Winter Games produce lifelong friends

Two young curlers have found more than challenge and competition in their sport.

Cailin Cooke (left) and Everly Royea have become close friends training to represent the Fraser Valley in curling at the BC Winter Games

When Everly Royea is asked about the three girls she now calls her closest friends, a sheepish look comes over her face. She breaks eye contact, looks off into the distance and says, quietly, “To be honest, I didn’t actually enjoy being around them as much last year.”

There are hundreds of words that can be attached to the BC Winter Games — competition, intensity, atmosphere, drama — but here’s one that doesn’t get mentioned as much as it should.

Friendship.

As Everly has discovered over the last 12 months, the best friendships are the ones you never expected to happen, those forged in the furnace of competition. When people of different backgrounds and personalities come together with a common goal, the relationships they form are more valuable than any medal could ever be.

Sit across the table from Everly and teammate Cailin Cooke and you quickly see how different they are. Everly is shy, uncomfortable being interviewed and quick to defer when Cailin starts talking. Entirely forgivable, given that this is her first media adventure.

Cailin seems like a pro, relaxed and confident as she muses about team-bonding dynamics and the way four girls have come together to form a Winter Games curling contender.

“It’s not like a soccer team where you have 15-20 people. There’s only four, and obviously you need to talk to each other and like each other,” she says. “You get to know your teammates really well, traveling together and spending time in hotel rooms. You get to know them really, really well.”

Cailin and Everly first met up with Coquitlam girls Dezaray Hawes and Jamie Lynn a year ago at the Royal City Curling Club in New Westminster.

Dezaray, the skip, has a friendly out-going personality. A natural leader, she did her best to make her new teammate feel welcome.

She also wanted to see what this quiet and mysterious stranger could do.

As teammates on the Chilliwack secondary school curling squad that will soon make its second consecutive trip to provincials, Cailin knew exactly what Everly was capable of. She watched her cucumber-cool teammate make shot after crucial shot all the way through to last year’s finals. She saw Everly thrive in pressure-cooker conditions, and had no doubt that she would be a great fit in this foursome.

But it’s said you never get a second chance at a first impression. As the girls said hi to each other and settled in, Cailin sensed awkwardness. Everly wasn’t talking much and she seemed awful nervous. She worried that Everly would press too hard in an attempt to prove her worth.

“You don’t want to mess up because you’re on a new team and you don’t want them thinking you’re a bad player,” she says.

Everly admits she was shy and anxious at that first practice, plus a few more after that.

The teenager needn’t have worried about her on-ice performance. Her talent was obvious from the first rock she threw. And, after sharing a few laughs over post-practice lunches, she started feeling better off the ice as well.

More practices. More lunches. More bonspiels and one day it occurred to Everly that she really liked her teammates. All of her apprehension gone, in such a subtle way that she never saw it happening.

“It was a really gradual thing rather than one sudden moment when I realized it wasn’t awkward anymore,” she says.

Everly’s spent hours and hours with her teammates since. They’re no longer a mystery to her and she’s no longer an enigma to them.

Heading into February the team has been practicing twice weekly. The Winter Games run Feb. 20-23 in Mission, and as the opening ceremonies draw near, the girls are likely to step it up.

If the lunch dates and Facebook chatter show that they’ve become a fun-loving group off the ice, know that they’re all business on the ice.

“The practices are about an hour and a half and a lot has been about Dezaray getting to know all of our habits,” Cailin says. “Each of us does something different on the ice, in the way we release the rock, curl it or change its weight. Our practices are pretty go-go-go without a lot of time to relax. And all four of us are pretty intense when we start working.”

Everly and Cailin have never curled in an event so grandiose as the one they’ll curl in next month.

The BC Winter Games are a really big deal for elite athletes, a chance to test themselves against the best of the best.

All of them aspire to be at the top level of their sports, competing on the Olympic stage, and just about every BC born and bred Olympian once competed in the BC Winter Games.

When Cailin closes her eyes she sees an event on par with the Tim Hortons Brier and Scotties Tournament of Hearts — great atmosphere, tense moments and enough memories to last a lifetime. This is her chance to prove her mettle.

Everly can’t even imagine what this will be like.

But her quiet nature hides the fact that she is no less than competitive than Cailin. She too will live and die with each shot, riding a roller coaster of emotion that hopefully lands her team on the podium, clutching gold medals.

“It’s a feeling of pride when we win,” Everly says. “We put all the effort in, work hard and compete well and it’s a good feeling to know it gets us somewhere. There’s no better feeling in the world to me.”

And yet, even if they go to Mission and fail to win a single match, this could never be a failed experience. No matter what happens, Everly has gained three friends she never expected to have.

What value do you put on that?

“They’re always there for me and I know I can tell them anything,” she says now. “They’re always there for me. It’s just been one year, but really, they’re like my sisters. And I definitely believe that the four of us will be lifelong friends.”

Get 2014 BC Winter Games info online at bcgames.org/Games/BCWinterGames.aspx