If you’ve watched the Winter Olympics on TV, you’ve probably seen ads promoting RBC Training Ground, a national talent identification program that seeks to find and fund future Canadian Olympians.
This program recently unearthed a pair of athletes with Cowichan Valley ties who are now on the fast track to future Summer Olympics.
Rugby players Carissa Norsten, a graduate of Queen Margaret’s who now attends the University of Victoria, and Ava Ference, a current student at Shawnigan Lake School, have earned RBC Future Olympian funding and multi-year commitments from Rugby Canada thanks to the talent they displayed in the baseline tests. Players will train with Rugby Canada’s Maple Leaf Academy development program and use RBC funding to accelerate their journey to the Olympics.
Originally from northern Saskatchewan, where she excelled in several sports, including track and field, hockey, basketball and soccer, 18-year-old Norsten only started playing rugby three years ago, but his rise has been meteoric. She moved to the Cowichan Valley to work with coach Robin MacDowell and attended QMS for a year before moving to UVic.
MacDowell was full of praise for Norsten’s development.
“I am thrilled to see Carissa’s continued success after working incredibly hard to recover from knee surgery over the past year,” he said. “She is in the top 1% of athletes in our country: not only is she athletically gifted, but she is completely focused and determined to achieve her dream of representing Canada in rugby sevens at multiple Olympic Games.
“Having competed in multiple RBC Olympic Tests in Western Canada over the past four years, I have seen athletes from dozens of sports, from teens to adults, compete for a top spot. At just 18 years old, Carissa is already among the best and ones to watch on CBC Sports when the Summer Olympics approaches.
“Carissa is a developing athlete who we very much want to continue to support in developmental opportunities,” said Maple Leaf Academy coach Kelly Russell, the twin sister of Shawnigan Lake school coach Laura Russell. “She has a natural ability for speed and footwork and has continued to develop her rugby specific skills. A focused learner, Carissa has shown an ongoing commitment to skill training and learning game strategies and structures.”
Ference, 16, grew up in Edmonton, where his father, Andrew, captained the Edmonton Oilers between 2013 and 2015.
“Ava was first identified pre-Covid in RBC Training Ground Prairie talent identification programs,” Russell noted. “She’s athletic and quick, with so much potential to be a playmaker on the rugby pitch that we’re delighted to integrate her more deeply into our programme.”
Norsten and Ference were among 4,000 athletes between the ages of 14 and 24 who participated in the search for the RBC training ground, which is free to enter. Only 30 athletes received funding.
Participants perform basic speed, strength, power and endurance tests in front of talent scouts from nine different national sports organizations.
“While some participants seek to re-energize or spur an Olympic dream in a sport they already play, others – like Olympic gold medalist in track cycling Kelsey Mitchell who was a football player when she participated on the program – participate with the hope of being discovered and led into an Olympic sport they might never have thought of,” said Evan MacInnis, technical director of RBC Training Ground. “But they all rely on athletics raw and the determination to grab the attention of our sports partners and are excited to see where this program can take them.”
Eight athletes from the RBC Training Ground competed at the 2020 Olympic Games, winning four medals: Mitchell, rowing gold medalist Avalon Wasteneys, cycling bronze medalist Lauriane Genest and track and field bronze medalist Jerome Blake.
Three other Training Ground graduates participated in the 2022 Winter Olympics: Marion Thénault in freestyle skiing, and Mike Evelyn and Sara Villani in bobsleigh.
Registration for a new season of RBC Training Ground begins January 2022. Visit RBCTrainingGround.ca for program information, in-person testing sites, and virtual format testing options.