As an athlete, Vanessa Chorkawy would earn university recognition, selected to the OUA women's volleyball second all-star team following her 2009-2010 campaign with the Lakehead Thunderwolves, one of the many highlights of her time in Thunder Bay.
A decade later, her coaching potential has been tapped, by the very same group.
Last week, it was announced that Chorkawy, a graduate of Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School, who cut her teeth, just a few years back, in the coaching ranks with the Northern Chill Volleyball Club, would be among the 18 women chosen as inaugural participants in the U Sports Female Apprenticeship Coach Program.
"I would say that it all started when I first returned to Sudbury and got involved with the Chill program (in 2015)," said the 32 year old local woman who got married last July. "I wasn't sure that coaching was exactly what I wanted to do, but it was a way to give back to the sport, initially."
And while a playing career that was capped off with stints in Sweden and the Czech Republic was noteworthy, it provided only partial preparation for the transition that she was about to make.
"The Vanessa that started with the Chill, initially, was very much a player coach, and by that I mean that I was so naïve to so many of the intricacies of the positions that I had never played," Chorkawy said. "I was just trying to coach from an area of the game that I knew well. I probably brought some confidence to my role that I had no business bringing to the sport."
Three short years later, much has been learned.
Though she recognizes that she "will always be continuing to grow, as a coach", there was no doubt that the talented ball striker was far more open to recognizing all that she did not know as she committed to attending a female leadership workshop at the University of Toronto in the summer of 2018.
"I jumped at the opportunity to attend that, not knowing anyone, but just wanting to learn more about coaching." While there was plenty of information to be absorbed, it was a presentation from Acadia head coach Michelle Wood, a former adversary in the OUA ranks, which impacted Chorkawy the most.
"After her presentation, I approached Michelle and asked if I could fly out east and oversee practices for a week, just be present in the gym to observe, and maybe just catch a game, at most. From there, it just spiraled into making a guest coach appearance at a summer camp, to eventually working into a full-time assistant coach position."
"It all happened in just two to three months."
In September of 2018, Chorkawy would find herself sitting courtside with Wood, the latter already blessed with eight years of AUS coaching experience at Acadia, along with an assistant coaching role that Wood fulfilled with the FISU team that travelled to China in 2017.
There was so much to learn - not the least of which was the fact that coach Chorkawy could not assume that every single athlete would be triggered by the same motivators that had worked with Vanessa Chorkawy, the athlete.
"I am such a competitive person, arguably in every aspect of my life," she said. "I was coached by so many male coaches, and they were driven, perhaps not forceful, but certainly a little more aggressive, to a point - and I responded well to that. That was my reality."
"I pretty quickly learned that my background was not a universal experience. Even at the U Sports level, the fact is that not everyone responds to that type of coaching."
For an athlete who thrived on an inner belief in herself, Chorkawy was venturing into uncharted territories, looking to find the happy medium between confidence and humility. "I found myself observing, almost to the detriment of coaching in my first year (at Acadia), because I didn't have the confidence to speak up," she said.
"There was this hesitation to jumping in and sharing my voice when I saw things at practice, just because I was so new to this program, to their culture and their rules - even though I would share thoughts, all the time, with Michelle, and she would encourage me to speak up."
And even when she would drum up the courage to become more vocal, there were only pockets of technical expertise that offered much comfort. "In my first year, I felt that I had no business even discussing much beyond very basic advice with our setters," said Chorkawy. "The blessing that Covid has been, for me, is the hours I have spent learning more about other positions."
"There is so much information on-line, and I've taken this opportunity to grow as a coach."
Now, thanks to the work of both Michelle Wood and Acadia Athletic Director Kevin Dickie, the Sudbury native will enjoy the chance to supplement her role with the team, identifying and attending professional development activities - all within the context of promoting the expansion of female head coaches in the future.
"One of my biggest takeaways at the U of T workshop was that there were so many strong, confident leaders that are female, women who didn't need to be the loudest one in the room or to have that aggressiveness in order to be confident," said Chorkawy.
"They just exuded it. They didn't have to be over the top and showy. Just having the confidence in themselves and in what they were instructing was enough. They had learned how to connect with people and right away, I was drawn to trying to figure out what that would look like for me."
Thankfully, Chorkawy need not look far for her mentor. The Michelle Wood bio is an impressive one, in spite of her relative youth. "She started as a head coach in U Sports at 25 years old," noted Chorkawy of the woman with whom she works closely. "She can bring so much more value to our conversations, just by virtue of the things that she has experienced."
"I've been with her for two years already, and I've not exhausted her knowledge, by any means."
And for the benefits of the program, beyond her interaction with the Acadia head coach, Chorkawy sees many. "Just being able to reconnect with former athletes who are part of this program, bouncing ideas off of them and even their mentors, is so important."
"Now you have a whole community of coaches that you can reach out to and speak to, people to help you navigate the next step in your career."