sissoko said. 

But regardless of what happens to Sissoko at the professional level, his place in the history books at the Université de Montréal is set. 

In winning U Sports’ top honour, he is the first male athlete from the school to take the prize and third overall after female volleyball players Laetitia Tchoualack won in 2008 and Marie-Alex Bélanger won in 2018. 

“To be honest, yes, I’m surprised. If you told me 10 years ago, or five years ago, I would win that I wouldn’t believe you,” Sissoko said.  

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