Shirley Pommier has spent the past forty years or so mastering the art of masters sports.
Through twenty years in Sudbury and an ensuing twenty years in British Columbia, the accomplished multi-sport athlete has enjoyed success in both nordic ski and running, while also participating in orienteering and staying active, in a whole variety of ways.
In a sense, this is something of a story of “right place, right time”.
When Pommier and her then husband (as well as their two children) moved from Elliot Lake to the nickel city back in 1979, the concept of masters sports was still in its infancy. For those who are uninitiated to the notion, you might want to think of oldtimers hockey and the like – but that would only make you partially correct.
In fact, groups like Masters Swimming Ontario accept members as young as 18 years old, whereas Athletics Canada utilizes a cutoff of age thirty. For sports like curling and others, athletes actually have to age out of their senior level before typically being welcomed to the very top of the charts, from a chronological perspective, at age sixty.
Throw in events like the Canada 55+ Games and the fledgling Canada’s Masters Championships in Guelph, fashioned along the Huntsman World Senior Games in Utah that now draws competitors exceeding the 10,000 plateau, and one can see the reason for confusion - but also the interest.
For Pommier, her arrival in Sudbury signalled a far different time.
“I was always a wannabe athlete,” she said recently. “In high-school, I did gymnastics and was a cheerleader. I suppose that deep down, there had always been a competitive soul that lived within me.”
Married to an intern who eventually became an emergency room doctor, Pommier would move from Montreal to Ottawa, from Vancouver to Elliot Lake. While certainly not looking to race down the slopes, Pommier had developed an affinity for alpine ski in her travels, an interest that morphed over to the cross-country version of the sport when she made her way to northern Ontario.
In her thirties, at that time, and with her two not-so-little ones garnering greater independence, Pommier would “come up for air”, athletically speaking - and in her own words - beginning to gain her bearings in the Sudbury south end.
“When I arrived from Elliot Lake, Terry McKinty was the tour de force of the Northland Athletic Club,” she said. “I was one of his runners. But I wanted to go to a nordic ski race and I needed a club, so the dear man created Northland Nordic Ski Club for me.”
Despite being a little late to the start line on the competitive sports scene, the woman clearly had talent.
Enrolled on a part-time basis in a Fitness & Lifestyle Management diploma program at Laurentian University, Pommier registered for the varsity ski team. “Ken Sidney did a fitness test on me and I had pretty good results – I had been training pretty hard,” she recalled.
Unfortunately, varsity participation requires full-time status, which Pommier could not juggle, given the family situation. “So I became sort of an assistant coach, muffin maker,” she laughed. “Ken and I became quite good friends; a lot of those skiers are still my friends.” She would eventually teach both cross-country ski and orienteering at L.U.
But it was as an athlete that she was really making in-roads, notably in the five-year age bracketed setting that was designed for folks who have moved on past their prime. Though the International Masters Games Association (IMGA) was not founded until 1995, World Masters Games were already up and running.
In 1985, Pommier attended her first such event in Toronto. By her own quick count, she’s now up to about seven or so. “The masters movement has changed a lot of our lives, in my opinion,” she stated. That was the case, most certainly, on a personal level.
“I worked hard and Terry was a good coach, so I found my athletic self. I had some modest success and it was fun, so I got involved a little in the organization of events. I also orienteered, but not as successfully – I used to outrun my brain all the time,” she said with a smile.
Yet it was on the cross-country ski trails where Pommier would excel the most.
“I went to Sweden for the World Masters in skiing, partly to get more competition,” she suggested. “Unfortunately, my age group was just ahead of the curb. They were just starting to attract more women behind me – now, it’s huge. But to be on a start line in Sweden was pretty amazing.”
“I had never been to Europe before.”
There is an interesting contrast at play in the world of avid masters’ athletes, where the undying flame of competition runs smack dab into the realities of the aging process on the body. Preparing to celebrate her 75th birthday this summer, Shirley Pommier can relate better than most.
“The medals were fun, obviously, but never the most important thing,” she said. “The whole thing with Masters Games is such a good time. Personally, I always looked at the clock, I always wanted to be faster. But I went back to work in my fifties and suddenly realized how hard it was to train and work.”
“Twelve hour shifts just are not conducive to really hard physical training, so I used muscle memory to try and drag it out as long as I could,” added Pommier, who had originally obtained her diploma in nursing while in Montreal and nursed for seven to eight years before returning to the field almost three decades later.
“I still love a start line, but it is more difficult.”
Like so many avid athletes her age, Pommier had endured a pair of knee replacements. By necessity, she has been forced to curtail her own expectations of herself. “I think the edge came off a little bit, just because it had to.”
Then, she recalls the fun that she recently enjoyed, participating in the Reino Keski-Salmi Loppett, in memory of a dear friend and former Voyageurs varsity skier.
“They had a special group for seventy year olds,” she explained. “I think it still got my competitive juices flowing when I won that category, beating a handful of recreational seventy year-old women who were skiing and had no idea what the hell I was trying to do.”
Yep, Shirley Pommier hasn’t mastered the masters sport environment, at least not quite yet.