By Darren Lum
Published Jan. 28 2020
Haliburton Highlands Secondary School student Jessica Byers is taking her curling skills from Oshawa to the land of chocolate and clocks.
Nearing the end of December Byers and her U18 teammates Mahra Harris skip Emily Middaugh and Mackenzie Cryderman won the U21 Goldline TCA Youth Championships in Oshawa earning an all-expense-paid trip to Switzerland where they will tour the area and compete against Swiss teams representing Canada in March.
The team finished undefeated over three days from Dec. 27 to 29 at the Oshawa Curling Club capping the championship with an 8-0 final decided by the opponents after six ends.
Byers who is also a skip for the Red Hawks curling team said she and her teammates were shocked about winning since the older rinks were expected to play well and be in the final.
“Once the game was over we all hugged each other and we were just in disbelief. We were so proud of ourselves because we worked really hard to get there” she said.
Getting to represent Canada in what Byers described as an exchange experience means a lot to the 17-year-old. The team is relatively new formed in August which added to the surprise for the teen and her teammates.
“I’m still processing it. I was in shock. All my players were crying after. All the parents were just so proud. It just feels great to know your trip is paid and you’re 17 and going to Switzerland to represent your country with players you didn’t think you’d play with last year” she said. “If you told me last year that I would have gone to Switzerland I would say that’s crazy.”
Supporters had no shortage of excitement before the final.
“Leading up to the finals like a lot of people were coming up to us being ‘You’re going to win. You’re going to win.’ And we were like ‘don’t jinx it’” she said. “We were just trying to not think about the prize because that is a lot on the line for a final. So we were trying to not think about it. Just treat it like a regular game. Just as if there was a money prize.”
Byers remembers not missing a shot in the final. She said it was the team’s best performance this season. They started strongly taking a 3-0 lead after the first end and didn’t let up. The team did their best to hold back excitement and remain professional until it was over.
Byers and her teammates join elite company. This competition’s past winners include Canadian Olympian and past world champion curler Rachel Homan.
Byers would love to see the Swiss Alps and check out the local architecture; her post-secondary interest is to become an architect or an interior designer.
Her team is scheduled to spend seven days in Switzerland landing in Zurich on March 20.
Most of the week will be spent in St. Gallan a city of approximately 500000 people where they will curl and represent Canada. The top-finishing Swiss team will come to Canada for an all-expense paid trip and receive a similar experience to what the Canadians are preparing for.
The week includes meals sightseeing in St. Gallan and Lucerne visiting cities a school and a cheese factory and the Swiss mountains all hosted by the Swiss Curling Association. St. Gallan includes the Abbey of St. Gall a UNESCO World Heritage Site and houses one of the oldest libraries in the world.
The French immersion student will try to use her skills to converse with people while in Switzerland.
Although Switzerland boasts four national languages – French Italian German and Romansh – German is the language spoken in St. Gallan.
The organizers of the Canadian event will be the two chaperones going with the rink to Switzerland. Byers said although her parents have discussed the possibility of going it isn’t likely due to time constraints. The players were interested in having a trip on their own and their coach Mike Harris is considering it. Harris is the team’s assistant and won a silver medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics.
Coming into the Youth Championships the team’s notable finishes include winning the Coldwater Rocktoberfest U18 Women’s Spiel and finishing as a semi-finalist in the Stu Sells U18 Tankard held in Barrie in December. They have competed in six competitions about one a month this season.
The next competition Byers and her team are looking forward to is the under-18 provincial qualifier from Feb. 7 to 9 in Gravenhurst. Two teams earn a berth from the qualifier to compete at the provincials in Oshawa early March Break which is right before the Swiss trip. One team will advance to represent southern Ontario at the Canadian Under-18 Championships in Sudbury at the end of April.
Byers said being a second instead of a skip has helped her to work on her other curling skills.
“Skip doesn’t sweep first of all. I’m doing a lot more sweeping which means I’ve been doing a lot more physical training off ice – working out watching what I eat when I’m at the bonspiels because I’m not just standing there” she said. “In my opinion that’s the main difference is lifestyle. I feel a lot stronger sweeping so I like that but I don’t need to worry about calling the game and strategy necessarily. I just look at the shot and say ‘yep I agree with that.’”
Her experience as skip helps she adds because while sweeping she knows what the skip wants and understands the strategy behind it.
There’s less pressure because she is not tasked with throwing the last rock to win a game.
Her team has alternated practices in Oshawa Coldwater and in Haliburton depending on player schedules and are often held before competitions. Most of the time the team has spent together has been competing on the weekends.
Despite the lack of practices the team’s success is due to the friendship shared by the players.
“We’ve just got along really well from the first day we’ve met. A lot of the girls’ teams right now are actually … they don’t seem that happy with who they are playing with. There is a lot of drama. It’s definitely our friendship No. 1” she said.
Last year Byers was first introduced to Harris the team’s skip of Stouffville at a curling camp in Waterloo. Byers’ competitive team which included her sister Savannah Lena Haase and Paige Ballantyne competed against Harris. Cryderman of Oshawa is the lead and the team’s vice is Middaugh who is daughter of well-known curlers Sherry and Wayne. They were without teams as their teams aged out of their divisions.
The two skips came together to form a team looking for a change.
Byers said a new position could offer a challenge. She hoped a new team would allow her to develop and grow as a curler.
The sport has brought more than just on-ice achievement to Byers who said its made her the person she is now.
“I was a really shy person … it’s helped me become the person I am today” she said. “I’m more confident athletic and socially smarter. When you go to a different city it’s different than living in the country all the time … I think it will help me when I go to post-secondary next year. Just knowing the ability to make friends and go somewhere on your own and have pressure” she said.
Competing has allowed her to travel seeing the province and meeting people she would have never met if not for curling.
Having her teammates with connections to long-established curling elite such as the Middaughs and Harris was part of Byers decision to find and form a new team.
“To go out and find my team on my own and just happen to be a pretty strong team it meant a lot to me and to have those people support me and play with is really cool. We were having team practices and Wayne Middaugh was coaching us. He’s the coach of Team Hassleberg from Sweden who [won gold at the Olympics in 2018]” she said.
The Swedish team is currently the No. 1 women’s team on the tour.
The foundation for Byers’s curling career started in Grade 5 with the Haliburton Curling Club’s youth programming. She attributes her start to volunteer coaches Hugh Nichol and Bob MacNaull who pushed her to take curling seriously.
“They noticed I had the potential to go far so they came to my parents: Stick with it. She’ll go places’” she said.