The curling connection has been there since the beginning. It’s continued ever since the day that Mia Toner was first introduced to the sport, and likely always will.
Some might think it a coincidence that the talented young skip was born in the same year (2005) that her father, Lee, earned his very first trip to the Brier.
Just don’t try and convince these two that this is not fate, a cosmic aligning of the stars.
“I was like his lucky charm,” said Mia, just over a week shy of her 17th birthday and completing her second last year of secondary school studies at École secondaire du Sacré Coeur.
Did we mention that she will lead her Curl Sudbury quartet (Valérie Ouimet, Justine Toner and Clara Dissanayake) into battle at nationals for the first time beginning on May 2 in Oakville?
Yes, this is a pathway that she was destined to follow.
“I can’t even remember the first time I was on a curling rink,” she said. “To me, it seems like I was always here. I have pictures from 2007 of me with a helmet on, pushing rocks around.”
But what makes this father-daughter/coach-athlete relationship extra special is the manner in which it has been navigated with a constant eye on balancing athlete development with a love of the sport, the necessity to find fun, even within those ultra-competitive environments.
A city champion in cross-country running as well, Mia meandered her way to curling all while experiencing the joys of dancing and badminton, soccer and swimming — “all sorts of sports”, as she says.
“My parents never really pushed me to pick one sport, to pick curling, which I am very grateful for,” she said. “I really did find it on my own. I think that when we had a school team, in elementary (school), that’s when I really got into it.”
One of the most respected curlers in the area, Lee Toner was aware that his involvement in coaching could offer some potential benefits. He also knew enough to surround himself with the likes of Luc Ouimet, Louise Logan and Nicole Dubuc-Charbonneau, all integral pieces to the highly successful puzzle that is the Team Toner U18 girls’ rink.
“My dad is a great coach,” Mia beams proudly. “But it’s not only him. I think part of what makes my dad a great coach is the fact that he always wants to learn. Dad is always trying to learn from other people, learn from seminars, and learn from watching.
“He’s always trying to get better.”
That said, even the best of athlete-coach interactions can become strained at times, and let’s not even get into the challenges of the parent-sibling dynamics.
“There’s definitely some tension sometimes when you have your dad as a coach,” said Toner with a smile. “I think when you’re family, it’s sometimes easier to get on each other’s nerves.”
“There were definitely points in time when I probably got on his nerves a little bit more. It’s hard to receive criticism from someone you are close to, but you have to remember that they are only trying to make you better.”
Better, Mia Toner has most definitely become.
One of the very best in the province in her age grouping is not hyperbole, not in the least.
“I think that my draw game has gotten a lot better this season, that was a big accomplishment,” said the eldest of two girls in the family. “I used to be scared to throw a draw, scared to throw it through the house or pull up light.”
And as she gets older, her game evolves. Now, more than ever, Mia is zeroed in on the details that are critical for competing against the best of the best in the country.
“I think that this season, I’ve come a long way in reading the ice,” she said. “That just comes from playing on so many different surfaces and really paying attention to what the ice is doing.
“Now that we are throwing a lot more consistently, it’s easier to see what the ice is doing, just paying attention to the paths, to the splits.”
Toner understands better than most the interconnectivity between success and expectations, that enjoying the former carries with it an automatic rising of the latter. She’s also quite comfortable in how she and her teammates are dealing with it all, focused on all that the journey can offer.
“You have to remember that pressure is a privilege,” she said, blessed with wisdom well beyond her years. “Not burning out has a lot to do with knowing your limits and having a very supportive team, an entourage that supports you.”
That might well start with her father-coach, but it definitely doesn’t end there.
Randy Pascal is a sportswriter in Greater Sudbury. Pursuit is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.