Sunday, 9 August 2015

A Tribute

She hated hockey. If she would have had it her way, she would have spent her days locked in her room eating All Dressed Crispers while playing with her TY brand plush kittens. But she needed to do something to gain her share of the family limelight back from her brother, who was at the time, by the standards of the PEI Atom AAA hockey league, a remarkable young player. Mom and Dad were often asked about their hockey playing son, but not as much about their curly-haired daughter sitting in the stands, and this did not suit her. She wanted to make noise of her own.

I don't know when and how she fell in love with the sport of hockey through the years. I know even less if it was the sport itself that eventually appealed to her, or if it was the sense of pride that came with her own establishment as an athlete and performer. Like big brother, she needed her time on stage, too, and figured that the best way to do so was by imitating him to the best of her abilities.

Following in my footsteps was a trend that quickly switched from figurative to literal as she later began to run. Her presence was quickly felt, as she put everything she had into this commitment. And the things I would do to feel it again. But now, as I run in solitude along the PEI confederation trail, the only presence following in my footsteps is the brisk, atlantic wind.


Her hockey beginnings were humble. I remember getting mad at her after one particular game in which she had barely moved away from her own crease, even when the puck had long escaped her zone. "Get out and play", I would say. "You're not the goalie!" When I laugh and remind her of that incident, she refuses to believe she did such a thing. This disbelief would probably be shared by most people who have recently watched her play.

What I didn't understand then was that the action of taking the puck from one's own end, skating around five helpless players, and faking a shot only to quickly shift to a backhand deke to fool the goalie didn't come as naturally to her as it did to me. However, if she needed to practice a skill in the basement for two hours before getting it, she would work at it for three, and master it. I was a natural, she was a worker. I was outspoken and confident in my athletic abilities (sometimes too much so), she was quiet, reserved, and would rather let her actions do the talking. Weirdly, as different as we were in our demeanours, we would often achieve comparable results. This, along with our personality differences, caused us to become rivals of sorts.

For years, we competed. Maybe she wasn't quite as naturally talented, but for what she lacked in talent, she made up for it through sound trainability and astounding discipline. At first, it was in the rink. I was a centre and she played defence, but we always found ways to quietly compare our young careers. Player of the Game awards, team captaincies, positions on spring or elite hockey teams, etc. All was tallied, and the nature of our endless competition was becoming unhealthy. However, when one of us would suffer an important blow, all egos would temporarily be put aside. The first time I can remember this happening was in 2011, when my opponents were hitting puberty and I was still searching for an armpit hair. I was cut from the 2011 Canada Winter Games PEI hockey team, a setback that I still consider being the nail in the coffin of my then-fast-dwindling hockey career. On that day, we briefly ceased being competitors. This was the beginning of our understanding that as different as we were in nature, we rooted for each other. Her success represented my own, and vice versa. Despite our endless competition, to the core, we were allies.

U-18 Team PEI at Atlantic Challenge Cup

My cutting from that Canada Games team, for a number of reasons, hit me hard. Hard enough to make me start detaching myself from the game. The beginning of my alienation from hockey culture occurred around the time she really picked it up. The same year I was cut, she had made the provincial team. For the first time, there was separation in our sporting goals. Having won a few school cross-country titles, I had begun reinventing myself as a distance runner (maybe the furthest thing from a hockey player on physical, mental, and sociocultural levels). For a period of time, I had my thing, and she had hers. These times were when we'd get along the best. But it did not last. As she did with hockey, she quickly mimicked my habits, and picked up running. Again, her beginnings were not as successful as mine (she had barely made it to her first provincial championship while I had broken a long-standing elementary school record without any formal training), but her focus and desire caught her up to me in no time. Before we knew it, we were both on the provincial track and field team. The more we ran, the more we liked it.

2012 Legion Provincial Track Team


As the years passed, it slowly became apparent that the Cyrs were not destined to become hockey players. However, we were athletes, and could adapt to our environment. As we are Canadian, the most prominent influence came from the hockey rink from a young age. Despite our slender body types and our milder nature, we were skilled enough to adapt to the gameplay and clever enough to fake tough. In reality, our genetic and mental makeup screamed running. We lived excessively healthy, had little to no desire to go out on weekends, and had no problem logging long hours of aerobic training. The older we got, the more obvious it became that we would faster find success by trading in hockey skates for running spikes.
2012 Juvenile Girls and Senior Boys Cross Country gold medals

By the time I was 17 and she was 16, the sibling rivalry resurfaced on the track, as our progression became eerily similar. As we were so alike in skill, none of us would give an inch. But, as high school ended for me, and I left for St.FX university, the competition subsided, or at least, simmered. Being separated for the first time presented a new dynamic to our relationship. She again had her own world, and I had mine. But this time, it was becoming permanent. Our self-evaluations were no longer co-dependant of our counterpart's performance. For the first time since playing competitive sports, we were on our own.

 As soon as I left, I began coaching her in running. I would give her a bit of advice, and make her a training program based on how much she had been running in the past year. After a winter of hockey where, due to her small runner frame, she got bumped around, she returned to running to try and defend a track and field provincial title.

2013 Canada Summer Games - a 16-year-old Myriam in a U-23 competition. After those games, running had become the focus.
The programs I sent her were conservative in nature. I was especially aware of the dangers of overtraining, as I had recently been exposed to a world of struggle. At the time, I was unknowingly suffering from iron-deficiency anemia, and this robbed me of all the energy and durability I had. I seemed to come down with something different every second week, and between injuries, I was garbage. As I continued sending her the training plan, I was looking for answers for myself. I especially did not want to make her go through the same struggle by prescribing her too much running and have her drop out of her senior track and field provincial 3000m at the 1400m mark by succumbing to a nasty case of achilles tendinitis, just like big bro.

Despite my injury-riddled freshman year, I was having a great time with the X-Men. I had played hockey since I was very young, but never had I felt this close to a group of guys. I had made many great friends in the hockey dressing rooms over the years, but never had I made friends like these. These people were different. Not better or worse, just different. The approach to training was different, the locker room jargon was different. A different that I needed and, as it turned out, loved. I remember talking to her about this; how there was a group of people out there who were very similar to us. A group of people with whom we would not have to change our personalities to fit in. Later on, I would tempt her to come to X by telling her stories about the team. I would ramble on about my improvements as a runner, and I would attribute this to my time spent on the team. A trip to StFX on recruit weekend solidified the feelings she was beginning to have. She began realizing that, like me, she would fit in better with a running team, and became extremely excited when universities began contacting her. At that time, hockey was but something to occupy the hours when she wasn't training to become a future force on the AUS cross country circuit.

StFX Cross Country recruitment trip. Before knowing her fate, becoming an X-Women seemed likely.

As I had gotten her excited to join our ranks, I was afraid of getting booted out of them and getting cut from a team. My struggling got us closer, as I suspect on a deep level she needed me to understand what it was like to have to work for success, like she had done all her life. We started to talk about every aspect and detail of her training. One night, she messaged me about a weird twinge in her foot that had been bugging her since the Moncton Open Indoor championship in late February. I didn't think much of it, but became a bit concerned when it was still bugging her after a week. Then two weeks. Then a month. She began seeing a physio, and we were quickly realizing that it was not helping. Not knowing what to say, I told her to ice her foot, and that it would be fine. 

Except that it wouldn't be. Flash forward a few months, and she was dropping out of her senior track and field provincial 3000m at the 1400m mark. Stranded on the side of the UPEI track, watching her rival break the PEISAA Senior 3000m record, wondering what her future holds; wondering when (or if) running will one day be effortless again. Those were not the footsteps in which I hoped she would follow.


Sesamoiditis is a nasty beast. In short, it is an inflammation of the sesamoid bones, under the ball of the foot. Apparently, hers were so inflamed that the tendons and ligaments around it, responsible for bringing the bone its blood supply, had lost function, and the bone had rotted. As she was tearing up the track at the Canada Games in 2013 with me watching, injured, there was a common thought amongst casual observers. ''Well Alex is talented but injuries are going to kill his career. But his sister Myriam, she's durable! She will do great things.'' Little did we know, she was a ticking time bomb. In addition to having a stride that would make her land heavily on the ball of her foot, she was diagnosed with a bipartite sesamoid. This means one of her sesamoid bones is in fact split in two, making it more prone to malfunction. It had been there since the day she was born, waiting to tarnish a youthful and promising career.

In June of 2015, there was no more waiting. 16 months after the initial injury, she was finally seeing the best specialist in Atlantic Canada. She had gone through countless unsuccessful physiotherapists, chiropractors and osteopaths to reach him. My parents had both accompanied her to St. John, NB, and I was working in Charlottetown. Right around lunchtime, I received a lifeless, abbreviated text message suggesting me to call her. To our dismay, the news was grave. 'You should probably give up running,' were the words of the specialist.

She took it hard. We all did. It was something we all suspected could happen, but not to her. After all, we never expect the horror stories to actually come true. With this news, she naturally tried to find a way to get around her fate. To this point, it has been to no avail. She could opt for surgery, but the health risks would be too great. After all, there are more things in life than running. There is school, there are friends. There is hockey.

For some time now, instead of running intervals, she is lifting weights. Her track spikes have been traded in for rollerblades that she uses for summer training. The slenderness and aerobic efficiency she has worked so hard to build as a runner is quickly being destroyed, as anaerobic power and hypertrophy are now the priority. She is still an avid running fan, but knows where her future lies. She is currently training hard in order to have a chance at making the Université de Moncton hockey team as a rookie. It will not be easy, and nobody will do her any favours. University cross-country coaches were knocking at her door. Now, she must ignore them all and do her own knocking, as the hockey coaches have not yet been as eager. She will need to fight her body type, her mindset, and her intuitions in order to rediscover the hockey life. She knows it will be an uphill battle, but as she approaches everything else, she approaches this too with unparalleled focus and effort.


So why am I writing about all of this?  Firstly, for the simple purpose of information. She hates it when people ask her how her running is going, or why she hasn't raced recently. The process of repeating herself one other time is mentally exhausting, and the content of her message is sometimes difficult to capture. How do you explain such a complex condition without fully understanding it yourself? This is not to mention how the receiving end of the conversation reacts. In the best case, she will be speaking with someone from the sport community who will sympathize with her and wish her well. In the worst cases, people will view her as a quitter, or a coward, and when I hear this, I cringe. I've seen her annoyed, I've seen her in distress. I've even seen her in tears, but in these 16 months I've never seen her quit. When she hadn't run for over 500 days, but was still doing her strength and core routines in the hopes that the end of the nightmare was near, I realized that I had never witnessed desire better personified.

Secondly, I use this as therapy. Once the cards had fallen, and her fate was accepted, the pondering inevitably began. It could have been me. I was the injury-prone one. I was the one who skipped on the stretching. I was the one who often forgot to value the gift I was given. I now sit and reflect on my life and all of its dependant layers. Running has brought me so much already, and I am still relatively new to the sport. Without it, my identity would surely take a substantial hit; it is a great part of who I am. To process the thought that my identity is unstable and futile without this simple sport is sometimes too much to bear, so I cannot even begin to fathom the gravity of her worst thoughts. Had it been me who would have gotten injured, I would not have went to St.FX. I would not have met some of my absolute closest friends. I would not have accomplished my goals. I could not have set new goals. I would not have been able to create this identity that people see through social media, an identity that helped me create somewhat of a name for myself. A name that I know, by living vicariously through her during this process, could be burned to ashes in a matter of days if I lose this luck.

As I lace up my shoes to run some strides, I look ahead, but I don't see what I used to see. I hope for long term success, but I don't assume it. I don't think of one day contending for an AUS championship. I don't think of the times I want to hit when I'm 21, 22, 40. I don't even think about the next season. I think of the gift I was given today, to be healthy enough to run at this moment, and what I have to do in the present to honour it.

 At the same time, if I am as lucky, I someday want to turn some heads with my own running in my sister's honour. I want to accomplish something for the both of us. I want people to say ''he made it, so she would have made it, too.'' I am constantly haunted by the thought that the cards could have fallen differently, and I could be the one cheering from the sidelines, secretly wondering how far I would have taken this sport. As it stands, I'm not the better one, and I certainly am not the most deserving. I am simply lucky. With this luck I will run as far as I can, because I was given the opportunity we both wanted. My luck will eventually fade, sooner or later, gradually or suddenly. When that happens, when I will struggle, I will think of her. I know she will make the best of her current situation, and no matter how cloudy the future may seem, I will need to mimic her and do the same. When that time comes, it will be my turn to follow in her footsteps.

Now bid me run, and I will strive for things impossible. - William Shakespeare