It’s hard for Laura Walker to rewind one year ago and picture herself representing Alberta at the 2020 Scotties Tournament of Hearts because she was all set on stepping back from the sport.
Walker didn’t walk away though and there she was Sunday in Okotoks, Alta., with tears in her eyes punching her ticket to the Canadian women’s curling championship for the first time in her career following a 7-4 victory over Kelsey Rocque in the provincial final.
Second Taylor McDonald, who played with Walker for four years previously, hugged her skip and said: “I knew you were going to do it one day. Thanks for not quitting.”
“It felt awesome,” Walker said on the phone Wednesday. “Taylor was the first person that I wanted to give a big giant hug to. We’ve played together for so many years and we’ve been close so many times but we’ve never been able to quite pull it off at provincials. To do it with her was pretty special and then to have her thank me for not quitting made me feel pretty good. It was great to do it with her.”
It was McDonald who “sweet-talked” Walker out of hanging up the brush to reunite and put together this Edmonton-based squad. McDonald spent last season playing in Manitoba with Alli Flaxey’s team and was planning on returning to her home province after the squad split up. Third Kate Cameron tagged along with McDonald as an out-of-province import and Nadine Scotland was added as the final piece of the puzzle at lead.
“It all came together really well and I’m glad that she decided to stick with it,” McDonald said. “I think anyone who knows Laura knows that she’s an incredible athlete and a super passionate and dedicated person. It would have been a real shame to not see her compete this year, so I’m glad she stuck with it and I’m glad it paid off for her as well.”
Walker is looking to start a family soon with her husband Geoff, who plays lead for Brad Gushue’s club in St. John’s, N.L., and she didn’t want to join a new team only to have to leave them hanging mid-season and let them down. McDonald understood and said to Walker: “Of course that’s OK. I hate that women feel like they have to choose.” Those words resonated with Walker and sparked her decision to stay in the game knowing her teammates would have her back.
“I think all four of us are on the same page with that,” Walker said. “We all are really supportive of each other in anything that we want to pursue whether it be something in our careers or if somebody wants to start a family. We have two teammates getting married in the upcoming year, so we’re all on board with everyone doing it all. We think everyone can do it all and we want to support each other through that.”
The team has also relied upon Shannon Pynn, who has worked with them through the sports psychology side of things since they formed. The University of Alberta Ph.D. student helped Team Walker maintain course, especially through choppy waters at the start of the season when they missed the playoffs in four of five tournaments.
“Shannon gave us such concrete tools of things that we could actually do in games and strategies we could use before games and after games,” Walker said. “Things that we could actually do and would actually do that made such a huge difference to all of us in our own individual ways. I can’t say enough about what she did with our team all year.
“She helped us right through the early days when we were struggling a little bit, kept our confidence up and just kept us on the right path and the right journey to where we needed to be. She was there with us all week (at provincials) as well and just knowing that she’s there back at our house, back after our game, if someone needed to chat, just having her presence made all of us feel so much better.”
Team Walker knew they would still be in tough at provincial playdowns even with Chelsea Carey’s club out of the mix having earned the auto-berth back to the Scotties Tournament of Hearts as the reigning Team Canada. They struggled a bit out of the gate giving up four points early in the third end during their first game against Nicky Kaufman. That one end turned out to be their lone blemish as Walker rallied to win 12-10 in an extra end. The resilient victory boosted the team’s confidence and sparked their sensational roll. They never gave up more than two points in an end after that nor trailed big time as they ran the table posting a perfect 7-0 record. A 7-1 rout over Rocque in the Page 1-2 playoff game booked Walker a spot in the final.
“That was crazy,” McDonald said. “Alberta is a tough province to get out of, so we were expecting a lot of really close games and a lot of really tough games. I don’t think anybody ever expects to go undefeated through a championship like that but we were very thankful to do so and we had a lot of really good games under our belt, so we’re proud of that.”
Going undefeated through round-robin play amounts to nothing if you don’t win the one game that matters the most in the end. Walker said it was nerve-racking for sure heading into the high-pressure final showdown against Rocque.
“Beating the same team, a good team, twice in one week is hard, let alone three times,” Walker said. “We knew that we would have to play really well to beat them. We knew that they would come out stronger than we had played them in the 1-2 game but we also knew that we had done all of the right things all week and that we were the best team there all week. If we had kept doing all of the things that we were doing in our previous games we were going to give ourselves a really good chance. Luckily, we went out there and did most of them.”
Walker was looking to blank the opening end but had to settle for a point when her hit-and-roll attempt remained in the rings. After forces back and forth for singles in the second and third ends, Walker pulled away with consecutive steals when Rocque came up short in the fourth to yield two points and hit and rolled too far in the fifth to concede another. That cushioned Walker’s lead at 5-1 going into the midway break but it wasn’t a comfy situation knowing there was still half a game (or more) to go.
“We tried our best to stay calm,” McDonald said. “We did a lot of work this year to really focus on taking every end one at a time and just really stay in the moment, enjoying what we’re doing, enjoying playing for each other and all of the little systems along the way.
“Kelsey and her team are very good opponents, they’re very good athletes and their track record shows that. We have nothing but respect for them out there. We knew that at any moment the score could change, so we just wanted to stick with what we were doing, keep our heads down and get to work.”
Walker took a three-point lead into the 10th end and played a solid final frame but fate was in Rocque’s hands with last-rock advantage. Or so it seemed. Although Rocque had two stones sitting in the house, she needed to pull off a crazy quadruple takeout and keep her shooter around just to tie it and push the game into an extra end. It didn’t take Rocque long to figure out it was nearly impossible and the gloves came off for handshakes.
“I’m not sure she had such a good shot there and I think they saw that,” said McDonald, who won world junior and Winter Universiade gold medals with Rocque. “We were definitely nervous and if she had tried it I think I would have been holding my breath all that time as well because if anyone is going to make it I think Kelsey could.”
There were no broom-flipping cellys, just a release of emotions as Walker was still in shock trying to process the surreal moment. McDonald let out a little hop as the foursome came together for a group hug and Queen’s “We Are the Champions” piped through the arena. Walker waved into the camera and gave a shoutout to her cat Penny as she wiped away tears.
She was practically speechless then and even with a few days to let it sink in Walker still wasn’t sure she knew the exact words to describe how she’s feeling.
“I think it’s a really big mixture of joy, relief, and pride just for how hard we’ve worked for so many years to get to this point in our careers,” Walker said. “Just an overwhelming amount of emotions and they’re a whole bunch of different emotions but at the end of the day we’re super happy.”
Playing in the Scotties Tournament of Hearts might not be something Walker was imagining a year ago but it was something she dreamed about while growing up in suburban Toronto throwing rocks at the Scarboro Golf and Country Club.
“A big reason why I chose to stay in the game was because I hadn’t achieved that goal yet of going to the Scotties,” Walker said. “It’s something that I really wanted to do before my career was over. It’s still the pinnacle of our sport to be able to play at the Brier or the Scotties and represent your province. It’s what people watch, it’s what people know when they think of curling. It seems like if you’ve been to the Brier or the Scotties you’ve kind of made it and it feels really good.”