Karlee Burgess is a 17-year-old curler from Nova Scotia who competed for Canada at the 2016 Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, where she won the gold medal with teammates Tyler Tardi, Mary Fay and Sterling Middleton. This is the final story in a series in which Karlee shared her experiences on the road to the Youth Olympic Games – and beyond. What’s happened since she came home from Norway? Lots!
1. Let’s look back at the Youth Olympics: What was it like to stand on top of the podium and hear “O Canada” playing for you and your team?
The Youth Olympics was the most amazing experience you can imagine. The atmosphere mimicked that of the Olympics. Team Canada was made up of 53 athletes from across the nation competing in 15 different winter disciplines. Seventy nations took part, and we all strived to learn from one another. Philosophies that the Youth Olympics game promoted were Respect, Excellence, Friendship. The opening ceremonies were beyond my expectations. Our whole team beamed with pride and excitement. The lighting of the cauldron and the raising of the Olympic flag gave me chills and goose bumps.
It was at this moment that I realized all my hard work and sacrifices had paid off….every athlete’s dream is to compete in a multi-discipline event, and here I was on the base of a ski hill at the Youth Olympic Games.
We played extremely well as a team this week, and our year of training was coming to an end. It was a storybook ending as we found ourselves on the top of the podium listening to the national anthem and watching the Canadian flag being raised. I had goosebumps, and there was nothing in the world that could make me any happier than when I was on the top of the podium. My dream had come true. Sharing this moment with Tyler, Sterling, Mary and Helen (Radford, the team’s coach) was one of my proudest moments. I was honoured to share this experience with eight of my family members that travelled over. Without their support this dream wouldn’t have come true.
2. You went undefeated in Lillehammer, but that probably wasn’t easy! What was the level of competition like?
I remember the first day when we saw some teams practicing we all felt a little nervous because the level of competition and skill that we witnessed were better then we expected for these junior mixed teams. We had some really tight and low-scoring games. These teams were definitely representing their nations well. I felt something that was key for our team in the games is that we were always having fun together, and we could all make each other smile, no matter what.
We went undefeated and advanced to a sudden death quarter-final. We went on to win both the quarters and semis and would face the USA in the final.
3. What was the team chemistry like among the four of you – Mary, Tyler, you and Sterling?
This team had amazed the parent group as well as Coach Helen because of how close we all got. This team clicked so well together it was unbelievable. I think we all felt so comfortable in our positions, so we could believe in each other. Our chemistry was seamless. We always had good laughs together, and we were always smiling together. Mary and I have made friends on the other side of the country that will last our lifetime. Sterling and Tyler, thank you guys for all your support, I was so lucky to meet you guys. I can really say, you guys made the week so great. Mary, once again another win we get to cherish for our whole life. We did this together and I wouldn’t have wanted to do this with anyone else.
4. Helen Radford coached your Youth Olympics team. What was her contribution to your success?
Helen, I can’t thank you enough for all you did for us this year. There is no doubt we wouldn’t have been on that podium without you helping us to become the best solid throwers and sweepers. The amazing opportunities you set up for us was incredible. We got to meet some of the top curlers and coaches in the world. Helen took our developed skills and techniques and fine-tuned us to become the best in the world. Helen was so knowledgeable, patient and had a great way of delivering information. We have developed so much; it was a privilege to be coached by you.
5. What was your experience off the ice in Lillehammer? Did you have a chance to hang out with any of the other curlers from other countries?
The environment at the Games was magnificent. We were so lucky because we had such an easy walk to the meal hall and the curling club. We were very fortunate because some other athletes had to take long bus rides to their venue. Also our walk had beautiful scenery; the mountains that you could see everywhere were beautiful, all the Youth Olympic colours and banners that were decorating the village also made it feel so special. Our daily walk took us along the path that was lined by all the countries’ flags, this was memorable and it was really kind of breathtaking.
We did get to meet some amazing curlers from the other countries. Everyone there shared this passion for this sport and we were all so honoured to represent our countries at this second Winter Youth Olympics. At the end of the week we got matched up with a mixed doubles partner. All of us had super nice and generous athletes that we got to play with. We all got to enjoy the mixed doubles because we were fortunate to get matched with such kind curlers. They were all excited to play with Canadian curlers. I personally felt bad as I wasn’t really experienced in mixed doubles.
6. What will you take away from your Youth Olympics experience?
To become a top athlete everyone has to sacrifice a lot to become the best, and whatever opportunity comes your way, embrace it and enjoy the journey. Also today I love this quote that was from the Youth Olympic Games: “Go beyond, Create tomorrow”. That philosophy will live on with me forever!
7. The Youth Olympics end – and a few weeks later you’re on your way to Denmark for the World Juniors! How did you and Mary regroup to prepare for another international competition – on and off the ice?
First of all we were absolutely exhausted and we had two weeks of school work to catch up on, so we tried to manage our sleep and school. We got to relax and enjoy this amazing moment for a few days. We had solid communication with our teachers and administrators. The staff at South Colchester Academy were amazing and really helped me focus on my two wonderful opportunities and allowed me ample time to get caught up when time allowed. This really took the pressure off and allowed me to focus on my curling and my teammates. We took a few days off the ice, to give ourselves a break, but it was only a couple days and we knew it was time to get our body and mind set for our first World Juniors. As an athlete you just really push through.
8. At the World Juniors, you played some well-established, experienced teams. What was the competition like?
The competition at the Worlds was extremely experienced. There were a lot of great teams there, with a lot of returning teams. You can definitely see which countries are striving hard to push their junior teams to become the best. The teams didn’t allow you to make many mistakes and when an opportunity arose, as a team we really needed to take advantage.
9. You lost the Page 1-2 playoff to the USA – how did you regroup for the semifinal and final?
As the saying goes, “everything happens for a reason.” Losing the 1-2 game on the last shot was very tough, but we had to get focused pretty quickly because we were going up against a strong Hungary team in less than two hours. So as a team we had to try and forget about that one and come together and talk about what we needed to do to win our next game. It would be a new game! When it was time for warm-up we made sure to have a good one to get everything out of our minds about our last game. We believe losing this game was the best thing for us, because we knew it wasn’t going to be easy to win the World Juniors so after losing that we realized we need to be stronger for the playoff games. We just dug a little deeper and focused a little harder, and made sure to be sharp and crisp with every stone thrown.
10. You win the final and find yourself with another gold medal. What was that final like? And afterwards? There must have been a lot of emotion!
The battle began on Sunday with lots of pressure on the USA skip and she met with the challenge. The game was very close until we were able to get a big two points in the eighth and a steal of one in the ninth, which gave us a three-point lead coming home. It was a good end by us and on Mary’s first rock we had the chance to finish the game off.
I remember this moment very vividly. I remember I was so nervous that I was scared I would drop my broom, so I gripped that broom as hard as I could to make sure that wouldn’t happen. I remember hugging Janique right after the rock hit. The dream and excitement started for the team. We can now call ourselves World Champions.
This moment was also very special for my family and me because I was now the third generation to win a World Championship: my grandmother (Judy Burgess, 2010 World Seniors Women’s coach) and my dad (Craig Burgess, 1988 World Junior Men’s) had both already won a World title, so it made it very special because they were both there to watch me that week. After getting the mics off and taking a few pictures I remember going right to my mom because I saw her crying. This was one of the best hugs I’ve ever giving my mom.
It was such a fun week and I was so excited to be able to finish the week off as World Champions. I was so incredibly proud of my team, we had worked so hard, we believed we could do it and we did!
11. Can you talk about the support from family and friends in helping you with your success this season, at home and both in Norway and in Denmark?
This season, like most seasons requires a lot of travel for off-ice training , practicing and weekend practice, games and spiels. Until this year I always needed a vehicle and a driver, so my parents were busy juggling work and their other commitments to ensure I was able to get to everything. I was lucky enough to have such a great, supportive family!
In Norway, I had my parents and both sets of grandparents; my aunt and my little cousin come to YOG so in total I had eight of my family members travel over to Lillehammer to watch me. Also in Denmark, I had my parents, both sets of grandparents again, my brother and my boyfriend, so again I had eight of my family members travel to Copenhagen. Our entire team, both YOG and Worlds, had a great contingent of family and friend supporters. We appreciated all the support and were so fortunate.
My parents have been so supportive, helping me through this season. Missing all this school has been stressful and very challenging however they’ve always been there for me. They literally go everywhere to watch me curl; it means so much to me to have parents who are always there to cheer me on and provide such positive support.
My grandparents are so proud of me. It really warms my heart to have grandparents who still tell me how happy they are to be my grandparents. They are so loving and I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.
12. Do you have anything else you’d like to add about your amazing experiences this season? Any thank-yous, or highlights, or funny/significant moments, or reflections about your teammates that you want to share?
This year will obviously be like no other. It was my most memorable yet.
To our communities, the province of Nova Scotia, Truro and Chester Curling Clubs, family, friends, Curling Canada and our wonderful sponsors and supporters – you are all part of this wonderful journey and you share these gold medals with us, as we couldn’t have done what we did without you!
Thank you to both amazing teams, and thank you for sharing this with me.
Thank you Curling Canada for the opportunity to share my journey with you and the curling community.
To the YOG team of 2020, cherish every moment. Yours will be an experience of a lifetime!
Editor’s Note: Shortly after this interview, Burgess went on to compete in her first Grand Slam event with a revised version of Team Fay: skip (usually third) Kristin Clarke, third (Team Fay alternate, from B.C.) Sarah Daniels, Burgess and Janique LeBlanc (Skip Mary Fay was unable to attend because of exams). Although they finished out of the playoffs with a 1-3 record, the young team kicked off the event by stealing a point in an extra end for a 5-4 win over 2016 Scotties Tournament of Hearts champions, Team Chelsea Carey. Skip Mary Fay has announced that she’s leaving the team to focus on her studies, but there’s no doubt the curling journey of Burgess and her teammates will continue next season – and beyond.