It was the splashiest of breakthroughs last summer for the RBC Training Ground program as it produced four Tokyo Olympic medallists for Canada, including eights rowing gold-medallist Avalon Wasteneys of Campbell River and track cyclist Kelsey Mitchell of Edmonton.
The program looks for undiscovered athletic talent or redirects current athletes to sports that are better suited to their abilities. Wasteneys was a cross-country skier on Mount Washington before being redirected to rowing and Mitchell a University of Alberta Pandas soccer players before being redirected to cycling.
The newest group in the latest national talent search includes three Island athletes whose raw workout scores topped the class. University of Victoria Vikes rugby players Carissa Norsten and Faith Tilley, both 18, and Shawnigan Lake School rugby player Ava Ference, 16, have earned RBC Future Olympian funding and multiple-year commitments from their national sports organizations as a result of their performances in basic physical testing.
More than 4,000 athletes between 14 and 24 participated in the free, all-comers national search, out of which only 30 athletes earned funding.
The three Island athletes will stick with rugby and will be training with the national Maple Leaf Academy development program in Langford to fuel their Olympic dreams.
The genes come naturally to Ference, daughter of former Edmonton Oilers captain Andrew Ference.
“Ava is athletic and fast, with so much potential to be a playmaker on the rugby pitch that we’re excited to get her more deeply into our program,” said Maple Leaf Academy head coach and 2016 Rio Olympics bronze-medallist Kelly Russell.
Norsten is out of Queen Margaret School in Duncan and is an all-rounder who played hockey, soccer, volleyball and ran track in her native Saskatchewan before settling on rugby. That held her in good stead for the RBC Training Ground trials, although, she said, she didn’t veer much from her current training regimen.
“I did a little extra cross-training to prepare but I kept it consistent with the training I was doing for rugby,” Norsten said of her approach to the tryouts, which were held at PISE.
“I was so excited when I was informed of the score and that I had been selected. My goal is the senior national team and this will be important to furthering my career.”
Tilley came cross-country from Halifax to join the Vikes and made an immediate impact. Russell describes her as a “young athlete with the size and power to perform well in rugby.”
Joining gold-medallists Wasteneys and Mitchell on the Summer Olympics podium last year in Tokyo were fellow RBC Training Ground graduates Lauriane Genest, bronze medallist in sprint track cycling, and track sprinter Jerome Blake, bronze medallist with the Canadian 4x100 relay team.
RBC Training Ground graduates set to compete in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics next month include touted aerials freestyle-skier Marion Thénault and bobsledders Mike Evelyn and Sara Villani.
“While some participants are looking to re-energize or boost an Olympic dream in a sport they are already pursuing, others participate with the hope of being discovered and directed toward an Olympic sport they may have never considered,” Evan MacInnis, technical director for RBC Training Ground, said in a statement. “But they all rely on raw athleticism and determination to attract the attention of our sport partners and are excited to see where this program can take them.”
For Wasteneys and Mitchell, it took them to the top of the podium.