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To be a McGill Martlet is to be a member of a wildly eclectic group. At the rink, future first violinists and art historians lace their skates beside the chemical engineers and the educators of tomorrow. On the basketball court, microbiologists-in-training set the perfect picks that spring students of anthropology and social work for easy lay-ups. In the typically atypical Martlet locker room, soon-to-be doctors, judges and business leaders gather to discuss the finer points of the Fosbury Flop, the full-court press and fireman's carry. You'll never hear a frustrated coach admonish her players by saying "Come on, ladies, this isn't rocket science," for fear of alienating the actual rocket scientists swimming laps.
Although the earliest female athletes at McGill in the mid-1880s had to content themselves with tennis and skating "activities" while their male counterparts competed vigorously against one another, modern Martlets have bagged their share of hardware at the provincial, national, world and Olympic levels. In fact, these are particularly heady days to be a Martlet.
In 2005-06, McGill broke the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) single-season record with 148 Academic All-Canadians—full-time students who achieve a minimum of 80 percent in their studies while competing in a CIS sport. A closer look at the numbers reveals a significant gap between the genders at McGill, with 84 women earning the honours compared to 64 men.
Gordon Bloom, a sports psychologist in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, believes the discrepancy may come down to a question of nurturing. "Although the last 30 years have seen women athletes become more like men in terms of their competitiveness and aggression, I think they may be better at mentoring the rookies. They tend to gravitate toward their teammates earlier than men."
Whereas newcomers to men's teams sometimes find it difficult to break into the inner circle, the spirit among Martlet teams seems to be extremely open. "Even at my very first tryout four years ago, I fell in love with this team because everyone was so welcoming," said volleyballer Rebecca Gomez. "For first-year players it's an automatic group of friends and a support group."
More than just friends, the veterans become guides, helping the rookies adapt to the dual load of high-level sport and McGill's exacting academic demands. "You have fourth-year players who have done it all before you, giving advice on courses, professors and tutoring," said Shauna Denis, three-time Academic All-Canadian and captain of the hockey Martlets. "People helped me out when I first got here and now I try to share my knowledge and experience with the newer players."
On these two pages we look at five Martlets, current and past, who have done McGill proud both on the field of play and beyond.
Hockey: Ranked first in Canada with 17-1-0 record; Goaltender Charline Labonté led nation with 10 shutouts; Vanessa Davidson named Quebec's top amateur female hockey player.
Track and field: Won ninth provincial title in 13 years, taking seven golds.
Synchronized swimming: Won third straight national university championship.
Basketball: Nathifa Weekes named Defensive Player of the Year in Quebec.
Swimming: Joanie Stilling had six Top Ten finishes at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport swim championships.
Only 10 McGill varsity athletes have become Rhodes scholars. Here is a list of the seven Martlets so honoured:
|Season||Name of Recipient||Sport|
|2004-05||Erin Freeland-Ballantyne||Skiing - Nordic|
|1996-97||Christine Desmarais||Ice Hockey|
Shauna Denis isn't afraid of a little testosterone. Growing up in Stittsville, Ont., Denis played hockey almost exclusively with boys until she hit her teens. Playing against bigger, stronger and faster opposition for all those years has paid huge dividends, as the 2005-06 QSSF MVP has captained the Martlets to the No. 1-ranking team in the nation heading into the playoffs. That she shines in another traditionally male stronghold—as a fourth-year Management student—is no coincidence. "There is a synergy between hockey and Management: The competitiveness, the preparation, having to be on your game. Most of all you have to know what you want and be willing to work hard to get it." Coming to the end of her collegiate hockey career, Denis knows what she wants. "I have two bronze medals from the nationals. This time I'm hoping to come back with something shinier."
Pressed for her recollections of being a student-athlete at McGill, Dr. Sandra Dial laughed. "It was so long ago, I can hardly remember." Coming to McGill in the early 1980s, the former Trinidadian National Under-23 field hockey player became a lynchpin on the Martlets, serving as team captain winning three MVP awards. "I think sports are very good for young people," said Dial, now a critical care physician at the Jewish General and MUHC as well as one of country's pre-eminent C.difficile researchers. "It teaches them about teamwork and discipline and it keeps them from being distracted by other, less constructive influences." Dial does harbour some concerns, however. "Sometimes I think kids are being pushed too hard in sports when they are too young," she said, mindful of her own pair of chronically sore knees. "But that's just the doctor in me talking."
When asked if she is hyper-competitive, runner Deborah Lightman chuckled. "Oh no, that is so not me. Honestly, I prefer a non-competitive atmosphere." Don't tell that to Lightman's opponents, especially because she just won two gold medals at the Quebec university women's track and field championships and qualified for the national championships in the 1000 meters and the 4x800 relay. "Sure I like doing well, but I prefer training over racing. Feeling like I'm doing my best is what keeps me happy. Similarly, I love learning but I don't always like school," laughed the three-time recipient of the prestigious Greville Smith Scholarship given to outstanding students who have shown promise of future success and responsible citizenship. Although she competes in such an individualistic sport, the iconoclastic long sprinter prefers running relays. "Racing with my teammates rather than against them is amazing and there is no better feeling than when we do well as a team."
When Dr. Lesley Fellows got word that she had become McGill's first female Rhodes Scholar in 1989, she was surprised. "So many accomplished people apply for it. I thought the chances of getting it were quite low so I was planning on going to medical school," she remembered. "It was wonderful because it was kind of the payoff for doing well in several aspects of life." Obviously, one such aspect was academics. Another was sports. After two years doing "a fair amount of bench warming" on the Martlet basketball team as a BSc undergrad, Fellows switched to rowing where she won a Canadian pairs championship. Although a back injury ended her rowing career, the lessons learned from her days as an athlete have served her well in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery where she does research into human cognition. "High-level sports helps develop a whole set of skills, including self-discipline and leadership, that are transferable in other domains."
Like so many highly motivated people, Rebecca Gomez sees an empty block of time as something to fill, not something to waste. When she isn't in the library studying or on the volleyball court diving for balls, Gomez volunteers for everything from handing out movies to patients at the Royal Vic to serving as timekeeper at McGill swim meets. "Sometimes it culminates with me getting all stressed out because I think I've taken on too much," admitted the 2005-2006 Academic All-Canadian. "But it always works out in the end." Unlike many sports seasons, the volleyball campaign stretches from training camp in August to the nationals in March, chewing up whole weekends with travel time and tournaments. "That first weekend in the off-season is crazy because I have 48 hours in front of me with nothing to do," she laughed. "I usually catch up on some sleep. And study."