Sarah Nurse sensational acquisition for Toronto Furies

In a year that sees Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the history of the NHL, gain induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, joining current CWHL commissioner Jayna Hefford as part of the 2018 Class, the arrival of Sarah Nurse to the Toronto Furies adds a feeling of serendipity. Selected second overall by the Furies in this year’s CWHL Draft, Nurse joins former CWHL All-Star Blake Bolden and Kunlun Red Star forward Jessica Wong as the only visible minorities claimed in the first round of CWHL Draft history.

Belonging to one of Canada’s premier sporting families, which also features cousins Darnell, a blueliner with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, along with Kia, a gold medalist from the 2015 Pan American Games, who recently enjoyed her rookie season with the WNBA’s New York Liberty, Sarah proudly stands shoulder-to-shoulder alongside them in terms of achievement.

In 2018, Sarah and her younger brother, Isaac, both enjoyed the opportunity to make key contributions to their family’s growing athletic legacy. Skating for the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Hamilton Bulldogs, Isaac contributed towards the club capturing the Robertson Cup, the city’s first OHL championship in over 30 years. With the triumph, Isaac and the Bulldogs qualified for the 2018 Memorial Cup tournament.

For Sarah, the prestige of the Draft was part of an eventful year that was highlighted through the attainment of a lifelong dream in her hockey odyssey. Part of Canada’s contingent that participated in women’s ice hockey at the 2018 Winter Games, Nurse became the first black Canadian to participate for Canada’s team at the Games. Such a milestone also brought with it a shared sense of history. Worth noting, teammate Brigitte Lacquette became the first Canadian of Aboriginal heritage to participate in women’s ice hockey at the Games.

Coincidentally, the Canadian roster also featured Renata Fast and Natalie Spooner, two of the Furies’ current superstars. Of note, Nurse’s Olympic journey also featured a gathering of familiar faces, adding luster to such a monumental milestone. In addition, goaltender Ann-Renee Desbiens plus forwards Emily Clark and Blayre Turnbull had already called Nurse a teammate once before, having all worn the jersey of the revered University of Wisconsin Badgers.

Graduating from Wisconsin in 2017 with Second Team All-America recognition, it was part of a season that saw Nurse record 53 points, becoming the 22nd player to reach the program’s Century Club in career points. As a side note, Clark and Nurse were teammates on Canada’s U22/Developmental Team, capturing a silver medal at the 2015 Four Nations Cup.

Making her Games debut on February 11, 2018, a 5-0 win against the Olympic Athletes from Russia, Nurse recorded her first Olympic goal four days later. Recording the game-winning tally in a 2-1 preliminary round victory against the eternal rival United States, said goal was scored against Maddie Rooney while the assist was credited to Jocelyne Larocque, the captain of the Markham Thunder. Adding to the sense of coincidence was the fact that both Rooney and Larocque have suited up for the University of Minnesota-Duluth, one of Wisconsin’s biggest rivals.

Taking into account that February is Black History Month, Nurse’s presence at the Games embodied the essence of inspiration and empowerment, building on O’Ree’s remarkable legacy. By tournament’s end, Nurse reached a podium finish (silver) in her Games debut, reaching a revered milestone. Having also played at all three levels of Hockey Canada’s national women’s team program, also the first black player in program history to attain this summit, Nurse has taken on the mantle of role model, becoming one of the game’s most stirring and popular competitors.

For a Furies roster looking to return to the postseason for the first time since 2016, Nurse’s arrival may serve as the catalyst towards achieving such goals, turning the page on several frustrating seasons. Certainly in the early conversation among the favourites for Rookie of the Year honours, she also holds the potential to become a building block for the franchise, a mainstay for many seasons to come.

Undeniably, Nurse is not the only highly regarded player in the Furies’ future plans. Holding three of the top eight picks in the draft, the Furies also acquired two-time Frozen Four championship goaltender Shea Tiley (sixth overall) plus scoring sensation Brittany Howard (eighth overall), the all-time leading scorer for the Robert Morris University Colonials. Nurse already holds an element of familiarity with Tiley, as their collegiate teams, Wisconsin and Clarkson, opposed each other in the 2017 NCAA Frozen Four championship game.

Despite the fact that these three members of the Furies draft class have not yet participated in a regular season game together, there has already been a familiarity among them, poised to set a positive tone in the season to come. With Hockey Canada holding its annual National Women’s Team Fall Festival, held this year in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, Nurse was part of a significant Furies presence.

In addition to the group of top Furies picks, Nurse, Tiley and Howard, the attendance of Fast and Spooner was just as important. Considering that all have donned the Maple Leaf during international play, sharing a prestigious pedigree, the Festival took on a key dual purpose, helping develop rapport and chemistry amongst these future Furies teammates. Definitely, Nurse and Howard are ready to become key pieces in a rejuvenated Furies offensive attack, highly capable of complementing team captain Natalie Spooner’s scoring flair, subsequently allowing for a multitude of additional scoring opportunities, providing an exciting new element.

Although one of the biggest adjustments for Nurse in her rookie season of pro hockey will likely involve calling teammates from Wisconsin and/or Team Canada newly minted opponents, there is no question as to her blossoming status as one of the next household names in women’s ice hockey. Ready to build on the momentum of the Winter Games, while looking to achieve new milestones in the professional ranks, Nurse is part of a new generation of women’s hockey stars, heralding an exciting new era filled with promising potential and growing confidence.

Genevieve Bannon poised to be Draft Day Gem for Les Canadiennes

With their first pick of the 2018 CWHL Draft, Les Canadiennes de Montreal acquired a highly dependable skater possessing both big-game experience and strong playmaking abilities. Enjoying a sterling collegiate career where she emerged as a key contributor towards the Clarkson Golden Knights capturing a pair of NCAA Frozen Four championships, the prized pinnacle of playing professionally in her home province is one step closer to becoming a fait accompli for Genevieve Bannon.

Raised in the Montreal suburb of Candiac, Quebec, the 5-8 forward, spent the 2017-18 season competing with Goteborg HC in Sweden. On the other side of the Atlantic, Bannon displayed a remarkable offensive flair. Amassing 53 points in 41 games played, her strong playmaking abilities resulted in a solid 38 assists, simultaneously contributing to an expanding legacy of Canadian-born talents shining on European ice.

Bannon’s international experience also includes a milestone akin to so many other members of Les Canadiennes; the prestige of wearing the Hockey Canada jersey. Gracing the ice at the 2013 IIHF U18 Women’s Worlds in Heinola and Vierumäki, Finland, Bannon was part of a gold medal winning roster, one of three players from Quebec, including Catherine Daoust and Catherine Dubois. As a side note, U18 teammates Halli Krzyzaniak, Eden Murray, Kimberly Newell and Sarah Nurse were also part of the 2018 CWHL Draft Class.

While such an exciting milestone supplied Bannon with a lifetime of memories, the golden glories were prologue for a pivotal four-year career filled with numerous triumphs at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York. Donning the number 9 in the Clarkson Green and Gold, in tribute to her favourite hockey player, legendary Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Bannon captured a Frozen Four title in her freshman season (2013-14).

Playing alongside future CWHL draft picks such as Erin Ambrose, Renata Fast, Erica Howe, Shannon MacAulay, Cayley Mercer and Jamie Lee Rattray on that championship roster, Bannon joins a sensational sorority of hockey luminaries making the exciting leap into the professional ranks. Of note, her sophomore season saw another unique linkage to the CWHL. Joining the coaching staff were a pair of Clarkson Cup champions, Meghan Duggan, who hoisted the coveted Cup in 2013 with the Boston Blades, while Britni Smith, scored the Cup-clinching tally in 2014 with the Toronto Furies.

Over the last four years, the number of Golden Knights alumnae that have made inroads in CWHL hockey is quickly emerging as one of the league’s most recent legacies. From the likes of Howe and Rattray participating with Team Red in the inaugural CWHL All-Star Game, to the defensive duo of Ambrose and Fast being drafted in the same year by the Toronto Furies, other notable alumnae in league play include Lauren Dahm of the Worcester Blades while Mercer starred overseas in China during the Vanke Rays inaugural season.

Graduating from Clarkson in 2017 with her second national championship, it served as Bannon’s finest hour. Defeating the Wisconsin Badgers in the 2017 Frozen Four championship game, recording a pair of assists on goals scored by Savannah Harmon and Mercer, part of a 3-0 blanking. Complementing the euphoria of winning a championship included a pair of honors for Bannon, including a nod to the ECAC Second Team All-Star team, along with a selection to the NCAA Frozen Four All-Tournament Team. During such a memorable senior season, which also saw Bannon serve as an assistant captain, she amassed 53 points, placing second on the team.

The championship game also proved to continue the theme of unique connections that defined Bannon’s career in Potsdam. From the outset, former Montreal Stars goaltender Ann-Renée Desbiens was between the pipes for the opposing Badgers. In addition, Sarah Nurse, claimed second overall by the Toronto Furies in the 2018 CWHL Draft, was among the Badgers’ leaders on offense.

Adding to the sense of coincidence was the fact that the Golden Knights’ first game of that championship season was an exhibition tilt against Montreal’s Concordia Stingers. Not only have the Stingers recently produced a crop of draft picks for Les Canadiennes, but their head coach is franchise legend Julie Chu, who won three Cups with the Stars/Canadiennes franchise.

Worth noting, Bannon is joined by goaltender Shea Tiley as Golden Knights greats that are part of the 2018 CWHL Draft class, both looking to stake their claim in league lore. Although Tiley shall take on the role of opponent this season, selected sixth overall by the Toronto Furies, there is a much more profound Clarkson connection related to this pick.

Last season, the Furies shipped Ambrose to Les Canadiennes in the aftermath of her release from Canada’s Centralization Camp. Reaping a bounty of draft picks in exchange, the Furies also obtained Les Canadiennes’ first round pick in 2018, which proved to be the sixth pick overall. Not only was Tiley technically traded for Ambrose, a former teammate at Clarkson, Bannon’s entry into the professional hockey ranks allows her the opportunity to call Ambrose a teammate once again. Such familiarity should result in strong on-ice chemistry, making the adjustment to the CWHL much more enjoyable for a pair of players both entering their first full seasons with the bleu, blanc et rouge.

Although Les Canadiennes offense currently features two of the world’s finest forwards in Marie-Philip Poulin and Hilary Knight, the acquisition of Bannon provides a significant depth to the offense. As demonstrated at Clarkson, Bannon not only possesses strong playmaking abilities, capable of feeding the puck to skilled scorers, which Les Canadiennes have no shortage of, her greatest asset may be her willingness to learn and grow.

In three successive seasons with Clarkson, Bannon continued to set career highs in assists and points, reaching lofty career totals of 101 assists and 150 points, respectively. For a Montreal franchise looking to become the first-ever to win five Clarkson Cups, Bannon’s big game experience may be the suitable fit to make such ambitions an historic reality, bringing a consistency that has made her a valued teammate and significant asset on every team that she has skated for.

Whale Star Emily Fluke Finds Inspiration in Memorable WNBA Event

First published on:

Finishing her inaugural season of NWHL hockey as the Connecticut Whale’s leading scorer, the first rookie in franchise history to do so, Emily Fluke has blossomed into a fan favorite. Among the highlights of her memorable season, pacing the Whale with 11 points, involved taking part in a ceremonial face-off versus the Boston Pride, one that saw her brother Rob, a member of the United States Coast Guard, participate.

For the alum of Middlebury College, where she gained All-America honors, Fluke’s sensational first season on NWHL ice was complemented by the rare milestone of her first career goal also emerging as the game-winning tally, part of a 2-1 win versus Boston. Undoubtedly, she was a key priority for the Whale at the opening of their free agent signing period this summer. Complementing her return to the Whale for a second season was a fascinating milestone, what she hopes sets the tone for another compelling campaign to come.

Testament to her rising popularity, which also saw Fluke rank seventh in the league in apparel sales, she was part of an event that saw basketball and hockey intersect in a unique setting. In addition to the Whale’s presence in Connecticut’s professional sporting landscape, they are joined by the WNBA’s Sun, both providing inspiration for a generation of young female athletes throughout the Nutmeg State.

Prior to the Sun’s August 14 tip off against the Las Vegas Aces, the franchise hosted a pre-game panel at the Mohegan Sun Arena as part of the WNBA’s #BeYou Empowerment Series. Geared to inspire and celebrate individuality, the Series has enjoyed panels at numerous WNBA venues during the 2018 regular season.

With Fluke on-hand at the Mohegan Sun’s event, graciously meeting WNBA fans, and enjoying the opportunity to hear the stories of the numerous panelists, it was the kind of event that fostered friendship and developed empathy, emphasizing how the effort to increase interest in women’s sports truly embodies the essence of teamwork.

“It was truly a privilege to attend the #BeYou event,” said Fluke. “The four panelists were excellent and their stories were incredibly inspiring. I really enjoyed attending the WNBA game, as well. There is so much talent in the WNBA and across all women’s sports that I believe it’s really important for women to support women’s sport and for the women’s leagues to support each other.”

Undeniably, Fluke’s presence saw her taking on a dual role. From the outset, she established herself as an ambassador for the NWHL while serving as an extension of a compelling program involving both leagues, among others.

Among the elements of a highly eventful off-season for the NWHL, highlighted by welcoming the iconic Minnesota Whitecaps into league play, the league’s leadership displayed an amazing sense of collaboration and unity. Resulting in the highly relevant SheIS initiative, Fluke’s chance to attend the #BeYou Empowerment event at the Mohegan Sun demonstrated some positive elements of this initiative.

Based on the concept of women looking to positively shape their own destiny in the sporting spectrum, looking to close the gap and continue to increase awareness of their quality product. Other leagues participating include the aforementioned WNBA, National Pro Fastpitch (NPF), Women’s Professional Lacrosse League (WPLL), and the U.S. Tennis Association, along with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL).

Although she was raised in Bourne, Massachusetts, Fluke starred at the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut. Shining as a three-sport star where she was captain of the school’s ice hockey, field hockey and lacrosse teams, her presence at Mohegan Sun brought a feeling of full circle. Fluke’s rise to stardom truly embodies the potential of women in sport to not only reach peak potential, but gain the opportunity to extend their endeavors with professional play.

Reflecting on the opportunity to play a part in the #BeYou Empowerment Event, representing both the Whale and the burgeoning NWHL brand, simultaneously enjoying the opportunity to get acquainted with other members of Connecticut’s female sporting community, there was definitely a sense of a positive learning experience. In spite of her status as a scoring sensation with the Whale, Fluke definitely found her own inspiration, finding a very positive message that she hopes shall resonate among others,

“The event put out a great message to women of all ages to find something they truly love and not to let fear of failure stop them from pursuing their dreams,” she said. “This message really resonates with me as one of my favorite parts of being in the NWHL is being a positive role model and inspiring future generations of professional women’s hockey players.”

Sarah Wright soars towards bigger role in Saskatoon Valkyries backfield

Originally published on Canada Football Chat:

Returning for a second season of Saskatoon Valkyries football, Sarah Wright took on a greater sense of confidence. With a breadth of experience that included both flag and touch versions of the game, the chance for the native of Saskatoon to graduate to tackle football, brought with it a very positive learning experience.

Playing in the hub of elite Canadian football, as the province of Saskatchewan has led the way in developing elite talent, enriching Wright’s experience with the Valks. Compared to her first season with the club, a significant aspect in Wright’s gridiron evolution involved taking on a bigger role, simultaneously emerging as a local hero.

Making the transition from fullback to running back, Wright displayed tremendous proficiency, adapting to her new role with a combination of alacrity and eagerness. Complementing such a willingness to learn and grow was the fact that the Valks tweaked their offensive attack. Changing from a formation that involved a pair of running backs, the club opted for a one runner in the backfield, establishing a featured back, it proved to be a role that suited Wright ideally,

“Going into last season with the Valkyries, though I have played many forms of football (i.e. flag and touch), I was not too certain about where I would specifically fit in on the team.

I started out practices as a receiver because that is was I was more used to but as time progressed some of the girls on the team suggested I try running back. I absolutely fell in love with that position and felt as I was helping my team more.

In my first year, I played fullback which was more blocking and power runs out of a two-back system. This year, we changed our offense formation to only have one running back and I think with that it motivated me to push harder at every practice to earn my playing time on the field.

By changing this formation, I believe that we had more options for run plays out of the backfield. In comparison to my first year I believe I came into the season more prepared as well as excited to try and win.”

Considering that the Valks welcomed many new faces to the season, Wright’s presence as a second year player also involved taking on a more mature role, evolving into a leader. Setting a positive example through work ethic, Wright’s assiduousness at the running back position also helped establish a crucial tone.

Reflecting on the fact that the running back position did involve several other players lining up in the backfield, mirroring an approach that saw players attempt numerous new positions this season, Wright’s presence provided consistency.

“There were a lot of changes throughout the season when it came to running back, we had lots of people moving in and out of positions right at the beginning and throughout the season as well, but mostly we had girls who were playing this position for the first time.

Being the only returning running back from the year before I felt like I somewhat put on a leadership role in ways of getting everyone excited to play this position and trying to prepare for the games.”

Taking into account that growth and evolution emerged as key themes in Wright’s second season of Valks football, such themes took on bigger meaning for the team in general. With the WWCFL adopting a new playoff format, as the top seed in each conference took on the second seeded team in the opposing conference, the Valks were lined up against the Western Conference’s Calgary Rage.

Leading up to the postseason, Wright would play a key factor. Amassing a brilliant performance against the Manitoba Fearless, highlighted by a 29-yard touchdown run, the regular season victory helped the Valks punch their ticket to an eighth straight playoff appearance, while avoiding its first-ever losing season.

The sense of achievement was one that encompassed Wright’s journey in 2018, progressively becoming an impact player and a key cog in the Valks’ offensive machine,

“Going into the game against the Fearless I knew that it would be a good, hard fought out game. Their football team has many strong and talented football players and I knew that this game was going to be challenging.

Throughout the season my goals included getting better each game and earning my touches so when this came around I knew that I had to be on top of my game and to put our team in good positions when I could. when the game finished it was an awesome feeling knowing that we got to go on to the next round of playoffs because we knew we were not finished yet. It was an awesome feeling.”

Disposing of the Rage in the semis, the Finals founds the Valks facing a highly familiar opponent. Renewing rivalries with the Regina Riot, whom they have opposed in the postseason during every year of WWCFL football, the first-ever All-Saskatchewan Final brought with it a heightened importance to the expanding presence of the WWCFL final in sporting Canadiana.
Worth noting, Wright would make her presence felt in the opening half, score the first touchdown in this highly historic championship game. Along with a 29-yard field goal by Carly Dyck, a member of Canada’s national women’s football team in 2017, the Valks boasted a 10-0 advantage. Although the Riot bounced back after halftime, claiming a 14-10 victory, the Valks assembled a valiant effort during an intense contest where both teams were evenly matched.

Reflecting on the championship game, Wright refuses to wallow in self-pity. Acknowledging that the team has been one in transition over the last few seasons, she is also quick to point out that the amount of new faces eager to build on the foundation established by many franchise luminaries has added a feeling of both pride and rejuvenation.

Praising the efforts of her teammates, refusing to quit in a game that demonstrated the high quality of play from both teams, it has only fueled Wright’s drive to return to the WWCFL’s biggest game in 2019. Geared towards attaining a sixth championship for the club, Wright’s determination is one that may fulfill the hopes and dreams of an entire fan base and organization. For opposing teams, the site of number 88 in the backfield next season may be poised to instill dread, ready to grow into the role of game changer.

“Being able to reach the final was a great feeling. I know our team lost some key players over the last couple of years but that only opened doors for others to shine. I could tell that our whole team was in it to win it and though the outcome of the game did not go as planned, every girl and coach put their heart and soul into that last game and that is all anyone could ever ask for. Playing in the final against our rivals was an awesome experience and I definitely think we can make it there again next season.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

Rookie sensation Julianna Keys jubilant in championship season for Regina Riot

Originally published on Canada Football Chat:

Part of a superlative rookie class for the Regina Riot, Julianna Keys was hardly a novice player when she donned the club’s iconic colors. Akin to many young players eager to make their mark in the Western Women’s Canadian Football League (WWCFL), Keys brought a competitive background to her gridiron endeavors.

At the high school level, Keys competed in flag football throughout all four of her years. Displaying a tremendous proficiency at the sport, she was encouraged to attempt the tackle version of the game at the suggstion of her high school coach; Payton Kuster, one of the Riot’s luminaries.

“I have played flag all four years of high school and loved it; with my coach being a player on the Riot that was how I got introduced to women’s tackle football.”

Gaining a spot on the Riot’s roster as a running back, the number 27 adorned on the back of her jersey, Keys was part of a highly talented backfield that included Carmen Agar, Carly Kentz and Mallory Starkey. As a side note, Agar and Starkey have also appeared for Team Canada at the IFAF Women’s Worlds.

Appearing in her first game for the Riot, Keys reflected on the fact that she had mixed emotions upon gracing the gridiron of the WWCFL. While there were the obligatory elements of nervousness, there was also a sense of adventure, thrilled at the prospect of graduating to a much more competitive version of the game.

Abandoning the flags from her high school years for the shoulder pads of a much more intense game, Keys was eager to run for daylight each time that she was given the ball. Enjoying the fact that she was able to transfer the preparations from training camp into actual game day action, she also balanced her duties on offense with playing time on special teams, returning kickoffs.

“Honestly it was both nerve wracking and really fun. Going into our first game I still did not fully know all of the rules and I basically just learned them as they came up during each play, so my coaches were very understanding with all my rookie questions.

Yet, every series I got on for running back was awesome and it was nice running our plays we practiced for months against a new defence. The nerve wracking part for me was returning (on special teams), because there was so much pressure, but once I caught the ball, I just ran and all the nerves were gone.”

As the season progressed, Keys not only acquired confidence, but a group of role models, inspiring her to push herself to be the best player possible. In addition to finding a group of mentors in her fellow running backs, Kuster remained an invaluable influence for Keys.

Calling her high school coach a teammate, Keys enjoyed the fact that Kuster was also a participant on special teams. Undoubtedly, that influence was also integral towards Keys absorbing the Riot’s commendable team culture, one that has transformed players into champions.

“I definitely look up to Payton Kuster because she has been my flag coach for the past four years at LeBoldus and the person who said I should try out the Riot. I also played returner with her, so she helped me so much on and off the field and taught me a lot about football.

I also look up to my fellow running backs Carmen Agar, Mallory Starkey, and Carly Kentz; they taught me so much about the position so I really looked to them for pointers and feedback. Honestly, the whole team and coaching staff is so welcoming and helpful.”

By season’s end, Keys enjoyed a unique milestone that very few rookies ever experience. In addition to capturing the WWCFL championship in her inaugural season, such status was enhanced by the fact that the Riot went undefeated.

Having enjoyed such a sterling mark, it truly embodied the meaning of a “dream season” for the jubilant Keys. Certainly, the proud presence of Kuster served to extend an enjoyable time that has seen Keys grow in her gridiron odyssey alongside her.
Benefiting from the opportunity to win a title alongside her former high school coach only enhanced an already memorable season, which Keys hopes to build upon with greater glories ahead.

“It was incredible to win a championship my first year with such an amazing team and be able to contribute what I could on the field! Also to be a rookie and get playing time was awesome and I just had a blast every play. Overall, I could not have asked for a better first season with the Riot.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

Allyssa Beird astonishing with peerless performances on American Ninja Warrior

Originally published on Women Talk Sports

Incorporating elements of athletic grace, peak performance and gripping drama, American Ninja Warrior (ANW) is more than just a television phenomenon. A captivating forum that has captured the imagination of its viewers, whether they are sports fans or not, the motivation behind these tremendously well-conditioned athletes has found cross-over appeal.

The emergence of its competitors as heroes of popular culture is a fascinating by-product of the show’s popularity, one worthy of awe and admiration. Among such lauded participants is Allyssa Beird, whose status as a role model and accomplished participant on ANW has resulted in a growing fan following on social media.

Considering that Beird balanced her demanding training regimen with an admirable yet important occupation as an educator, she is the embodiment of commitment and perseverance. Having quickly become one of the most popular participants on ANW, Beird is doing more than helping give the female competitors a well-deserved place in the conversation of the most popular competitors,

Accentuated by the proud supporters on-hand during events, sporting their trendy T-shirts featuring “got beird?” emblazoned on the front, Beird’s fans watch expectantly as she tackles the demanding obstacle courses with leonine grace, fearlessly excelling under pressure with strategic precision. Relentlessly focused, Beird first appeared on ANW during the 2016 season. With the chance to return in 2017, there was no sophomore slump, as she has ascended to the top of the women’s division.

“Entering into the 2017 season was definitely different than the 2016 season. I used the 2016 season as a way to feel out what this whole experience was all about. I didn’t really have goals set, I didn’t really know what to expect.

So coming back from Vegas in 2016, I started formulating goals and identifying some of my weaknesses and what I needed to work on. I became more focused on whole-body training, as opposed to strict obstacle training, as I’d done for season 8.

I created solid goals (Jesse Labreck and I texted each other in March and April of 2017 and said we were going to Vegas together and hitting buzzers together!), and planned my workouts to accomplish these goals. I felt more confident approaching the starting block in season 9, and doubted myself less. It was great!

That is the same mindset I have going into season 10, now. I know what I need to work on even more than season 9, and I have some solid plans to get there!”

In the aftermath of the recent season of ANW, the popular Beird enjoyed the privilege of appearing on The Ellen Show. While it added to another dimension to her stature as a sporting icon, equally testament to her own popularity, it also signifies a transformation into celebrity status.

Reflecting on the opportunity to grace the set and sit in the chair opposite host Ellen DeGeneres, the efforts involved in the trek from New England to Hollywood was a reflection of the dedication and sacrifice that makes Beird such a role model.

“It was a crazy whirlwind day on the Ellen Show! Because of the nature of my job (teaching 5th grade), I have a VERY limited amount of time I can take off work (3 paid days per school year). I told the Ellen Show I could take 1 day, so I took a late night flight out on Monday night, we filmed Tuesday night, and then I took a redeye flight home Tuesday night and drove right to work Wednesday morning.

The whole experience sort of felt surreal in the moment, but I made sure to make the most of it while I was there! I was far more nervous walking out onto the set with Ellen than I’ve ever been in the ninja world; it definitely felt more like a celebrity moment than anything else has thus far, and it was great getting to talk with Ellen about the show and my motivation and inspiration for doing what I do. She’s just as amazing and kindhearted as everyone says!”

Balancing obligations as an educator, Beird is certainly humble on her newfound fame. Considering that celebrity emanates from the word celebrate, the chance to appear on one of daytime TV’s most esteemed shows was definitely an opportunity to celebrate Beird’s character and likeability, undoubtedly attributed to a series of uplifting performances on ANW.

Perhaps the most uplifting performance involved the fact that Beird made history by completing Stage 1 at the National Finals in Las Vegas this season, following up on the impression she made when she completed the Cleveland qualifier. Taking into account that it was also mention on ESPN’s website, adding to the crescendo of media interest, such coverage was indicative of the high regard held for these tremendous athletes.

While Beird has enjoyed the novelty of being able to watch footage of the race, it is a point of pride, standing as one of the hallmarks in her treasured time as a competitor on ANW. Considering that the completion of Stage 1 in Las Vegas was a key goal for Beird, the chance to reflect on the achievement attained is one that still holds significant emotion,

“Honestly, as it was happening, I expected it to feel more overwhelming! I was sort of waiting to cry out of pure excitement and accomplishment, but it felt, just…normal. It felt like it was what was supposed to happen. I had stated in my season 9 application video that I had “my sights set on Vegas, stage 1”, and that’s what I expected to accomplish, and I did it!

Looking back on it and watching the video of my stage 1 run now, I do actually get a little teared up. It seems now, a few months separated from that moment, a more overwhelming experience.

I guess it’s gotten more exciting with the passing of time, now that I’ve had the time to reflect on it! I got to sit down with the writer of the ESPNW article, Katie Barnes, and it was great getting to chat about the whole experience with her. I love the quotes she chose to use from our conversation…they’re so me ;)”

Perhaps the most compelling element of American Ninja Warrior is its authenticity. The viewer quickly sees how there is a tremendous sense of mutual respect among all the participants, subsequently creating a strong support network among them, simultaneously forming a tremendous culture of true teamwork. In addition to Beird, some of the other wondrous women competing on ANW include Jessie Graff, Jesse Labreck, Kacy Catanzaro and Barclay Stockett, among others.

With such a culture in place, the result is on-screen magic. One where the viewer can quickly feel a collective sense of victory among its participants, realizing the fact that anyone who can reach such a demanding level of enduring competition is a very disciplined and dedicated athlete, reshaping their expectations.

That kind of appreciation for ANW is one that is reciprocated. Competitors like Beird are not only shepherding this unique sport, their continuous successes help to define it, evincing an era where hard work and sportsmanship are part of a collaborative appreciation.

“There is always a bit of TV magic that occurs when the show gets aired. The run order may be aired differently than it actually happened, pieces of interviews are shown at different points, we’re fed some lines in interviews, etc. However, the one thing that you will never have to think twice about is the warmth and support of the ninja community.

Everything you see there is 100% genuine. We all want the best for our ninja family, and they want the best for us. We are not competing against one another, but against ourselves and the course.

We get so incredibly excited for each other’s successes and accomplishments. We each spend anywhere from 1-6ish minutes on the course. If all goes well, we get on at least 3 courses, with the goal of 6 courses to ultimate victory. All that time on the course adds up to fewer than 20 minutes.

However, we film ALL night each time, so we spend hours and hours with each other. We form such a close-knit community and family during this time because of how much time we spend together, which makes any nerves dissipate pretty quickly!

It feels like a very comfortable, warm, supportive environment. If you choose to step into a ninja gym and give it a shot, you will immediately be accepted into this family, too. It’s the best!”

The feeling of family is one that has extended into other elements of Beird’s endeavors. As an educator in Middleborough, Massachusetts, her students have taken on the role of an extended family. For these awed students, Beird’s efforts are a vessel, pouring their emotions into her athletic exploits, giving them a sense of what can be accomplished with desire. With Beird’s body of work a signifier for the values of hard-work, it is evidence of her vitality, also making her a subject of praise among the parents.

“I had a few parent-teacher conferences this year that started with “I just want to say congratulations on all of your ninja stuff! And the Ellen Show! That is so cool.” It definitely is a bit of an ice breaker, and I’ve been able to bring in some of the mindsets of the ninja world into my classroom (perseverance, the importance of failure, goal-setting, etc.).

I even created a buzzer where students can celebrate their “buzzer moment” when they reach a goal they’ve been working toward. A lot of parents have commented on this and how much they love it! I also have students who ask me to play around on the monkey bars with them at recess, and ask me to show them my ninja skills.

They love feeling a different sort of connection with a teacher, and I think it’s very beneficial in creating a family environment in the classroom, too! I do this cool thing that not many other teachers do, so it forms this sort of bond from day one and a talking-point that we use throughout the year. It’s a great merging of the two biggest parts of my life, and it’s cool to see that I can inspire others beyond just academics!”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

Delayne Aiken part of Saskatoon Valkyries bright rookie class

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With an influence that grows with each successive season, another aspect that has experienced growth in the lore of the Saskatoon Valkyries has involved the number of millennials gracing the gridiron. The 2018 Valkyries season brought with it a number of highly enthusiastic young women eager to build on the green and white’s proud gridiron legacy.

Among such a group included Delayne Aiken, experiencing the gridiron game for the first time in her athletic endeavors. Donning the number 20 during her inaugural campaign with the Valkyries, the apt Aiken amassed playing time, her confidence growing with every subsequent contest.

Of all the contests that saw Aiken grace the gridiron, the playoffs presented her with a series of new challenges, featuring an entire new concept in the league’s postseason structure. For the first time in league history, the playoffs consisted of conference cross-overs, with the first place team in each conference (Prairie and Western) facing the second place team from the opposing conference.

Such a setting provided Aiken with a unique milestone. In addition to competing in her first-ever playoff game, she would also experience the challenge of opposing a team in the Western Conference for the first time in her promising career.

Providing the opposition was the defending Western Conference champion Calgary Rage. While the ambitious Rage has aspirations of returning to the WWCFL finals for the second consecutive year, Aiken and her Valks teammates denied them such goals. Despite a Valks roster struggling with injuries, the collective effort against a highly competitive Rage squad provided Aiken with tremendous inspiration, definitely the finest hour this season for the proud club.

“This was my first season with the Valkyries, and I had the privilege to play as much as I was able to during the season. Playing against the Calgary Rage was definitely a different experience compared to our regular season games.

There was a different element of knowing it was our time to play our hearts out or to be done for our 2018 season, the weather at times was not the most ideal at times of the game but I believed we put our best foot forward and played with our highest ambitions. I believed we played one of our best games against Calgary, despite the injuries and hardships that we faced.”

Reaching the WWCFL Finals for the unprecedented sixth time in franchise history, it provided Aiken with a celebrated milestone. Gaining the opportunity to play for a league championship represents a rare pinnacle for any first-year player. Understandably, there was the obligatory feeling of nervousness.

Intensifying the sense of competition on this day was the fact that it marked the first-ever All-Saskatchewan meeting in WWCFL Finals history. Also marking the eighth consecutive postseason meeting between the Valks and their eternal rivals, the Regina Riot, the first seven took place in the Prairie Conference championship game.

“The championship game was one of the most nerve racking experiences that I have ever had. This was the do or die of the season, but we played definitely the best games of football I believe in the entire season against the Riot.

There were a lot of mixed emotions of pride and fear going into the championship. Proud of my team, proud of myself, proud of our coaching staff and our fans who supported all of us the entire season. The fear was of making mistakes, doing the wrong thing and losing the game.

Although we did not win the championship this year, I am ready to take on next year with full intentions of bringing the trophy to Saskatoon.”

Becoming part of the premier rivalry in Canadian female football, the chance to play against the Riot represented a “Welcome to the WWCFL” moment for Aiken. The realization of this rivalry, and its meaning in Canadian sporting lore, is one that served as one of the defining elements of what it meant to suit up for the Valks.

Although the Riot captured their third championship in franchise history, part of a shared dynasty between both clubs, each having won every title in WWCFL history, the opportunity has only furthered Aiken’s dreams of gridiron glory. Taking into account that the match was a highly tense defensive struggle, the Valks certainly played with determination and heart. In spite of the final score, Aiken was proud of the effort, subsequently gaining the invaluable experience of what it meant to compete in the league’s biggest match.

“The Regina Riot are a strong team, they have been working hard in the season, just like any other team in this league. Playing against Regina, I never knew that there was a rivalry, but when I found out, it just made that experience a heightened suspense.

There was a lot more expectation I think of myself. To make sure that I made my best efforts and did what I was supposed to, because the plays you made, ultimately were shown through in the final scores. Playing them just shows how competitive you have to be and how much passion you have for your team and this sport to be able to put up a good fight.”

During such a sensational season, one filled with many “firsts” in Aiken’s career, perhaps the most treasured moment involved the obligatory sense of camaraderie that encompasses the football experience. As the women of the WWCFL also engage in commendable volunteer work, participating in fund raising while looking to make their community a better place, the social aspect was just as crucial towards allowing for an enjoyable transition on the gridiron for Aiken.

Looking back on such a formative time, Aiken also discusses how the quick bonding on the field added to the sensation of competing in such an adrenaline-filled sport. Time spent in the huddles and in the trenches enriched the experience, truly gaining the satisfying feeling of being a gridiron goddess. As the Valkyries continue to build for the future, they have the potential for a true mainstay in Aiken,

“My favourite moment of the season, gee, that’s a hard one. I think my biggest thing was getting to know my team, and getting to feel that love and support from so many empowering women.

I would have never thought that I would play football, let alone enjoy it. I absolutely fell in love with the game, and the emotions and thrills you get from having the privilege to play this sport is phenomenal. I think the best moments were in the huddles, being together with your team, getting amped up for the next play and just focusing on what your job is on the field.

The best moments are the ones you get to share with your team, whether it is at practice, doing volunteer work, getting ice cream together or just spending time visiting with each other. It is an amazing sport, with so many empowering women, and it is a great way to stay in shape.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”