Community & Current Events

Meet 3 elite Canadian athletes

By: Wendy Graves and Adrienne Brown

Photography courtesy of Becky Kellar Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography courtesy of Becky Kellar

Community & Current Events

Meet 3 elite Canadian athletes

By: Wendy Graves and Adrienne Brown
Barrelling down a ski hill at 70 kilometres an hour is old hat for the woman once known as "Lady Dominator." But switching between mom and elite athlete has proven to be a different challenge altogether for Aleisha Cline. After a four-year retirement from ski cross -- during which she and husband Shaums March started a family -- Aleisha, 39, returned to the slopes, drawn back by the dream of winning a gold medal in her own backyard at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games.

Aleisha, who grew up in Kelowna, B.C., won the first ski-cross event she ever entered, at the 1999 Winter X Games (an annual international extreme sports competition). Over the next five years, she won three more golds and one silver at those games, as  well as 16 medals in other events. But by 2004, when Aleisha was 34, motherhood was calling. "I thought my life as an athlete was over," she admits.

Aleisha gave birth to her son, Isaac, in March 2006, and daughter, Asia Marie, two years later. After an initially difficult transition from world-travelling  athlete to stay-at-home parent -- "Part of me longed for the fast pace of what I was doing" -- Aleisha settled into a domestic routine as a full-time mom in Squamish, B.C. 

The comeback kid
But when the International  Olympic Committee granted ski cross -- a nerve-racking freestyle event with four competitors racing over jumps  and a variety of terrain -- Olympic status for the first time for the 2010 Games, Aleisha was motivated to return. And Lady Dominator didn't disappoint: Aleisha won her first race back, having barely skied for four years, and just three months after giving birth to Asia Marie. "I was surprised. It'd been so many years of nothing. I had to relearn how to race and how to prepare myself mentally."

At the age of 40, Aleisha was almost twice as old as some of her competitors. While she admits to taking some pride in beating the youngsters, she believes her only advantage is experience. "I know what I'm capable of, and a lot of these kids are just in that learning curve."

Working after a maternity leave
Aleisha's comeback was nothing short of inspiring, but getting back in the game was no easy feat. While she doesn't doubt her male counterparts are dedicated dads, Aleisha points out that "they don't have to give up their bodies [to have children]. They didn't have to come back from nursing. I came back to racing and [my body] was like Gumby. After having two babies, a lot of muscles just shut down. I've had to wake them up."

Like most moms, heading back to work after maternity leave was tough for Aleisha. "The most heartbreaking part was being away from my babies," she says. "I'm OK with sacrificing everything else."

Page 1 of 5 Aleisha shares her secret to balancing her training and mom-duties on page 2.
During the competitive season, Aleisha's children stayed in Squamish while she took to the slopes around the world. "The kids had their own schedules," she says, adding that "it would be difficult for me to completely concentrate [if they came along]. I would still be the soft, loving mom when I need to be a focused athlete."

An average trip for an event means 18 days away from her family, but Aleisha says having a supportive mother makes things easier. "My mom will come and look after the kids. It's comforting to know she's there."

Training for thet Olympics
Finding time to train in Canada has its own set of challenges. During an eight-day women's team training camp in Whistler, B.C., last summer, Aleisha was up at 5:30 a.m. and would rush home for 8 p.m., just in time to put Isaac and Asia Marie to bed. She would get up once or twice in the night with her daughter, only to be awake before dawn the next morning for another full day of training. "I was exhausted by the end, and too tired to feel overwhelmed or anything."

Balancing work and family

While Aleisha and Shaums now have a nanny to help them out, like all moms she's still striving to find that elusive balance between home and professional life. But overall, Aleisha says, the juggling act has helped her stay emotionally grounded.

"I feel guilty and quite often I will cut a workout short so I can get home to be with the kids. But there's a point where you have to give in and say, I'm doing the best I can. What I have found since I had my kids and then came back to racing is that I really am worth something. As much as I love my kids, I need to go out and look after myself, too."

Going to the Olympics
Competing in the Olympic Games was a dream come true for Aleisha. And she knows she had the support of her family and the entire country behind her. "I meet people at speaking engagements and they'll say, 'You've got 200 more people cheering for you.' Thank you. That's exactly what I need."

Aleisha also wanted her comeback to encourage other women. "I hope that I can inspire women to get out there and just do whatever it is they want to do." She wanted to leave a lasting impression on her kids, too. "I want them to be proud and to know that their mom could do this, and that they have the potential to do whatever they want."

Page 2 of 5 Meet Canada's eco-warrior on skis on page 2.Olympian and environmental activist
This 33-year-old cross-country skier and environmental activist headed to her fourth Olympic Games in 2010 with a new clarity that she says came only with motherhood. "It's a real privilege now that I've had the time and a chance to reach my goals," Sara says. "I don't take anything for granted."

Sara gave birth to Aria in February 2007, and says her daughter is a compelling reason to pursue her passion for environmental issues such as global warming, which, Sara points out, directly affects winter sports and the future for all children. "Being a mother and a citizen of the world, I think the timing is so crucial to do something," says Sara, who lives in a solar-powered house in Canmore, Alta., with her daughter, and husband, retired alpine skier Thomas Grandi.

Encouraging eco-friendly habits

Sara and Thomas helped create Play It Cool, an initiative linked to the David Suzuki Foundation (now run by Climate Project Canada) that educates people about climate change and encourages Canadian athletes to set an eco-friendly example by making lifestyle changes and purchasing carbon offset credits to counteract the negative effects of their travel. At the 2006 Olympics, members of Sara's and Thomas's ski teams went carbon neutral, and this year more than 70 Canadian athletes are joining them.

Sara is optimistic that her efforts will make a difference. The same dedication shines through when she talks about preparing for her big moment in Vancouver. "When I'm at the start line, I'm going to be fighting for the podium." One thing is certain: Thomas and Aria -- and thousands of Canadians -- will be there cheering her on.

Page 3 of 5 --
Who's Canada's ultimate hockey mom? Find out on page 4.

Leaving family for work
Every four years, when the Winter Olympics roll around, Becky splits her life in two. She leaves her husband and her regular position with the Burlington Barracudas in the Canadian Women's Hockey League at home in Burlington, Ont., and moves to Calgary for seven months of training -- with her kids, parents and dogs in tow.

Becky, who plays defence for Team Canada, headed to her fourth Olympic Games in 2010 with two golds and one silver medal under her belt. She's one of only four team members to have played in all three Olympics where women's hockey was an official sport.

Things have changed a lot for Becky since her first Games in 1998. She's now mom to Owen, 5, and Zach, 3, and at age 35 is the oldest player on the team. 

Being a mother

Becky says being a mother adds balance to her life because she has activities, schedules and responsibilities outside of her hockey career. But on the ice her focus is on one thing: putting Team Canada on top of the podium for the third Games in a row.

"In 2002, we lost every game to the U.S. leading into that final game. But as a group and as individuals, we were able to still believe in ourselves, even though a lot of people had given up," she says of the team's first golden victory. "The most important thing for us is to stay confident."

This is the same advice Becky offers to young women who aspire to play hockey in the big leagues. "It's a sport and it's meant to be fun," says the professional hockey mom, adding that kids should play hockey for one reason only: Because they love it.

Page 4 of 5 Though she's not a mom, this young Canadian is at the top of her game. Meet ski jumper Becky Kellar on page 5.
Female ski jumpers
When she was 18, this Canadian athlete could've been enrolled at McGill University in Montreal. Instead, after 10 years of ski jumping, she stayed at home in Calgary, training for the 2010 Olympic Games -- from which she and other female ski jumpers are excluded. Ranked 19th in the world, Katie has the skills to be competing in the Olympics, but women's ski jumping -- unlike men's -- is not an Olympic event. Female Canadian ski jumpers have been making their case to be included in the Games since 2006. But the International Olympic Committee (IOC ) has denied women this chance, saying their sport does not meet its technical requirements.

Struggling to make a dream come true

Canada's female ski jumpers have taken their case to the Vancouver organizing committee, the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the IOC. July 2008, a B.C. Supreme Court ruled in their favour, saying that excluding women is discriminatory. But it's still up to the IOC to let them compete, and its answer is a firm no.

Throughout the ordeal, Katie's mother, Jan, was by her side, dreaming with her. Jan was particularly supportive through the legal battle. She attended court sessions and encouraged Katie when she decided to defer going to McGill so that she could keep on training. "You can't sit back and do nothing when you see that kind of drive in a person," says Jan of her daughter.

Although Katie missed her shot at an Olympic medal in Vancouver in 2010, she hasn't given up. "Girls sometimes have to fight a bit harder [for opportunities in life]," says Jan, "and that makes them stronger individuals and athletes."

This story was originally titled "Gold Medal Moms" in the February 2010 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

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Community & Current Events

Meet 3 elite Canadian athletes