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Walker first active athlete to join Curling Canada board

Laura Walker Laura Walker - Curling Canada

For the first time in Canada, an active elite curler will have a direct say in how decisions affecting the game are made.

In a significant move last weekend, Curling Canada’s board of governors officially added Edmonton’s Laura Walker to the council, marking the first time an active player has been a part the sport’s governing body.

Walker is a former Canadian mixed doubles champion and bronze medal-winning skip at the 2021 Scotties Tournament of Hearts. She is currently a mixed doubles specialist, partnered with Kirk Muyres and ranked second in the world.

“That current competitive piece was a voice that was missing on the board,” said Walker of her new role, “and none of [the current board] had any reservations. They were all very open to moving forward with having me or somebody part of the work.”

There have been times of tension between the players and the board over the past 30 years. The lines of communication have never been consistently strong, which has led to plenty of finger pointing – players saying decisions have been made without their consultation and governors believing their moves have been in the best interest of the game.

Adding Walker to the board is a major step in trying to rebuild the trust between the two sides.

“This is part of our ongoing commitment to make sure the voice of the athletes is heard at the board level,” said Michael Szajewski, chair of the Curling Canada’s board of governors, said in a release. “Laura has already shown her commitment to our shared ambitions of building our sport and making it more welcome to everyone, and we look forward to having her with us on the board in this new capacity.”

The addition of an active athlete to the board of a national sport organization is not a first in Canada. Several other outfits have had this in place for several years and those that don’t may be mandated to do so by 2025, according to the Sport Canada’s new Sport Governance Code. In recent weeks, athletes have been added to the boards of the national climbing, karate and cycling organizations.

Top competitive curlers have always been allowed to run for the board just as anyone can. And there have been competitive curlers on Curling Canada’s board in past years. Most recently, Amy Nixon, a bronze medal-winning Olympian from Calgary, was the board chair in 2021 and ’22. Kathy O’Rourke, an eight-time participant in the Scotties Tournament of Hearts representing Prince Edward Island, currently sits on the board. But they both took those positions after their competitive careers ended.

With Walker, there is an active elite player in the inner circle which, if nothing else, shows the board’s desire to move forward and calm the waters. She sees her role as providing two-way communication.

“It's about bridging the gap and being that kind of point person between both parties,” said Walker. “If there are questions or concerns coming from the athletes to the board, they have somewhere to go and they have a mechanism that they feel like they can be heard. And it works the other way too.”

For the past few years, Walker has been part of Curling Canada’s Athletes Council, a group of elite curlers representing different disciplines such as four-player teams, mixed doubles, wheelchair, and next generation athletes.

That group was started in 2021 to help provide some communication to the board. Players on the current council include Shannon Birchard, Brendan Bottcher, Karlee Burgess, Matt Dunstone, Brett Gallant, Jacques Gauthier, E.J. Harnden, John Morris, Jocelyn Peterman, Jon Thurston, and Sarah Wilkes.

At a May meeting, the council decided to ask Curling Canada’s board for a seat and the request was met with positivity.

Walker has also been active with Athletes Can, an organization created to give national team athletes from every sport a voice. She attended a conference last year that focused on governance and that made her an ideal choice to step up to Curling Canada’s board. She will remain a member until September 2024.

Walker hopes her involvement might help the board make better decisions that affect elite players. Last year, Curling Canada was lambasted after adopting a rule limiting pregnancy exemption eligibility for teams hoping to add an out-of-province free agent at the national playdowns to just the top five rinks in the rankings. After facing pressure, it later changed the rule to include all teams.

"That’s a perfect example of why athlete participation at the board level is important,” Walker stated. “Obviously, I wouldn't have been able to have any sort of vote in that matter, but just being able to share the athlete perspective and work with them probably would have been a helpful thing. So, I think that it was a really good example of why this it’s important when it comes to athlete representation on the board.

“For a long time there have been discussions about us, without us.”

In addition to her new duties as a board member, Walker is continuing to juggle the rest of her life as a mother and competitive curler. She and her husband, Geoff, who plays on the Brad Gushue team, have two children, ages three and one. They are like ships in the night, she joked, saying that they try to co-ordinate their schedules so one is always home while the other is away curling.

So how do they co-ordinate it all?

“I have no idea most days,” she joked.

Mother, curler, and now board member. Laura Walker seems to be able to be good at them all.