In an era when specialization in sports starts earlier than ever for
athletes, Madison Willan challenges the effectiveness of that trend.
She’s the exception to the contemporary belief that the pursuit of
excellence in one discipline means a singular focus to it and the earlier
that begins the better the success rate for the individual in a sport.
And while she’s not a household name, yet, just remember Bo Jackson wasn’t
either until he got to Auburn University or played with the Oakland Raiders
and Kansas City Royals simultaneously.
At only 17, Willan is already an accomplished two-sport athlete, excelling
in both hockey and baseball at the most elite levels possible for her age
As a member of the St. Albert Slash, Willan and her team are in pursuit of
their second straight Esso Cup championship this week in Bridgewater, N.S.
Moreover, she’s also a pitcher on Team Alberta that hopes to capture gold
at the Baseball Canada Women’s Invitational Championship in Montreal this
From there, Willan has an extended eye on cracking the Women’s National
Baseball Team that will compete at the 2018 Women’s Baseball World Cup in
Florida at the end of August.
And don’t ask her to choose between the two sports. That query would be
“I’ve been playing baseball and hockey all my life,” says the Grade 12
student at St. Francis Xavier High School in Edmonton, who also maintains a
90 per cent average. “I love both sports equally.
“My parents exposed me to a number of sports as a kid, but I never got
serious about any of them except baseball, hockey and golf.”
In Willan’s world, there are no seasons; no weather-change distinction that
determines when to march out of the house with a hockey stick or a baseball
bat in hand.
“I concurrently train,” she says.
As a result, she has found the two sports have become symbiotic in her
continual quest to improve and become elite in each, especially baseball,
which can be unforgiving in its foundation to celebrate glory at the plate
when a batter succeeds three times per 10 at-bats.
“The attention to detail in baseball, the footwork and tracking the ball
has really helped with hockey,” says Willan, who also excels provincially
on the golf course. “And the mental toughness with baseball has helped,
too. If I make a mistake in hockey I don’t let it affect me because of all
the times I’ve failed in baseball.”
Perhaps the most difficult task in playing both sports at the top levels is
the training regimen and finding the required balance in a crowded
In an average week she trains five times for hockey. During two mornings of
the same seven-day period before school she participates in baseball
workouts and twice per week after school takes her swings in the batting
She admits finding harmony in what is a personal juggling act of school,
family and friends is difficult at points, but not impossible.
“It’s not easy,” she admits. “It takes great time management skills to do
it. And I pride myself in doing that. I follow a strict time management
routine and it’s worked out well for me.
“Sometimes it’s hard to do anything right after school when you’re focused
and training at the highest level for two sports, but it’s not too much
overall because if I manage my time well, I should have time left over to
rest or do what I need to do.”
And based on performance, who can argue with her routine and how it’s
worked for both Willan and her various teams.
At the 2017 Esso Cup in Morden, Man., the Slash captured Canada’s National
Female Midget Championship with a 1-0 overtime win over the Harfangs du
Triolet in the gold medal game.
They became the first-ever team to post a perfect seven-game run through
the tournament and the final game was highlighted by Willan, who
orchestrated the game’s only goal after blocking a shot in her own zone,
racing to the loose puck and turning it into a rush the other way.
After crossing the offensive blue-line she dropped a pass for teammate Tyra
Meropoulis, who buried a shot short-side on the Triolet netminder for the
“She created the whole opportunity for us,” says Slash head coach Dan
Auchenberg. “She’s always in the play when it means something. She finds a
way to lift the team. When it’s time to show up, she shows up. She’s a
committed individual; a high-end athlete.”
Last year, Willan led the Slash in scoring with 25 goals and 50 points in
28 games. As a result, the first-year forward was voted Alberta Female
Hockey League rookie of the year.
She followed that with 13 goals and 26 points in 29 games this season and
another five goals in the AFHL playoffs, including arguably the biggest
goal of the year for St. Albert – the game-tying goal with 6.9 seconds left
in the provincial final, a game the Slash would win in overtime to keep
their dreams of back-to-back national championships alive.
“Madison is very gifted and tough as nails,” says Auchenberg. “She thinks
the game very well – probably at the highest level. She is also very
creative, poised with the puck and makes everybody better when she’s on the
If a national hockey championship wasn’t enough to celebrate in one
calendar year, how about adding a first in Canadian women’s baseball to the
Last August, while representing Canada at an exhibition series in
Washington, D.C., against USA Baseball’s Women’s National Team Development
Program, Willan helped her country to a two-game sweep of the Americans
with a home run on the first day of competition.
The three-run blast was significant for two reasons: it snapped a 2-2 tie
in an eventual 5-4 Canadian win, but it also marked the first time a
Canadian women’s player had connected for a homer that flew the ballpark
The memorable dinger came during Willan’s first plate appearance of the
series and on the second pitch of the at-bat – a 330-foot blast to
“It was definitely hit hard,” says Willan, who says her favourite baseball
player is Houston Astros second baseman, 2017 AL MVP and World Series
champion Jose Altuve, who like her is just slightly over five-feet tall.
“After I hit it, I was running hard to first and then I looked up and saw
the left fielder at the wall. I just assumed it went out. Then everyone
started cheering and I knew it went out. At that point I was at second and
I started my trot.”
So with two extraordinary achievements in one year in two different sports,
can one trump the other as a more eventful moment?
“That’s hard to answer,” she says. “Both were incredible experiences. I
share them equally. I don’t think there’s more value in one over the