Canada Games athlete had steep slope to recovery
Teen’s miraculous comeback from near-fatal accident last February gets her a spot on Canada Winter Games team
KAYLA BYRNE KINGS COUNTY RECORD
PENOBSQUIS • It was almost a year ago when Penobsquis teenager Olivia Mc-Lean was airlifted to the IWK’s intensive care unit. Today, she’s getting ready to take flight once again. But this time, instead of praying for her, friends and family will be cheering her on as she makes her way to Prince George, B.C., for the 2015 Canada Winter Games starting Feb. 13.
The 14-year-old is calm and collected as she recalls waking up that first time in her Halifax hospital room. Her parents and four siblings had dropped everything to be by her side when she regained consciousness after being in a medically induced coma for more than a week.
“Well, I was asleep for a lot of it so that helped,”she joked.“But the second I woke up I knew it wouldn’t be long before I got onto skis again. I was just lying in that bed thinking, ‘I’m still going to make the 2015 Games. I’ll do whatever I have to do to get there.’”
Olivia has always been a focused and determined skier, but if you had told her Poley Mountain coach last March that she would be making this year’s Canada Games, he wouldn’t have been so sure.
“She’s tough as nails,” said Ian Banks. “Her family is a good Sussex farm family and they have a pedigree in ski racing. If there was any way she was going to get back up on skis I knew she would push through it pain or not.
“At the time, though, it was hard to tell when she would be back on skis, but it seems to be going better than anyone could have hoped.”
A trip last year to Nova Scotia started out like any other ski trip for Olivia. After a day of racing at Ski Wentworth, she went with a friend to help tear down some makeshift fences on the hill. Taking note of how quiet and calm the slopes were after a day of competing, the two girls decided to cash in a free run.
Just as she was about to jump on the ski lift, she was stopped by a coach for not wearing a helmet, which is law in Nova Scotia. She shoved her brother’s helmet over her blond hair and headed up the hill. That’s one of the last things she remembers from Feb. 15, 2014.
Despite having been on skis since she started walking, Olivia lost control. She crashed into a tree at an impact that almost killed her.
Olivia’s skiing buddy acted quickly, and it wasn’t long before a helicopter was taking the injured girl to the Halifax hospital. Olivia’s mother, Dawn, has no doubt the helmet saved her second born’s life.
Even with the helmet lessening the blow to her head, doctors working on Olivia found bruising and swelling on her brain. They also discovered she had broken one leg in several places.
For more than a week, Olivia was kept in a coma with hopes of keeping down the swelling around her brain.
After three weeks at the IWK, Olivia was transferred to the Stan Cassidy Centre for Rehabilitation in Fredericton, where she underwent many physically and mentally exhausting hours of physiotherapy and occupational therapy.
“Every time she was there and they would tell Olivia that it was enough for the day, she would say ‘No, I’m going to do 10 more minutes for the Canada Games because I’m going to make the team,’” Dawn said. “She’s gone above and beyond what was expected of her. She did it all so she could meet her goal of getting to the Games.”
Olivia’s leg was so damaged that it’s actually still considered broken today, but when November rolled around, she felt strong enough to slide back into a pair of skis.
While ski hills around the Maritimes had not yet opened for winter, the Sunday River Ski Resort in Maine was up and running. Olivia, her parents and siblings piled into the car and made the six-hour trek to the resort’s fresh powder.
Once she got there and was all suited up in her gear, Olivia said, she didn’t think twice before heading to the top of the hills.
“As a mother, I have to admit I was a little scared seeing her in skis again,” Dawn said. “When she got to the top I let her and her siblings go first, so I could stay behind and pick anybody up if I had to. When I saw her push off and she was right back to where she was the morning of Feb. 15, I just laughed out loud.
“Just to see her at the top of that hill and just go down like nothing had happened was the best sight a mom could see. It was then I knew everything was going to be fine.”
After that day in early November, Olivia started hitting the slopes hard in preparation for the final January derby that would lead her to the Canada Games.
Because she started early, she was able to get a three-week head start before the rest of the Poley team.
“When her mother told me Olivia wasn’t having any problems, it set my mind at ease because I knew she would be ready to train at full tilt when she got with the rest of the team,”Banks said.
Recently, ski teams from across the Maritimes gathered for the derby at Edmundston’s Mont Farlagne. There the young skiers took part in six time trials. The best time of each skier was put forward to determine who would be heading to the Games.
“It was the first time the other hills from other provinces had got together,” Banks said. “So, some of the other kids from New Brunswick had already seen Olivia through training, but the kids from the other provinces were just amazed to see her there just looking like she hadn’t been in this terrible accident less than a year ago.
“She was kind of the talk of the weekend.”
After the trials had finished up, a ceremony was held to announce which team members made the cut. Olivia sat nervously as she heard the names of six other girls being called before eventually hearing her own name.
“I knew there were only seven girls who would be picked, so when I heard them announce the sixth girl I knew there was just one more spot left,” she said. “I was really nervous, but I just knew they were going to call my name. This is everything I’ve been working for.”
The teen says going to the Games runs in the family and her accident wasn’t going to ruin that tradition.
“It’s a big deal for us. My mom has seven brothers and sisters and they have all made it to the Canada Games for skiing. And my older brother did, too, so it’s really important for me to hold up this family tradition.”
Olivia is one of five members of the Poley Mountain Racing Club who have been selected to the New Brunswick Canada Games alpine ski team. She and Samantha Piekarski are on the girls side, and Cameron Magee and Ian Morrison are on the boys side.
Poley’s Christel Robichaud will be entered in the para-alpine event.
Other members of the New Brunswick team are Katherine Mills, Gabrielle Rutter, Jennifer Clarke and Lucy Black of the Crabbe Mountain Racing Club and Alexie Laplante of the Mont Farlagne Racing Team for girls, and Caeden Carruthers, Brandyn Cooke, Camden Sutherland and Walter Teague, all of Crabbe Mountain, and Frédéric Verret of Mont Farlagne for boys.
Although the 15 young skiers come from across the province, Banks will be head coach for all of the alpine skiers.
Olivia has been part of high-competition ski races before, but nothing quite like this. Much like the first time she got back on skis, or when she took part in the derby trials, she isn’t at all nervous.
“I’m more excited,”she said.“Before a competition I just kind of get focused and not really think about anything else. I’ve never been to British Columbia, so I’m looking forward to that and checking out some of the other sports at the Games.”
Although Banks said he hasn’t had any challenges getting Olivia up to Games standards, he still worries about her broken leg. This year’s Games offer four categories for the alpine skiers: slalom, giant slalom, super G and ski cross.
So far, Banks and Olivia have only been working on her slalom and super slalom skills.
“She’s been doing great with those two and hasn’t even mentioned her leg. However, the other two categories involve jumps, which is where I’m concerned. We’re not really sure just how the strength will hold up when she takes air and lands, so that’s something we’re going to be easing her into and seeing how she holds up.”
Olivia’s family won’t be making it out to British Columbia, but her mom says everyone will be rooting for her at the family’s Penobsquis home.
“We’re thankful to see it come full circle like this,” Dawn said. “It’s a pretty emotional time for us.”