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Sierra Gillis. Photo: Rugby Canada

In 2017, 16 athletes who attended the RBC Training Ground in Victoria were asked to do additional testing with an Olympic National Sport Organization (NSO) and were invited to the regional final in Vancouver. Three of them performed so well at the final that they earned ‘Future Olympian’ funding from RBC. Two of these athletes were varsity rowers at the University of Victoria (Avalon Wasteneys and Alec Stapff).

But the third athlete, 15-year-old Sierra Gillis, was a local fastball player who thought the testing might be fun.

Less than one year later she is training as a ‘Future Olympian’ with Rugby Canada.

“I thought the RBC training ground would be fun and I wanted to go to see how I stacked up against other athletes,” said Gillis. “The fact that I have been identified as a potential future Olympian makes me feel so incredibly lucky and I am so excited as it would be a huge privilege and honour to compete for my country one day.”

“Sierra certainly was not on our Radar prior to the Training Ground event,” said Adam Kleeberger, lead development coach at the Rugby Canada Academy.  “She is still playing fastball at a high level but has joined the Rugby Canada development academy.  My observations are that she is a raw rugby athlete, but with existing physiological and psychological assets.  Our goal with the RBC Funding is to help Sierra expand her rugby IQ by getting her involved in high quality competitions.”

RBC Training Ground gives local athletes – no matter what sport they are involved in – the chance to test their strength, speed and endurance in front of officials from 14 Olympic sports, and earn ‘Future Olympian’ funding. Overall, the program is designed to help fill a hole in Canada’s amateur sport system (talent identification in a country as big as Canada) and to then provide the uncovered talent with the high-performance sport resources they need to achieve their podium dreams.

Asked if she is now hooked on the sport, she told Victoria Sports News, “I am quite hooked on rugby and incredibly grateful for the Rugby Canada Development Academy.  At this time I do remain a dual sport athlete but I’m very excited to see where my future will take me as one day I do hope to be playing at a national level representing Canada.”

Gillis’ performance at the Vancouver final in 2017 caught the attention of several sports officials who were looking for raw talent. She exceeded Rowing Canada’s elite benchmark for strength (arm press) and endurance (arm-leg ‘assault’ bike). She also met Bobsleigh/Skeleton Canada’s developmental benchmarks for height, weight, and 30m acceleration, Canoe Kayak Canada’s elite benchmark for strength (arm pull) and Rugby’s elite, Olympic level benchmark for speed (10m acceleration).

To put the accomplishment into perspective, from all the events across the country last year, more than 2,000 elite young athletes were tested. Of those, three hundred were invited for additional testing by a national sport organization or invited to a regional final. Of these 300, only thirty (including Gillis) were awarded funding to start or accelerate an Olympic journey.

In total, this year RBC will be providing more than $300,000 in support to these identified athletes. For Gillis, the funding support will help pay for things like travel, international competitions, coaching, and nutrition associated with being part of Rugby Canada’s development program.

Gillis’ athletic experience to date has mostly been focused on the diamond, as part of the Victoria Devils Competitive Fastball Club, where she still plays.