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A more thorough appreciation of a Canadian curling championship

As young curlers growing up in the area, both Sandra Wickham (now Henderson) and Tracy Cleaver (now Lalonde) fancied themselves as fairly accomplished leads, blessed with that ability to set the tone for any given end.

In March of 1986, the dynamic duo would again find themselves leading the way, but in a somewhat different curling capacity.

Wickham and Cleaver, along with a front-end pairing of Heather Pearson and Leigh-Anne Booth, would strike gold at the CCAA (Canadian College Athletic Association) National Invitational Curling Championships in Kamloops, representing Cambrian College and guided by coaches Vern Dow and Louise Hickey.

The Golden Shield rink posted a record of 4-1, beating Alberta (9-7), Totem of British Columbia (7-4), Caribou of British Columbia (9-3) and Saskatchewan (9-4), topping the standings and laying claim to the banner. And while both Wickham and Cleaver were more than familiar faces in the Sudbury junior curling ranks at the time, their merging at the local college was almost somewhat organic in nature.

“I think the girls approached me, or maybe the coaches approached me,” recalled Lalonde. “Sandra was there (at Cambrian) and I was there; Sandra and I had played together for like four years or so competitively. We knew each other well - we knew how each other played.”

Some might factor post-secondary varsity athletic opportunities into their choice of institutions, but that wasn’t the case for these two young women, both of whom curled competitively at the Coniston Curling Club.

“I don’t know if it was fate – I’m not even sure how I remember getting pulled on to this team,” suggested Henderson. “I was doing nursing at Cambrian, and back in those days, when you were doing nursing at Cambrian, you really were not allowed to do anything else – including play varsity sports.”

“I originally jumped on board, thinking it was just for a weekend.”

To this day, both would say that junior curling, leading into the open women’s ranks, is truly where their focus would lie through their developmental years. And while they would combine to form a formidable back-end partnership at Cambrian, it was at the opposite end of the lineup that they first made their mark.

“My parents (Lynn/Jerry) were both avid curlers in Coniston,” said Lalonde. “My father curled with the Dumontelles, mom ran the ladies league, did the books. I could crawl home, from the club to my house – we were literally next door.”

“I remember being picked up, underage, by the junior team coached by Finn Findlay,” she continued. “I was told that he picked me because I had a good sense of the rock, for sweeping. I played mostly lead and was a damn good lead. I learned to judge the speed of the rock and got my draw weight down, really quickly.”

Though it was her work as Cambrian skip that garnered Henderson Female Athlete of the Year honours in 1986 (Lalonde served as the vice-skip), her start in the game very much mirrored that of her now in-house co-hort.

“I was preparing to go to NOSSA gymnastics in grade nine and ended up breaking my arm,” Henderson recalled. “Once I recovered, I became the lead on Nancy’s curling team (her older sister, by two years) and the rest is history. I always looked up to my sister. As a young girl, hanging out with you older sister and playing all of these games, that was kind of nice to do.”

“And as a lead, I got to be quite good at my draw weight – and when you’re good at something, you get to like it that much more.” She was also more than well acquainted with Findlay, who was both her coach and stepfather.

By all accounts, both Booth and Pearson were somewhat more along the lines of what would be traditional club curlers, not likely to jump into zone playdowns and the like. Yet beyond the fact that the front-end did yeoman’s work all week – Lalonde recalls Booth being recognized as an all-star second at nationals – there was a far more valuable role that they played, creating an environment where the more accomplished curlers could thrive.

“They instilled so much confidence in us that it really helped us believe that we could win,” said Henderson. “Heather and Leigh-Anne thought we were the greatest curlers on earth. When your team thinks that you can do anything and they put absolutely no pressure on you, it makes it so much easier to think that you can do it.”

Still, it is interesting that many of the memories of those nationals that still come to mind were not necessarily specifically game-action based. “I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see much of Kamloops; we saw the Rockies from the airplane and that was about it,” recalled Lalonde. “The club that we played at had a lot of boards between the sheets of ice, so we ran into mega, mega, mega negative ice.”

“Everything fell to the boards, on almost every sheet. I’m probably talking two feet of negative ice – it was ridiculous. Because of our experience, we knew what was going on – but not everyone did. Knowing where to put the broom down was a big part of our success.”

If the scope of their achievement might not have immediately hit home, the celebration that greeted their return to Sudbury certainly helped put it all into perspective. “We were going back to the school in this cube fan of some sort and I really didn’t expect anything,” said Lalonde. “It was curling – it’s not like we were the hockey team or the basketball team.”

“We showed up and my god, there was a red carpet, a bagpiper, a stage prepared in the middle of the foyer. I was totally and completely shocked. They did a really good job of bringing us in and acknowledging our accomplishment.”

“Somehow, they kept it all a secret,” added Henderson. “When we pulled up to the college, there were a couple of hundred students, a few reporters and faculty – all there to celebrate our victory.”

“I thought to myself, this is kind of cool.”

In 2007, the team revisited those same feelings, included in the class that would be inducted into the Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame. “It’s nice to be acknowledged for something I may have taken for granted,” noted Henderson.

Moving from Sudbury to southern Ontario shortly after graduation and now living in Waterdown, Lalonde remained involved in the sport for several years.

The mother of two suggested the national title was one of two very special curling highlights that she enjoyed, the other being an appearance at the Ontario Championships, in and around the same time, battling a field that included the likes of Alison Goring (1990 Scotties champion) and two-time world champion Marilyn Bodogh.

Henderson, for her part, admitted that her on-ice curling involvement has taken a backseat to that of her husband, Ron, who has enjoyed multiple visits to the senior nationals recently with skip Robbie Gordon and company.

Of course, only one member of that household can lay claim to being a national champion.

That is a bond that (Wickham) Henderson, Cleaver (Lalonde), as well as Heather Pearson and Leigh-Anne Booth will always enjoy.

Greater Sudbury Soccer Club