By Kathy Yanchus
Kristin Gilmour loves hockey’s fast pace, the adrenalin rush of controlling the puck and setting up plays from the defensive end.
When she talks about the sport, which she has played at the rep level since she was eight, her smile is irrepressible.
The 17-year-old Waterdown District High School student is absolutely passionate about the game and she’s hard pressed to contain her excitement at being chosen as a member of Canada’s National Women’s U18 team, which is currently in Finland for the 2013 International Ice Hockey Federation U18 Women’s World Championships, Dec. 29-Jan. 5.
The defending Canadian team won its first three games defeating Hungary, Finland and Germany. The team has advanced to the semifinals.
Kristin began as a dancer, but skating was her “forte.”
“I started off as a dancer because my mom’s a dance teacher. My dad’s very much football and hockey. I asked if I could try it (hockey) so they put me in house league and I loved it. I loved being that active.”
After a year of house league hockey, she jumped to rep, playing in the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association (OWHA) and switching to the Provincial Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) last season.
The commitment is heavy, four hours a week of combined dryland training and on-ice practice, with three games on weekends.
“I’ve been back and forth between forward and ‘d’ (defence), but I’ve played ‘d’ for the last couple of years. I love it. I like the control that it gives you because when you get the puck you get to pass to whoever you want, you get to set up plays. They always call the ‘d’ the quarterbacks,” she said.
Little did Kristin know that Hockey Canada scouts were watching her play and last spring she was invited to a strength and conditioning camp in Toronto.
“Out of the blue” came the initial email with the invitation addressed to Kristin’s mom, who presented it to her daughter as a gift, framed and wrapped.
“I immediately tear up and start crying. Then I looked up and both my parents are crying. It was amazing,” she recalled.
The framed invitation sits atop her trophy shelf, and life ever since “has been crazy.”
Training camp was a series of fitness tests, all day, every day, said Kristin.
“We did running tests, we bench-pressed, we did chin-ups, just crazy, crazy amounts of testing. We went on the ice a couple of times.”
And then came the frightening setback and heartache.
“I ended up getting really sick at May camp, collapsing on the ice. I didn’t finish camp and got sent home,” noted the Millgrove resident.
Doctors thought it was over exertion, but she spent the summer in and out of hospital when the fainting spells continued.
“I had two MRIs, an EEG, all this testing to figure out what was wrong because I kept fainting. I fainted about four times and no one knew why. At the end of August I was at a training camp with an Oakville team and I fainted and ended up convulsing,” said Kristin.
In the midst of her health scare, Kristin received another email, this time official notification she had been cut. Needless to say, the local athlete was crushed.
“I was devastated…. I cried all night long. It was horrible. The next day, I got on the ice. You just push yourself that much harder. I was so close; I wasn’t going to give up. I practiced harder, worked out harder.”
In her youthful exuberance, she phoned Hockey Canada officials to find out why she didn’t make the team. Was she not working hard enough she wanted to know?
No, they responded, it was her health.
Again, unbeknownst to her, officials continued to watch her play her league games this season while specialists zeroed in on a diagnosis.
“They watched me play from September to now and I guess they liked the way that I played so they asked me to be part of the team,” she beamed.
Not, however, without consultation with, and clearance from, her doctors.
Kristin translates the official diagnosis of her condition, neurocardiogenic presyncope, as “basically when I push myself too hard, oxygen doesn’t go to my brain and I pass out.”
With a strict diet and certain breathing techniques, she can control what doctors have told her is not an uncommon ailment among athletes, she said.
“It was really hard. I had to see doctors every week; no one would know what was wrong with me. I’m really, really happy they figured it out,” she said.
And so it was off to Finland, where she spent Christmas on the ice and away from home, although her parents, younger brother and grandmother are all making the trip with her.
Next fall, the Grade 12 student plans to attend the University of Maine on a hockey scholarship, with hopes of one day becoming a pediatrician.
“I’m really excited. I’m really lucky.”
For weeks, her focus was on the trip to Finland, which began with an exhibition game against a boys’ Finnish team and ends Jan. 5, possibly with a gold medal around her neck.
“I want to represent Canada well. I’d like to make a name for myself whether it’s as the hardest worker,” she said. “I want people to know my name. I want to be a role model to younger kids, because I got cut and I overcame health problems, and I want to show little kids anything can happen if you put your heart into it and never give up on your dreams.”