Record-breaking swimmer Kylie Masse honored at BLG Awards

Having qualified in the 100-meter backstroke for Canada at the 2016 Rio Summer Games, there is a strong feeling of momentum for Kylie Masse. At the 2016 BLG Awards, Masse had the honor of the Jim Thompson Trophy Award bestowed upon her, which recognizes the best female athlete in Canadian university sport. Along with the trophy, Masse was the recipient of a $10,000 post-graduate scholarship, a watch and a gold ring. Currently, there are 12,000 student-athletes representing 56 universities in Canada.

The pride of Lasalle, Ontario, Masse becomes the third swimmer to capture the BLG Awards, following 2009 winner Annamay Pierse and fellow Varsity Blues swimmer Elizabeth Warden in 2002. As a side note, Warden would swim for Canada at the 2004 Athens Summer Games. Other Varsity Blues athletes that have captured the Thompson Trophy include track and field star Foy Williams in 1998 and basketball player Justine Ellison two years earlier in 1996.

In addition, Masse becomes the fifth female athlete from the Ontario University Athletic conference to win the award. The most recent was last year, as Windsor Lancers basketball player Korissa Williams gained the honor. Considering that Masse grew up near Windsor, it marked the second consecutive season that an athlete raised or playing in Essex County nabbed the award.

At the 2016 Canadian Interuniversity Sport national swim championships, the University of Toronto sophomore captured victory in three backstroke finals while finishing no worse than second in all seven of her races as her medal haul consisted of four gold medals and three silver medals. Perhaps more impressive was the fact that it marked the second consecutive season that Masse earned seven medals at the nationals.

Complementing her superlative performance was the fact that she broke the Canadian record in the 100-metre backstroke twice. Her ticket to Rio was assured on April 6 with a record time of 59.06 seconds in the 100-metre backstroke.

Masse’s brilliance was also evident in her freshman season of 2014-15, gaining OUA female swimmer of the year honors. At the 2015 Summer Universiade in South Korea, she would establish herself as an international athlete by claiming the gold in the 100-meter backstroke.

During the 2015-16 season, Masse captured an astonishing 18 individual victories in six conference competitions. Not surprisingly, she would set six OUA records in the process. Thanks to Masse, the Varsity Blues female swimming team won the national championship, their first since 1997.

With each conference featuring one male and female finalist for the BLG Award, the other female athletes were as follows. Acadia University basketball player Paloma Anderson (raised in Phoenix, Arizona) represented Atlantic University Sport. Melodie Daoust, who won a gold medal for Canada in ice hockey at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, represented the RSEQ. During the season, she would reach 200 career points with the McGill Martlets, achieving the feat in only 100 games. Canada West was represented by Donetsk, Ukraine native Iuliia Pakhomenko, who starred on the volleyball court for Thompson Rivers University. Although the winners were selected by the Canadian Athletic Foundation, an online vote, which did not count toward the official result, was available for sports fans during a span of two weeks. An impressive 112,499 votes were cast.

Passing of wrestling icon Joanie Laurer a tremendous loss

One of the original and most influential WWE Divas, Joanie Laurer revolutionized the role of women in wrestling, combining strength, beauty and empowerment in an intrigued package. Although her muscular physique and intense physical power were intimidating at first, she would quickly become the focus of many wrestling fan’s crushes, mesmerized by her personality. Known affectionately as the “Ninth Wonder of the World”, she paved the way for the WWE Divas of today while shattering the glass ceiling for female wrestlers of all shapes and sizes.

The news of her passing at her home in Redondo Beach, California has shaken the world of wrestling. Although the cause of her death is still under investigation by the Los Angeles County Coroner’s department, the spectre of disenchantment certainly lingers. For most of the 2000s, the news of wrestlers passing away before the age of 50 was one of the most controversial in all sport. The idea that Joanie Laurer is now part of this group is nothing short of tragic.

Of note, the overwhelming majority of wrestlers that passed on were men. Except for Miss Elizabeth, who was the manager to Randy “Macho Man” Savage and Sensational Sherri (a member of the WWE Hall of Fame), women in wrestling were all but immune to this tragic chapter of wrestling history. Suddenly, Laurer’s passing is a sobering reality.

While she was first introduced to the WWE Universe under the sobriquet Chyna, known as the bodyguard of the game changing D-Generation X, which ushered in the WWE’s Attitude Era, Laurer would become one of the most popular personalities in the promotion, subsequently becoming a pop culture icon, gracing the covers of popular mainstream magazines such as Newsweek and TV Guide. Appearing on the red carpet at the Emmy Awards and on TV in a guest spot on the sitcom Third Rock from the Sun, while receiving countless offers to appear in mainstream movies, she had crossed over into a showbiz realm traditionally occupied by male counterparts such as Hulk Hogan.

Early in Laurer’s tenure in WWE, two career defining moments would embody the spirit of the WWE Attitude. It had become evident that she had underwent a breast enhancement surgical procedure, one that fellow D-Generation X members discussed during one of their sophomoric yet entertaining monologues. Although such enhancements are a stereotype among women in wrestling, there was a unique symbolism, setting the stage for her growing sex appeal, which in turn would make her a fan favorite among both male and female wrestling fans.

The other involved the first time Laurer actually spoke behind the mic. For over a year, her role as Chyna involved a menacing stare and arms crossed, symbolizing that she meant business. The moment that wall crumbled and she began to speak, it added a whole new dimension to her own image while simultaneously increasing the popularity of D-Generation X.

At a time when wrestling’s Monday Night Wars were still being contested, and the wrestling dirt sheets were grist for the ever intriguing rumor mill, it had become commonly known that Laurer was in a relationship with D-Generation X member Triple H. Further reports would suggest that he was the force who enabled her to be hired by WWE.

Their relationship certainly took on a moment of reality in the WWE Universe as distraught wrestlers were visibly shaken by the in-ring passing of Owen Hart. With Laurer at his side, Triple H admirably showed himself at his most vulnerable during his career, tearful during his commentary at the Owen Hart Tribute Show.

Laurer’s popularity would soon propel her into wrestling history on two separate occasions. In 1999, she would become the first female competitor to particiapte in the Royal Rumble. Defeating Jeff Jarrett for the Intercontinental Championship, she would become the first (and only) woman to hold the title, a remarkable achievement, which helped increase the drawing power of women in wrestling. During that time, many women in wrestling were valets to male wrestlers, an eye candy that usually helped increase the profile of a male wrestler. One could argue that Chyna’s rise to the Intercontinental Championship helped add new credibility to the role of women in wrestling, eventually leading to the WWE establishing a Divas division, one that has flourished in the last decade and a half.

Sadly, Laurer’s wrestling career would plunge into a downward spiral following a highly popular magazine pictorial. Appearing in a complete state of undress, fully frontal in the pages of the iconic Playboy, Laurer redefined what sexy means. She would even acknowledge in an interview with Michael Landsberg on his popular TSN talk show Off The Record that she received positive feedback from women about her pictorial. Taking into account that many women in general experience issues with body image, Laurer was a revelation, exuding confidence and proud of her amazing physique, proving that women of all shapes and sizes deserved to be comfortable in their own skin.

Rumors suggested that some of wrestling’s power brokers were not happy with Laurer’s unforeseen level of popularity and success, while a break-up with Triple H did not soothe such tensions. Instead of being with D-Generation X, she was now in a program with Eddie Guerrero, which was not a good fit for either wrestler. From there, her luster would slowly fade, no longer part of the WWE’s main event picture. Less than three years after her first pictorial for Playboy, Laurer would be out of WWE, disappearing as quickly as she came. Despite appearing in New Japan Pro Wrestling and rumors of offers from TNA Wrestling (which was ironically started by Jarrett), she would never recapture the mat magic of her time in WWE.

Suddenly, Laurer was part of D-list events such as Celebrity boxing, later gaining infamy for starring in adult films. Working in a low budget film with Anna Nicole Smith before her own tragic passing, Laurer would appear on Larry King Live discussing the experience of working with her. In looking at Laurer in the interview, it had become evident that she was no longer the same person. Having seen her weight expand and the loss of her smile, one could not help but feel there was a sad foreshadowing to come.

While Laurer becomes another sad footnote in wrestling’s darkest chapter, she held a profound place in the hearts and minds of many in the wrestling industry during an exceptional four year time span. Although future glories were not meant to be, one cannot dispute that her legacy is one highly deserving of posthumous induction into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Canadian female sporting heroes shine on The Social

As one of the most popular talk shows on Canadian television, it is commendable that the all-female cast of The Social address the quickly expanding relevance of women as sporting heroes. While there are still many obstacles to overcome on the road towards total acceptance for women in sport, the presence of the three athletic heroes that were part of the interview panel displays that the future holds tremendous promise.

With the effervescent Melissa Grelo and inquisitive Lainey Lui handling the interviewing duties, the result was a pleasant discussion with a group of women that cover a breadth of competition. From soccer goalkeeper Karina Leblanc to hockey blueliner Tessa Bonhomme, along with pugilist Mandy Bujold, each are highly accomplished women in their field.

(L-R): Karina Leblanc, Mandy Bujold and Tessa Bonhomme. Image obtained from Twitter

(L-R): Karina Leblanc, Mandy Bujold and Tessa Bonhomme. Image obtained from Twitter

The most obvious aspect of all three was their confidence. Each has accomplished so much, while placing women’s sport in a much bigger part of Canadian popular culture, their careers are symbolic of why girls in sport should keep competing as they mature.

As today’s generation of young women enjoy the chance to look up to a growing number of positive female role models, there are many redeeming qualities in the likes of Bonhomme, Bujold and Leblanc. Even young women that are not athletic can look at them and admire their ability to excel and challenge social convention.

Coincidentally, social aspects were also a key defining factor in the reasons that these women first became involved in sport. Leblanc revealed that she was shy during childhood, joking that she would not have had her current hairstyle (spiked with a streak of blonde near the top) in those formative years. She further revealed that sport filled a void as well, connecting her with other people. Bonhomme also attested to the social impact as getting to know people and connecting with them as key factors in her earliest sporting roots.

Having announced her retirement in the aftermath of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which was held on Canadian soil for the first time, Karina Leblanc was one of the most underrated soccer stars that the country ever produced. Although the medal round evaded the ambitious Canadian squad, who were hoping to build on their fairy-tale run to the bronze medal at the 2012 London Summer Games, their effort was a tremendous source of pride, adding another great chapter to sporting Canadiana.

Bonhomme also appreciates the chance to compete in a world-class event on home soil. After a remarkable career with the Ohio State Buckeyes, Bonhomme landed a spot on the Canadian national team, capturing the gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. During the interview, she mentioned how great it was for Bonhomme and her teammates to hear from parents how awesome they were after the victory in Vancouver.

Perhaps more impressive was her career following such heroic heights in Vancouver. From becoming the first-ever draft pick in the history of the CWHL Draft, to landing on the cover of The Hockey News, Bonhomme would be catapulted into celebrity status after winning the Battle of the Blades, the first female hockey player to do so. Currently with TSN (she once interviewed Will Ferrell with LeafsTV), Bonhomme has become a crossover star, with the likeable potential to become even more famous for her work as a TV personality than her empowering run as an elite athlete.

Proudly displaying her championship belt, Mandi Bujold is part of a tremendous change in the sporting landscape as women are now headline competitors in boxing and mixed martial arts. Holly Holm, who shall be immortalized in the sporting pantheon as the woman who beat UFC champion Ronda Rousey was a former boxing champion herself, having defeated the legendary Mia St. John.

In discussing her boxing career, one very visceral and sobering reality hit home for the guests, hosts and the remainder of the panel. Bujold had discussed how judges that were not deemed competent for male matches were assigned to serve in a similar capacity for bouts featuring women. For the viewer at home, a collective sigh of surprise (and perhaps shock) could clearly be heard as such conditions are demeaning and dehumanizing.

Later in the segment, Grelo made an excellent point of acknowledging that to be an elite athlete, hardcore training was essential, in essence, akin to a full-time job. Sadly, such effort has resulted with being compensated differently, one of the great gender inequities of the modern era. Leblanc had emphasized in the interview that the prize money for the FIFA Women’s World Cup championship team was tens of millions less than the male victors, a real-life example of the effort that lay ahead in the off-field fight for equality.

While there is no question that women in sport have to work harder to be taken seriously, such work will eventually bear prosperous fruit. For the future female sports athletes how grew up emulating the efforts of Bonhomme, Bujold and Leblanc, it will add to a proud legacy. Each one of them stirred the hearts of sports fans, making them proud to be Canadians, and for that, they will always have their gratitude.

Ice sledge hockey heroes take part in Pan Am Games torch relay

On the 20th day of the Toronto Pan-Am Games Torch Relay, a pair of encouraging and empowering female athletes had the chance to participate. Having competed for the Canadian national women’s team in ice sledge hockey, Jessie Gregory and Tuyet Morris Yurczyszyn were among a group of over 3,000 well-deserving individuals selected to participate in the nationwide relay.

Of note, Gregory and Morris Turczyszyn were not the only ice sledge hockey players recognized during the torch relay. On Day 12 (June 10), the torch covered a wide range of territory from Parry Sound to Barrie. During this trek, Midland’s North Simcoe Sports and Recreation Centre welcomed Adam Dixon, who earned a bronze medal with the Canadian men’s ice sledge hockey team at the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Winter Games.

Specifications for the Torch include a length of 65 cm and a weight of 1.2 kg, composed of aluminum. The burn time is an average of 10 to 12 minutes’ burn time while being able to withstand winds up to 70 km/h. United We Play! Pictograms highlights the visual display, renditions of people in motion, punctuating the focus of the Games’ assembly of athletes while celebrating key values including culture and sport.

Both ice sledge hockey heroes were also donned in the obligatory uniform. Just like the torch, the United We Play pictograms were prominently displayed on said uniform, once again emphasizing culture and sport, a special amalgamation of the true meaning of the Games.

Day 20 saw the torch relay go through the communities of Kitchener, Cambridge, Brantford, Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, Burlington. Starting at THEMUSEUM, the relay subsequently found its way at the Cambridge Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts, where Morris Yurczyszyn was one of the torch bearers.

In Brantford, the torch was in the hands of a local figure skater at the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre where she courageously skated with it. Visiting the New Credit First Nation in Mississauga, the official Host First Nation of the Games, Day 20 concluded in Burlington at Spencer Smith Park. Gregory proudly carried the torch in Brantford, joined by other torch bearers including Gretzky, figure skater Mary Orr, wrestling champion Madison Parks and marathon runner Krista DuChene.

Proud participants Tuyet Morris Yurczyszyn and Jessie Gregory (Image obtained from Facebook)

Proud participants Tuyet Morris Yurczyszyn and Jessie Gregory (Image obtained from Facebook)

Although both come from different backgrounds and heritage, their mutual love of hockey led to a remarkable friendship that has culminated with spots on the Canadian national women’s ice sledge hockey team. The chance to participate together in the torch relay contributes to another proud chapter in their friendship; displaying how sport can help bring positive outcomes to people’s lives and help overcome challenges.

Also teammates on the Brantford Crushers, the younger Gregory helped mentor Morris Yurczyszyn when she first started the sport. Very talented at multiple sports, Gregory is equally adept on the hardcourt in wheelchair basketball and on the green grass of both wheelchair tennis and golf, respectively.

Having emigrated to Canada as an orphan from Vietnam in 1975, Morris Yurczyszyn is a proud mother of two whose rise to prominence as an ice sledge hockey player represents the Canadian dream. A lifelong hockey fan, she grew up in the community of Brantford, Ontario, home of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.

Two of Gretzky’s younger brothers, Glenn and Keith both knew Morris Yurczyszyn (she went to high school with Keith). Of note, the Gretzky connection would also extend to her experience in the Pan Am torch relay. Patriarch Walter Gretzky was another deserving choice to participate in the torch relay, adding to the day’s jubilation.
Getting the chance to meet both Morris Yurczyszyn and Gregory, it only strengthened the sense of pride that defined a memorable day in their amazing careers.

Akin to the Olympic torch that is part of the Summer and Winter Games, the Pan Am Games torch carries the same profound meaning for its athletes and fans alike. Taking into account that Vancouver hosted the 2010 edition of the Vancouver Winter Games, the Pan Am experience in 2015 is one that shall strengthen the unity of Canadian sports fans.

World trampoline champion Rosie McLennan leads off the Pan Am Games Torch Relay

As Canada’s only gold medalist at the 2012 London Summer Games, Rosannagh “Rosie” McLennan was the perfect choice to serve as Canada’s first torch bearer for the 2015 Toronto Pan Am Games. Raised north of Toronto in King City, McLennan has already competed in two previous Pan Am Games, winning silver in 2007 and capturing the gold at the 2011 edition. The reigning World Trampoline champion, she also captured a world title in 2007 with Karen Cockburn (who was her role model growing up) in the synchro event.

The love of sport is certainly in her blood as her grandfather Lorne Patterson qualified to compete in gymnastics at the 1940 Summer Games, which were eventually cancelled due to World War II. As a child, she wanted to emulate her grandfather and also took up gymnastics but eventually switched to trampoline due to the participation of her siblings.

Graduating from the University of Toronto in 2011 with a degree in Physical Education and Health, MacLennan is currently working on a Masters Degree in Exercise Science. In addition to balancing academic and athletic obligations, she has been involved with noble causes such as Right to Play, Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities and Active At School.

Considering that Christine Sinclair was selected over MacLellan to be the flag bearer for the Closing Ceremonies of the London 2012 Summer Games (as MacLennan was Canada’s only gold medalist), the chance to be the first to participate in the Pan Am Games torch relay is a fitting tribute. MacLennan was part of a ceremony at Toronto’s Harbourfront with fellow torchbearers Zsofia Balazs and Manuel Aparicio to kick off the torch relay on home soil. Distance swimmer Balasz earned a silver medal at the 2007 edition of the Games, hosted in Brazil, while Aparicio is a member of Toronto FC. In addition, all three were were recognized by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG), a premier partner of the Games and its Torch Relay.

Part of OLG’s commitment to sport in Ontario has also included the Quest for Gold lottery program. Launched in January 2006, proceeds from Quest for Gold have resulted in over $90 million of support for provincial athletes and coaches, with the goal of increasing participation asnd performance. As a side note, Aparicio, MacLennan and Zsofia are among over 4,000 athletes in Ontario that have benefitted from Quest for Gold funding in their athletic endeavors.

The torch relay shall last for 41 days, making its way through more than 130 communities across Canada. MacLennan is the first of 3,000 people who have the honor of serving as torchbearer bestowed upon them. On June 25, the torch shall go through MacLennan’s hometown as Peggy Belcher and Alessandra Benazzi shall serve as community torchbearers, and shall return to Toronto on July 10 for the opening ceremony of the Games.

McKayla Maroney earns the baseball card treatment

For baseball card collectors opening packs of the 2015 edition of Topps Baseball (Series 1), they shall be presented with the opportunity to randomly find McKayla Maroney gracing one of their cardboard treasures. Part of the US women’s gymnastics team that captured the gold medal at the 2012 London Summer Games, she is among a rare group of women that can boast of being featured in a baseball card set.

Maroney is featured in a randomly inserted series of cards titled “First Pitch”. As the title indicates, Topps has chosen to feature cards with a combination of celebrities and sporting heroes that have participated in first pitch ceremonies during the 2014 Major League Baseball Season.

fpmaroney1

Among three women featured in the First Pitch insert set (the others being centenarian Agnes McKee and Asian reality TV star Suzy), Maroney was part of the first pitch ceremony at Chicago’s US Cellular Field on August 1, 2014. With her card numbered FP-03, she is pictured on the front of the card in a Chicago White Sox jersey.

For the fans in attendance that day at US Cellular Field, they were on-hand for an impressive display of athletic ability. Maroney began with a leg kick, followed by a cartwheel and a front handspring. Afterwards, she released the pitch to a roar of approval from the thrilled spectators.

Of note, this was not the first time that Maroney was part of a first pitch ceremony, let alone having her image depicted on a baseball card. In 2013, Maroney (who became the first American female gymnast to successfully defend a World Championship vault title) was among a group of gymnasts who visited world famous Dodger Stadium to participate in a first pitch ceremony. During that same year, Maroney was featured in Topps’ annual Allen and Ginter baseball card set, which traditionally features athletes from other sports, along with celebrities.

Female sporting heroes earn the trading card treatment

While the annual Topps release known as Allen and Ginter is classified as a baseball card set, its issues featuring celebrities and athletes from other sports has made it a special collectible for many card collectors. The card designs try to recapture the magic of the original Allen and Ginter tobacco cards from the late 19th Century, which are considered some of the most esthetically beautiful cards ever made.

As 2014 marks the ninth year of the revival of the remarkable brand, one of its unique aspects is the fact that the set always features prominent female athletes in its set. While there are the obligatory cards, including cards printed on metal, pop-up booklet cards and cards that will be adorned with the actual skeletal remains of an animal (numbered 1/1), several female athletes will be featured on randomly inserted autograph cards along with memorabilia cards.

For the 2014 edition, the female athletes given the cardboard treatment cover a wide range of unique sports. Power lifter Laura Phelps is the first female in the set, found on card number 6. Diana Nyad, who captured the hearts and minds of admirers the world over by swimming from Cuba to Florida graces card number 62.

Of note, athletes are not the only women to be featured in this unique set. While card 100 features Queen Victoria, actress Felicia Day finds her way into the set as number 119 and card 243 includes Helen Keller, whose struggles with disability raised awareness several generations ago. A pair of beauty queens is also part of this year’s offering. Erin Brady, the reigning Miss USA graces number 112 while Miss Universe, Maria Gabriela Isler can be found on card number 254.

Jenny Dell (card number 164), a popular broadcaster who covers Major League Baseball, is also part of this year’s offering, following a popular trend, which included Fox Sports personality Erin Andrews in the 2013 edition of the set. Wrestler Jordan Oliver joins Dell and the rest of the female sporting figures in the set.

Two American heroes from the Summer Games cross paths again in Allen and Ginter. Sprinting superstar Allyson Felix and 2012 Summer Games gold medalist Carli Lloyd are sequentially numbered in the set, gaining card numbers 213 and 214. As a side note, this is not the first time that Lloyd has earned the cardboard treatment. She has also been featured on products from Panini and Upper Deck.

Race car driver Tanner Foust can be found on card number 224. She is not the first female racer to be featured in Allen and Ginter’s card set. Danica Patrick was featured in the set’s inaugural release back in 2006.

In the 300-card base set, the last two female athletes found in the set include a rising superstar in golf, Danielle Kang and fitness champion Samantha Briggs. Kang and Briggs can be found on card numbers 273 and 276.

While Upper Deck products such as World of Sports and Goodwin Champions have also made efforts to feature female athletes on their card products, it is encouraging to see Allen and Ginter continue to set the way. In every one of their nine card releases, female athletes (and celebrities) have earned the cardboard treatment. Every year, their inclusion of female athletes only grows, continuing to feature prominent athletes from the past and the present.