SYDNEY, N.S. — Sarah Wilkes has dreamed about winning the Scotties Tournament of Hearts ever since she was six years old throwing rocks at the Tam Heather Curling and Tennis Club in the east Toronto suburb of Scarborough, Ont.
Some two decades later, plus a cross-country move to Edmonton, that dream became a reality as Wilkes stood on top of the podium at the Canadian women’s curling championship Sunday at Centre 200 alongside teammates and close friends Chelsea Carey, Dana Ferguson and Rachel Brown.
The 28-year-old Wilkes, who throws third stones, captured the Scotties Tournament of Hearts after Alberta defeated Ontario’s Rachel Homan in a shocking 8-6 come-from-behind stolen victory in an extra end.
“It’s surreal,” Wilkes said. “I can’t put it into words. As a little six-year-old at Tam Heather just throwing rocks looking up to all these amazing athletes and to now be standing on the top of the podium with these women, I just can’t believe it.
“I’m in shock. It feels amazing just to be able to accomplish something that you’ve dreamt of. It’s been a goal for so long, to achieve it, there are no words.”
It’s been quite the journey for Wilkes since she made her first westward move (although a relatively short one by comparison) down Highway 401 to Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.
Wilkes was part of a stacked Golden Hawks curling team that also included Laura Walker, Jen Gates and Cheryl Kreviazuk and captured back-to-back Canadian university championships in 2011 and 2012. Walker is the reigning Canadian champion and world bronze medallist in mixed doubles while Wilkes, Gates (throwing second for Northern Ontario) and Kreviazuk (alternate for Ontario) not only competed at this year’s Scotties Tournament of Hearts but all three reached the playoffs as well.
“We had such an amazing thing going at Laurier,” said Wilkes, who also played softball and won a Canadian university national championship in that sport, too. “We’re all such good friends, so just to see that continue and to see all these girls, us all representing different provinces here at the Scotties and to connect again, it’s great.”
After their Laurier days, Wilkes, Walker and Gates all made the move to Edmonton to train out of the Saville Centre as they prepared to represent Canada at the 2013 Winter Universiade. The three also competed together on the World Curling Tour with Rebecca Pattison and made their Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling debut at the 2012 Masters in Brantford, Ont. The varsity club reunited one last time as Kreviazuk subbed for Pattison at the major event.
The lineup only lasted one season as Wilkes returned to school attending the University of Alberta. Wilkes remained in the competitive scene although to a lesser degree, playing with 2006 Olympic bronze medallist Shannon Kleibrink during the past three seasons, winning provincial playdowns in 2017 and competing in the Scotties.
She continued to add to her trophy case in other roles earning a silver medal at the 2015 Scotties Tournament of Hearts as the alternate for skip Val Sweeting (alongside Ferguson and Brown), capturing the 2016 Canada mixed title with now-fiancé Mick Lizmore and claiming the 2017 Humpty’s Champions Cup with Team Homan as a super spare filling in for second Joanne Courtney.
The end of the Olympic cycle last year brought sweeping changes across the curling landscape. Both Carey and Sweeting’s squads disbanded while Kleibrink took a step back. That opened the door for Carey to form her new crew with Wilkes, Ferguson and Brown.
One may have seen Wilkes as a question mark given her lack of experience compared to her teammates but there weren’t any doubts from their skip.
“She’s a super-talented player,” said Carey, who captured her first Scotties title in 2016. “I’ve known that since playing against her when she first moved to Alberta and was playing with Laura Walker. She’s also a great sweeper, so that’s big.
“Having spent a couple years with Shannon, when you play with someone like Shannon, you can’t not learn a ton, so I think that really advanced her in two years or more than two years … as far as just being a teammate and knowing how to win and all those things that Shannon brings to the table. The talent has always been there but she’s come a long way in the last couple of years. She’s still so young, she’s got lots of time to keep growing, but she’s in a really good place. She’s playing really well and she’s been great for our team.”
Wilkes said it meant a lot to her the three took a “leap of faith” bringing her into the fold and it felt pretty special to see it pay off.
“I’ve worked so hard and it’s been kind of a roundabout journey,” she said. “To put this team together with some of my best friends … it’s just amazing.”
The new Team Carey had a delayed start together as Brown missed the first part of the season after giving birth to her first child, Finn, in October. Heather Rogers and Breanne Knapp filled in as spares until Brown was back in the lineup only two months later. Even then when the season started, Ferguson held the broom in the house during skip stones while Wilkes swept the final rocks. It wasn’t until midway through the Meridian Canadian Open last month when the team realized this combination wasn’t working out and Wilkes took over vice skip duties.
“We should be getting better results than this; That’s just kind of how it felt,” Wilkes explained. “What can we do, we just made the switch and it was almost instant. This feels so much better. I was in a comfortable role, I’ve played third forever, Dana was back with Rachel sweeping and it just clicked. Ah, this is how it should it feel like. OK, this is way easier.”
A great back-end dynamic is crucial to success and it’s come along quite easy for Wilkes and Carey.
“We think about the game a lot the same way, which is nice and again, it’s been fairly effortless,” Carey said. “We haven’t had to really work super hard at getting along, we know what to say when to say it. We kind of have a good sense of each other. It’s just been a pretty natural fit.”
The team has been riding a wave going through provincial playdowns undefeated and posting an 11-2 overall record at the Scotties. They’ve had to work hard on the ice to generate results though.
Although Carey opened the Scotties final with the hammer, Homan struck the scoreboard first picking up back-to-back single steals to lead 2-0 after two ends. Carey was forced to a lone point in three and Homan cracked the game open with a three-ender in the fourth to make it a 5-1 hold.
Team Carey chipped away at the deficit forcing their opponents to make some tricky shots that led to uncharacteristic misfires that tightened up the scoreboard. Before you knew it, Homan was only up by one point heading into the 10th end but still seemingly in control with the hammer.
Homan had to make an in-turn draw with her last that came up a few inches light and sent the game into an extra end. Carey once again didn’t have the hammer but set up an identical scenario knowing that path was slow.
Wilkes and Carey stood at the back of the house accepting that fate was out of their hands. They were stunned, much like the 3,484 fans in attendance, as Homan was short again. Brown launched her brush into the stratosphere to kick off the celly.
“Before she threw, Chelsea and I looked at each other and said, ‘Good week. You did all you could,’” Wilkes said. “We put her in the position that we wanted to and she came up light, which is crazy.”
“I’ve played against Emma and Rachel forever. Since I was probably 12 years old,” she added. “We’ve known each other forever, they’ve always been fierce competitors and I’ve lost lots of finals to them. It was surprising but you’ve got to put other teams in tough positions and hope for the best.”
Perseverance and plugging away were the keys throughout the week and that was no different in the final as the game perfectly summed up not only how their Scotties Tournament of Hearts went but their season as a whole, too.
“It seemed like every team had their best game against us so we’re going to extra ends and all this stuff with teams we thought we should be beating like a little bit more handily,” Carey said. “It just wasn’t that kind of week and it hasn’t been that kind of season.
“We’ve had to grind all season and we actually talked about it. In our first event together, we got down to a team and we kind of gave up. I said we need to be grinders. This needs to be our identity, we need to own that and really work hard at being that team. We’ve worked all season at being that team and it came to fruition today with the way this game went.”
From Tam Heather to Scotties champion, Wilkes cannot wait for the next step: representing Canada at the world championship in Denmark.
“It means the world to me,” she said. “Whenever you get to wear the maple leaf, it’s few and far between. It’s so humbling and it’s just such a privilege to wear the maple leaf on your back and to get to represent Canada.
“There’s pressure associated with it, for sure. You want to bring home the gold for Canada because that’s what everyone expects. There will definitely be pressure but all we can do is go and play our best, embrace it and have fun.”