Fitness

Balancing motherhood and your passions: Toronto moms share how they do it

By: Kate Rae

Photography by Michael Alberstat Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by Michael Alberstat

Fitness

Balancing motherhood and your passions: Toronto moms share how they do it

By: Kate Rae
The sound of a ball thwacking against the walls of the scuffed rink can be heard again and again as the women of the Withrow Knights, a community-based ball hockey team, warm up. One player is fighting strep throat. There are several knee braces. Another woman's nine-year-old son shoots on net by himself at one end of the rink, his mom passing him the ball when she has a chance. There are some players more skilled than others and some with more flair, but all play with equal focus. It's that tenacity that's transformed them from curious locals wanting to get more involved in their community to ball hockey players looking to bring home their first world-championship title.

Juggling families and their passion

So how on earth do these women—many with kids (16 of the 23 players are moms) and most with full-time jobs or studies—find the time to play on the tournament team headed for the 2014 Master's World Ball Hockey Championships this month in Tampa Bay, Fla.?

"There's a lot of convincing and trading," says Erin Hartnett, 42, a mom and stepmom whose husband coaches their sons' ball hockey teams. "Literally, at night, we're ships passing. Come September [the end of the season], there's going to be a lot of payback." Grandparents, babysitters, husbands or partners who can step in and care for the kids are essential, of course. It means the home fires are kept burning so the women can hit the rink.

Stephanie Barrington, 45, shares custody of her two kids with her ex and will often bring her younger son, Graydon, along. (He was the nine-year-old taking shots in the corner of the rink.) There's another mom who brings her three young kids and has another player's older daughter watch them while they play. These few hours are mom's time to shine.

Discovering a love for ball hockey
Withrow Park is nestled in the heart of Riverdale, a leafy neighbourhood with a small-town feel just east of Toronto's downtown core. "I tell everyone that, if you live in Riverdale, you have to play ball hockey," says Nicola Harris, 45. With two kids and a husband who play in the Withrow league, she was spending all her time at the park watching them. "About five years ago, my neighbour mentioned a women's league and convinced me to sign up. At first, neither of us had any idea what we were doing. All we did was just run back and forth."

Yani Hamdani, a 45-year-old PhD candidate and mom to two kids, doesn't remember exactly what year she started playing. It might have been 2006, when it was just a casual game of pickup in the park at the end of her street.

Although she'd played varsity field hockey, Yani panicked as the casual fling started looking serious. "Suddenly there was this commitment," she says. "When we started, we didn't even have goalies. Some of the players' teenage sons would come play net for us." As the league became more organized, coaches were brought in, and the women started to learn how to stickhandle, strategize and shoot.

Yani says that is when it got really fun. "Playing hockey is the one time I don't think about everything else—when I have to get home, have to get the kids, have to make lunches for tomorrow and oh, God, they have soccer. When I'm playing the game, I'm totally in the moment."

Persevering through injuries
The rules of ball hockey are similar to those of ice hockey, with the exception of a more generous offside. The penalties are the same, too (though sticks do tend to fly up frequently to stop the bouncier ball). But the cement version is tougher in a lot of ways. "There's no time to coast on your skates," says Erin. "You always have to keep moving. An average shift should be no more than 45 seconds or a minute, but in that time you should be doing two full lengths of the rink—and that's running fast."
   
Even the fittest newcomers find it hard at first: Yani, who can easily go for two-hour runs, frequently finds herself winded, especially at the beginning of a season. And injuries abound. Nicola was out for four months last year with a dislocated shoulder, and Stephanie constantly notices odd aches and strains. "That's the thing about playing sports at this age," she says. 
"I used to be able to train like crazy, and it was so easy to get into top-notch condition. Now I have to restrain myself. It's been years since I've been able to exercise the way I want to."

The injuries list at their weekly house league games (they play in the Masters Division for ages 30 and up) can take some time to pore over.
"A lot of ankles," says Yani.

"And plantar fasciitis," says Stephanie.

"And hips," says Nicola.

And still, every week, they come, sticks over their shoulders.

For Erin, the reason is simple. "My own mother was extremely athletic," she says. "She was competitive in track-and-field and volleyball; she beat my dad at golf. But then she had three kids in three and a half years, and my dad was on the road five days a week. I used to hear all these stories about my mom [playing sports], but I never saw her in action. I really want my kids to see me being active."

Sticking to a workout plan
Ramping up for the tournament for which Withrow Park earned its place as the "Community Based Team", this group has become hard-core in its efforts and training. The team has improved immensely since the early days, says Lenny 
Abramowicz, one of the team's three coaches. Over time, they progressed from scoring their first goal, to their first win, to their first playoff win and, finally, their first tournament win—the 2013 Ontario Ball Hockey Federation Provincial Championship. Some of these wins were against teams of women half their age (the team's average age is 45).

There are league games on Sundays and Wednesdays, practice on Mondays and two supplementary workouts: On Thursday nights, they run up and down the hills in nearby Riverdale Park, and on Saturdays, they go for a long run. The group also committed to handing in weekly fitness logs to their coaches—they wanted to spend their practices focusing on skills during play, not on workouts. (No one is naming names, but there are rumours of nervous players fudging their numbers, and at least one of the players has tried passing off sex as part of her required cardio.)

The injuries, bargaining and late nights are all forgotten, though, when they start talking excitedly about Tampa, where they will be facing off against another Canadian team, two from the U.S. and one from Slovakia. None of them ever imagined they would one day represent Canada.

They all agree that with teamwork, honed skills and heightened fitness levels, they actually have a fighting chance. And as much as they've promised their home-fire tenders, this journey won't mark the end of their ball hockey careers. The sport, the camaraderie, the challenge—it's now a part of their lives. 

We've all faced difficulty sticking to an exercise routine. Here are some tips to make time for exercise in your busy schedule.
                                               
This story was originally titled "Goal Diggers" in the September 2014 issue.
           
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Balancing motherhood and your passions: Toronto moms share how they do it

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