In one short year, Kieanna Stephens’ life has changed dramatically.
It all started when the 16-year-old athlete walked into the Richmond Oval for the inaugural RBC Training Ground.
She had no idea what to expect, but apparently leaders in Canada’s sports community were hunting for athletes with Olympic potential, and given her passion and hereditary disposition for sports, Stephens figured it was worth giving it a shot.
She’d even heard rumour that some athletes might earn a bit of cash towards training – and as her mother Cynthia Klassen agreed, they could definitely use that.
“I thought that it would be something worth trying out,” Stephens said.
As a side note, this year’s training ground event is happening Sunday, Jan. 15 at the Langley Events Centre, where Stephens happens to currently train several days a week.
Further reflecting on last year’s experience, Stephens explained how she sent in her application and learned a few weeks out that she was one of about 100 B.C. and Alberta athletes invited to take part in the day-long multi-disciplined performance review.
“I didn’t think too much about the event going into it,” she admitted.
In fact, she said, her real focus was on hockey.
Her team was set for playoffs that same evening, and the major midgets’ forward didn’t want to miss it. She’d started playing hockey at age 12, following her older brother, Devante Stephens, now 20. He plays with the Kelowna Rockets and was drafted last year to the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.
Upon her arrival at the training ground, the young softball and hockey player – who had also dabbled in swimming and soccer – instantly felt like she was out of her depth. She was intimidated, noting many of those in attendance looked older and more experienced.
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“We showed up there and she was kind of nervous… a lot of them looked like professional athletes,” Mom recounted.
“Go, do your best, and let’s see what happens,” Klassen offered as words of support. “If nothing else, it’s great experience.”
All the athletes were challenged to perform certain physical activities such as a 40-metre sprint, vertical jumps, standing jumps, six-second bike sprints, upper body pushes and pulls, leg presses, and medicine ball tosses.
As the day of testing came to an end, Stephens wasn’t feeling like she’d made any shortlist, and didn’t see any sense in sticking around. She still hoped to get to her hockey game.
Mom, however, suggested asking if they could leave. One of the volunteers offered to enquire on her behalf, and came back quickly advising her that she was considered one of the top level competitors.
Needless to say, Stephens was encouraged to stay. She couldn’t win, if she wasn’t present.
“We’re glad that we stayed,” Klassen said with a bit of a chuckle.
Her daughter was called up the podium a few minutes later and proclaimed the winner.
“Overall it was an amazing experience, testing with great, diverse athletes,” Stephens told the Langley Advance. “My life as an athlete today is much different” because of that day.
She was chosen as one of four winners from across the country.
Consequently, Stephens was approached immediately after the event, and asked to consider training in rowing, canoeing/kayaking, rugby, or cycling with an offer to train and support her as a potential Olympian.
Recognizing rowing opened up more doors for her as a female athlete, she set her sights on rowing, and hasn’t looked back.
“Before I fully began rowing, I had preferred focusing on hockey, a sport I played prior to the training ground. Now that I have been rowing for a while, I am glad that I had been focusing on it,” she said.
“I had never thought of rowing before the training ground. I had no clue how to row, how hard it was, or how much technique is actually in the sport. I didn’t know anyone that had rowed prior to the training ground, so I had absolutely no knowledge about the sport,” she admitted.
“Now that I have rowed, I realize how physically and mentally challenging the sport is. Competitive rowing is very hard to do, and personally I think that it is the type of sport that you have to do in order to understand the complexity of it,” Stephens added.
Her immediate quest is to make the juniors with Team Canada, and if fate and talent collide, she aspires to be in Tokyo for the Summer Olympics in 2020.
One of the unexpected perks of being a winner at last year’s RBC Training Ground was mentoring offered by a pair of world-class athletes. Rower Will Dean and swimmer Martha McCabe have taken the young White Rock resident under their proverbial wings.
The win also meant Stephens was invited – as a guest – to attend the Olympics in Rio last August, with the three other Canadian qualifiers.
They met the Canadian Olympians, watched some of the competition, and were showcased in Canada House as potential up-and-comers.
“Rio was absolutely amazing,” Stephens recalled. “It was an unbelievable atmosphere, seeing all the fans and country pride. My favourite part was hanging out in the Canadian Olympic house and meeting the athletes, their families, and fans.
“Rio definitely fuelled my desire to be an Olympian, and I couldn’t wait to get back on the water after the trip,” she said.
Encouraging other athletes to take part in the qualifiers and aspire to excellence in their chosen sport, she said: “I think other people should take part in the RBC Training Ground this weekend because it’s an awesome experience, seeing and meeting different athletes. Hearing stories from other athletes can be very motivating, and it gives you a different perspective on training.”
While Stephens has changed her athletic focus to rowing, she still plays hockey, training and competing between the two sports about 15-20 hours a week.
“Fitting rowing and hockey into my schedule and still managing to maintain good grades is challenging,” said the Grade 11 Earl Marriott Secondary student.
“Being a student-athlete you have to be able to manage your time effectively,” and taking some courses last summer has enabled her to shorten her school day, and get her to the gym earlier each day.
“A lot of young athletes don’t understand how much work it takes to be at the top,” Stephens shared. “If you want to excel you have to dedicate the majority of your time to that sport. It is a lot of painful, hard work that you have to be willing to do…. The best part of the experience is the opportunity I have gotten to learn and better myself as an athlete.”