No one said being an Olympian was easy.
And it shouldn’t be. To be an Olympian means being the very best – a lifetime of work culminating in an opportunity to showcase yourself and represent your country on the biggest stage in sports.
Haley Irwin doesn’t need to be reminded what it means. The Thunder Bay, Ont., native has been through the process before and has a pair of Olympic gold medals to show for it.
But this time was different.
Sure, the end result was the same – Irwin is one of the 23 Canadians who will chase a fifth-consecutive gold medal in South Korea come February – but the road to get there was full of enough twists and turns to fill an entire roster.
“When I think about everything I have gone through – at times I wanted to give up, I didn’t want to do it anymore and I didn’t think it was possible to do it anymore – this time around is special,” she says. “Not to say the other ones haven’t been, but this one I found out exactly who I am through this journey.”
A veteran presence on the ice and in the dressing room, Irwin struggled to stay healthy after the Sochi Games.
She lost almost two years to long-term injuries – Irwin went 674 days between on-ice appearances with Canada’s National Women’s Team – before returning to the national program early in the 2016-17 season.
She played her way back onto the Team Canada roster, appeared at a fifth IIHF Women’s World Championship and earned an invitation to Olympic centralization for the third time.
But as Irwin settled in in Calgary and looked towards PyeongChang the injury bug bit her one more time, keeping her off the ice for a month and testing not only her physical limits, but her mental limits as well.
“I think that with everything I had been through, it was more stressful,” she says. “I found myself thinking ahead too much this time around, and worrying about things that are uncontrollable. So I really had to work on the mental side of things and just appreciate every day.
“I wasn’t on the ice, but for me it was getting healthy, and then I could worry about performing. Until then, there was no sense in worrying, because I couldn’t be on the ice.”
She got back on the ice in time for the 4 Nations Cup in Tampa, Fla., and ended up appearing in four of the six pre-Olympic series games against the Americans (including her 100th international game on Dec. 6 in Winnipeg), cementing her Olympic spot.
The ups and downs of centralization have given Irwin a new perspective on the game, and how fleeting individual success can be. She knows the importance of nurturing the next generation and preparing them for what is to come in Korea, and beyond.
“I have that experience, so for the younger ones coming in, you want to lend a hand, you want to take them under your wing and help them any way you can, because at the end of the day it is going to help us as a group,” she says. “We have a lot of young rookies and first-timers, and they’re talented, they’re good hockey players. So if we can help guide them, on and off the ice, I think that’s what makes us a better hockey team.”
With the stress of the selection process behind her, it’s time for Irwin, and the rest of the Canadian roster, to look ahead. Just over a month remains until Team Canada departs for PyeongChang, and there is work to do.
“The mindset is every day getting better as a team. There are things we have to work on and build on, and continue to get better at, and we don’t look too far ahead. It’s just taking it day by day and making sure we’re doing the proper things to ensure we have our best performance come February.”