Gillian Apps has travelled the road to Olympic gold a couple of times now.
But from the first puck drop to the final buzzer – and every practice, game, training session, road trip in between – each trek to that sparkling summit of athletic accomplishment has been a unique experience for the forward from Unionville, Ont.
“I think each round of centralization is a little bit different,” Apps said following a recent practice in Burlington, Vt., while on the road with Canada’s National Women’s Team for two pre-Olympic games against the United States. “This time it’s been good so far; busier I think than it has been in the past.”
Apps is one of 27 top female players from across the country currently centralized with Team Canada for the 2013-14 season, and based out of Hockey Canada’s home facilities in Calgary, Alta. When they’re not playing, practising and training inside the Markin MacPhail Centre, they’re taking the bus across the province to play against AAA boys’ teams from the Alberta Midget Hockey League, or flying to major cities on both sides of the border to take on the U.S. in preparation for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, next February. The Canadian roster will be whittled down to 21 players before that long sought after trip to Sochi.
In the meantime, their stop in Burlington this October was to face off against the United States for an intense on-ice rivalry. Canada edged the U.S. 3-2 in the first of six Olympic warm-up games between the two rival teams Oct. 12, although it was more like a heated battle on the ice, sparks flying and all. Following the win, the maple leafs shifted focus to their second game against the stars and stripes, which was scheduled for just five days later, Oct. 17 at the Centre d’excellence Sports Rousseau in Boisbriand, Que.
“There are also similarities, with playing in the Midget AAA league, and going on tour with the U.S.,” Apps said of her third centralization, adding this time around “we’ve just been at the rink a little bit more.” For a high performance athlete who has already successfully gone through the trials and tribulations en route to winning Olympic gold, not once but twice, both at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy, and the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, B.C., it’s clear the Road to Sochi 2014 is a rigorous journey for veterans and rookies alike.
Apps and her teammates love having hockey as their full-time job this season, but maintaining a sense of balance is also important. “I think you just take your down time when it comes, and try to unwind a little bit, and make sure you’re taking care of yourself – eating and sleeping,” Apps said. “And just trying to stay present when you’re at the rink.”
It’s all worth it for Apps. Not only for the possibility of having a third Olympic gold medal placed around her neck at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, but also to have the chance to spend time with her teammates every day. Apps has been a member of Canada’s National Women’s Team since 2001, also winning three women’s world championship gold medals during that time.
“It’s fun to be with this group, together full-time,” she said of what stands out for her so far this season. “Just feeling like a team that comes to the rink every day.”
Having teammates help push you through the rough patches through a tough year is also important for the red and white to stay on top of their game. “That’s why it’s so great that we have such a close group, because you can use your teammates to help you get through those hard times.”
Team Canada also adheres to mottos and messages that help motivate them on a daily basis. First introduced just before spring’s boot camp in Penticton, B.C., this season some of the team’s words to live by are “dig a little deeper.”
“When things are tough, just keep going,” Apps said. “You’ve always got more in you, so making sure that you’re giving your best every day.”
Apps said she and her teammates are excited to see proud Canadian crowds fill the stands, whether it’s at a small rink in rural Alberta as part of the ongoing National Women’s Team-Midget Series, or for one of the four remaining games against the United States, at the Markin MacPhail Centre in Calgary on Dec. 8; the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D., on Dec. 20; the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., on Dec. 28 or the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont., on Dec. 30.
“That’s the part that everyone’s looking forward to,” Apps said, adding she’s also hoping to experience Sochi 2014, which would be a completely new “dream come true.”
“If I had the chance to do it again, it would be a big honour,” she said.
Apps, who perhaps comes by her undying hockey determination honestly, as the daughter of Syl Apps Jr. and granddaughter of Syl Apps Sr. of the National Hockey League, said participating in the Olympics is simply something you train “your whole life for.”
Finally, Apps makes an important point as to why she is thrilled to take the road to gold a third straight time. “It’s one thing to win a medal, and it’s even harder to defend.”