Hill of Tara

By JOE McFARLAND

There is a rare sense of calm that can envelop you while visiting the Hill of Tara in Ireland.

It is very easy to get caught up in the serenity atop the hill and ancient ceremonial and burial site, even if you are surrounded by hundreds of others looking to snap a few pictures.

The Hill of Tara was the inauguration place and seat of the High Kings of Ireland and also appears in Irish mythology. According to legend, five ancient roads met at Tara, linking it with all the provinces of Ireland.

In many ways, the mound in the centre of the baseball diamond is its own Hill of Tara. And for several years, that hill was owned by Fort Saskatchewan’s Tara Sliwkanich.

She suited up for a number of teams locally before making it to Baseball Alberta rep teams and eventually the  Baseball Canada National Women’s Team, including an appearance at the 2012 World Cup of Women’s Baseball event in Edmonton.

Sliwkanich was among the handful of alumni who pitched in for two Baseball Alberta’s Girls Day virtual chats recently. The first session focused on why girls should play baseball, while the second wondered how we can support communities to deliver girls baseball programming.

Following those conversations, we reached out to a few of the participants to kickstart a series of conversations about the women’s game in Alberta and their respective stories.

Here’s what Sliwkanich had to say from her perspective in a recent episode of Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.

Q: Coming off that Girls Day in Baseball session that you were a part of, I wanted to get your sense of it for those who may have missed it. Having been involved in the game for as long as you have, how do you see the game here in Alberta?

A: Sure, so I think that Chris (James) actually had a really good perspective on that. I’ll explain for those who weren’t able to join the session, but things have changed a little bit. But honestly and unfortunate to say, it does roller-coaster every year.

So, some years, some municipalities and community organizations have been able to have all-girls teams play and they have been able to form it but then the next year, some girls drop out and they’re no longer able to do that. Some years, we have lots and lots of players come out for our provincial team identification camps. Those are ID camps we hold throughout the province to select our Team Alberta representative teams at the 14U, 16U and senior womens. And again, year-to-year, it really shifts between upwards of 100 total players to select from to maybe we only see 40-50 players across the province. That is unfortunate that, from my perspective, there isn’t a whole lot of consistent growth.

But certainly, I see a big change in the calibre, I would say. It has really been increasing. When I look at the calibre of players that are playing on the Alberta representative teams, these players are coming up with strong fundamentals and really talented which, I mean, is evidenced by how many players from Alberta we currently have at the national level.

Q: In your eyes, what do we need to do better to get more consistency across the board?

A: I think something that was said in the session that we had was I think organizations need to take responsibility and do their own work locally.

One of the things they could do is on their website and in their promotions and advertising for baseball registration is just ensuring that they’re using non-gendered language. So, not stating that a league is “for boys aged 12 and under” and that it’s “register your player aged 12 and under” or even better would be to exclusively say “boys and girls baseball” blah, blah, blah. Because I think that we have a hard time with challenging the idea that softball is the girls’ version of baseball.

Building on that, we have to be aware too that when players are coming to registration, for a lot of municipalities when they have the two streams, they’ll often have a baseball stream and a softball stream that they’re not automatically (assuming one will go to another). I’m not saying I’ve seen evidence of this happening, but it’s a good check-in point for the organizations to take upon their own responsibilities, do their own kind of inventory of what their practices are like at the registration table. Are they telling the girls that they need to sign up for softball or are they leaving it open? Right?

Q: Is one of the challenges here as well to promote the idea of being a multi-sport athlete. A lot of the success stories we’re hearing in the last few years, like Madison Willan playing hockey and baseball at an elite level. There seems to be this thought that you can only do one, but that’s not necessarily the case.

A: Yeah, and I think baseball across the board has seen this challenge with the rise of summer hockey opportunities. Obviously, we live in Canada and hockey is a lifestyle here and many people choose to pursue that through the summer, which cuts into kids’ opportunities to then play other sports and do that cross-training. And what we know from research and a lot of folks like NHL coaches and others are saying that kids don’t need to specialize in hockey early on.

They do need to play other sports in the summer and take a break. Not only does this help with injury prevention and cross-training, but it also helps with mental burnout as well. We want kids to play sports and be active for life. When they might specialize in something really early, we see evidence that they have an emotional burnout and it’s not just hockey, either. They’re putting all of their energy into one sport and not having that opportunity to take a little bit of a break and play something else.

Q: Is another aspect of this when it comes to the growth of the game here self-promotion? We have the stories like Mike Soroka doing well, but even some of the collegiate success with Kelsey Lalor or a Matt Lloyd. Those athletes are able to come back home to teach younger kids that they can do it, too.

A: Yeah, absolutely. I think exposure to those stories and those role models is absolutely critical and even moreso for young female athletes. Highlighting the phenomenal female baseball athletes and their stories we have in our province. Not only for the female athletes, but for our baseball story here in general across the province.

Exactly to your point, talking about Kelsey Lalor to not just the young female baseball players but also to the young male baseball players. And showing them, again, with Kelsey being a multi-sport athlete who played basketball for her university in Saskatchewan and now playing down in the States. Definitely a multi-sport athlete herself, we need to share these stories about their success. Kids can only be what they can see and that is something again that the local organizations can take on is highlighting these players’ stories.

Q: Speaking of telling stories, let’s tell yours. I want to hear about that moment that this is the sport you are going to love forever and ever. Do you remember that moment?

A: Yeah, it is probably very similar to a lot of the other stories that other female baseball players have. It was that first year I made the Team Alberta provincial representative team at the 14U level. My coach was legendary Chris James. It was his first year coaching in the girls’ baseball program and was definitely the first coach to really take me seriously as a baseball athlete. We were young. I was 12 years old and so the idea that I could represent my province at a Western Canadian baseball championship and play baseball with other girls. At the time, I was still playing softball and baseball for my community. I was doing both until I was about 14, so when I made that provincial team, that was kind of the first time for me.

Then later in my career, in high school, I played rugby. So when we talk about some of the other multi-sport athletes like Kelsey Lalor and Madison Willan, when their dual sports happen to thankfully work out as winter and summer sports, I played rugby as well in the summers. That was poor planning on my part and I remember having a coach when I was still playing 18U ‘AA’ for a majority-boys baseball team here in Edmonton. I think it was actually the second year I had made the national team so, at this point, I had decided baseball was a sport I wanted to pursue at the highest level available to me. I wanted to continue making the national team and I remember I think I came late to the pre-game because I was finishing a rugby match. This coach said to me that I had to choose.

At the time, I remember feeling really disappointed that I was being pressured in that way because I still felt that I could play both of these summer sports and still pursue them as high as I wanted to and then eventually make a choice. I was 17 years old and I still felt that was too early. Of course, after that I actually played rugby for my university, I played CIS rugby for a couple of years at the University of Alberta and was invited to an under-21 identification camp for the national team. And I was still playing baseball at the time. Of course, my story is that I did eventually choose baseball in 2012 because the World Cup was going to be in Edmonton and so I did give up rugby for a couple of years so that I could train fully towards baseball. But at the time, when I was 17, I remember thinking to myself that it was too early (to make a choice). I love baseball and want to pursue but I still think I can do this other sport as well.

Q: You have had a lot of highlights in your career but you mentioned the World Cup in 2012. What was that like playing on home turf in front of the hometown crowd and having that opportunity that not a lot of people get a chance to do?

A: Yeah, I would say that is THE highlight of my career is that opportunity I had to represent Canada in 2012 in Edmonton. Growing up watching the Trappers and Cracker-Cats play at what’s now RE/MAX Field and then be able to play on that diamond, pitch on that mound, see my family in the stands, that was just completely surreal. And then the opportunities that we had to give back that year were just phenomenal. We did a couple of sessions with some local organizations, putting on girls’ camps and post-game when young players are asking for your autograph. Like, just incredibly surreal and I’m really grateful that I had that opportunity to play at that level and the support that I did have in the years leading up to that to train and get to that point in my career.

Q: Speaking of giving back, what does it mean to you to give back in that way and maybe tell some of these stories to maybe coax the next generation of baseball players to glory down the road?

A: Yeah, that’s something that’s incredibly important to me. I have been involved in the administrative side for a couple of years and started my coaching career a couple of years ago, as well. Both at the community development level, putting on camps around the province and just trying to recreate that feeling that I had when a coach took me seriously for the first time as a baseball athlete. I’m trying to recreate that experience where you feel like you belong, you feel like you don’t have to prove yourself to anyone and that I could just show up and be myself.

That’s what’s really important to me when we go out and put on these camps and we coach to create that inclusive environment where these athletes can show up and be the baseball player. They’re not “the girl on the team.” And then also push them and challenge them to achieve something that maybe they didn’t think they could achieve. Not everyone is going to be a national-level baseball player. But maybe it’s hitting a curveball, maybe it’s being able to pitch at the U14 distance or whatever it is. Maybe it’s hitting oppo … just being able to support and push them and show them that they can have goals beyond, you know, what they thought they might be capable of going into an event. That they come out and they feel confident to push and strive for their individual goals.

Q: I suppose a big part of it as well is just simply being a part of a team and being part of something bigger than yourself.

A: Yeah, absolutely.

Q: Talk about some of the greatest lessons that you learned over the years, whether it was through playing, coaching or simply being involved in the sport.

A: Sure, the biggest teaching that I would say is the ability to cope with failure. It’s the quintessential quote: baseball is a game of failure. I was never a strong hitter by any means, so being able to cope with those strikeouts or groundouts time after time and still being able to want to put the work in and also come out defensively. I would go out and maybe strikeout and then I’d be the last out of the inning and I’d have to get right back out there to third base or go back out to the mound. You have to put that behind you and have to be able to set your mind to defense and be able to execute the play that comes your way. Especially in pitching, you have to turn it off immediately and then turn it back on. Thankfully, I was the designated hitter when I played for Team Alberta and the national team.

Q: Now you’re working as a policy analyst for the government and I’m curious if anything from the ball diamonds has translated into what you do in the working world?

A: Yeah! I guess one of the things is being able to work with diverse teams and being able to think through where each person’s strength is and where each person can contribute to a team goal. Really being able to put those things together in order to succeed. In my line of work, we work collaboratively with individuals and departments across the government and we have to find solutions to really complex problems where there isn’t a really simple answer. We really have to understand what people bring to the table and I think my years of playing in a team sport where it’s an individual sport within a team sport, I think some people describe it as, where you have to recognize an individual’s contribution to this overall team goal. Everyone brings different strengths and, yes, even weaknesses as an individual and as a team but how are we going to bring those things together in order to achieve this common goal and being able to understand and work towards that.

Q: If you have a message for those young athletes who are on the fence about playing baseball or any other team sport, what would it be?

A: I just have to say to do it. Even if there are people who might think or say you don’t belong, get out there and do it. The benefits of playing sport, in particular baseball, is life-long. You will make life-long friends and playing sports just gives you crucial skills for being successful in school as you get older and then a long way’s from now, their careers. It’s so not worth not trying. You have to try to go for it and eventually you will find a sport or an activity that you really enjoy and just stick with it.

Q: As always, my final question is: what does the game of baseball mean to you?

A: Oh goodness. Really, it’s funny because even though I’m not an active player any more and I’m currently taking some time off coaching, I still feel like baseball is my life. I actually met my spouse through a connection to baseball so it really has rounded out and been an aspect of my entire life and I know it will continue to. Thank goodness for my parents for putting my older siblings into baseball and then carrying that onto me. I really feel like baseball has literally given me my identity really and, again, strange to say as a non-active player but I really still feel that baseball is just such a huge part of my heart and my life.

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