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They called her Schmirler the Curler.

remembering Sandra

I’ve written articles about thousands of athletes in almost 40 years as a reporter, and occasionally someone asks me who is the greatest of them all? I always answer Sandra Schmirler. No athlete has had a more profound effect on me as a writer than Sandra.

I’m often reminded of Sandra for what she accomplished as an athlete – finishing first in each of her three world championship appearances and winning the first Olympic gold medal for Canada in curling when the sport received full-medal status in 1998. She was a winner and a finisher, but that did not define her.

Firstly, Sandra recognized that even though she was the skip and each end could come down to her final two throws, she was part of a team that included three talented teammates – Marcia Gudereit, Joan McCusker and Jan Betker. And Sandra never thought of herself as someone of any significant importance despite her legendary achievements.

When she won the gold medal and was sitting in the athletes dining area, hockey great Wayne Gretzky approached her and offered congratulations. She loved hockey and couldn’t believe that the Great One even knew her, but Gretzky was a fan of curling and recognized the magnitude of what she and her team had done.

In January 2000 when she was in remission, I travelled to Regina to do a newspaper story for the Toronto Sun about her battle and pitch the idea of doing a book about her. “Do you think anyone would care?” she asked. Those six words spoke of her humility.

Two months later, Sandra left us at age 36 and her funeral was broadcast live on TV, which to me further reinforced her status as a legendary Canadian athlete. To me, her life was profoundly sad – and still is – because of what really mattered most of all to her, marrying and starting a family.

She wondered if she would ever find a soul mate, but the stars aligned when she met Shannon England. He was a club curler who respected and admired her athletic talents, but more importantly loved her first and foremost as a person. Together they celebrated the birth of two daughters, Sara and Jenna, and their lives were complete.

I ended up writing the book about Sandra with the help of Shannon and Sandra’s mother, Shirley, who willingly opened their hearts to someone they barely knew – and for that I am eternally grateful. They displayed such courage. Others may have shut down because of the immense loss, and yet they helped me as best as they could. Sandra’s siblings, teammates, friends and others also provided me with background, and in many cases they cried as they spoke.

Sandra had kept journals, with which Shannon and Shirley entrusted me. This to me was the essence of the book, learning what Sandra was feeling, notably how she was pining for her beloved Sara while competing for Canada in the 1998 Olympics. Even though her team was making history, all Sandra wanted to do was return home to be with her daughter, who was only a few months old.

When Sandra Schmirler, the Queen of Curling, was released it immediately became a best seller, selling more than 25,000 copies. To put that in perspective, a bestseller in Canada is 5,000 units. While that may seem like a small number, there are thousands of books published every year and it’s not an exact science for determining which will sell and which won’t. CBC also bought the rights to the book to develop into a TV movie, but it didn’t come to fruition. I hope someday it will.

I believe Sandra’s book did well because of her athletic talents and how Saskatchewan embraces its heroes. Sandra, who was born in Saskatchewan, was adored by her province and Canada as a whole. Curling is a sport which is about as Canadian as hockey but played by everyday people who are not doing it to get rich. Sandra was so uniquely Canadian with the nickname Schmirler The Curler, along with the fact she was a world-class athlete born in a tiny town, which has the slogan, New York is big, but this is Biggar.

To me, the book resonated with people because more than anything it was a tragic love story. Curling may have been the thread running throughout the book, but I tried to write in such a way that you didn’t need to be a fan of the sport or know the

terminology. It was more about portraying the union of two people who were meant for each other and celebrated the birth of two children.

Sandra embraced her daughters in the limited time she had with them. I have never met Sara or Jenna and can only imagine what it has been like for them growing up without their famous mother and knowing how much she loved them.

It’s been 20 years since her passing and I can still remember how it impacted me personally and professionally the day I found out. I was sitting in the newsroom and was asked to write a column about it. It was not easy because of how I was feeling about her and I wondered if I would ever be able to write the book, something I really wanted to do. Over the course of my life as an author that book has meant more than any other one for so many reasons.

Sandra wrote a moving and inspiring speech that was shared at the closing banquet of the Scotties’ Canadian women’s curling championship. I have been told it moved everyone to tears. 20 years later, we celebrate Sandra’s legacy and what she accomplished as a daughter, sister, wife and mother, along with all she did as an athlete.

I think of Sandra as an angel, someone who left us far too soon but taught us what’s most important of all – to live and to love.

I’m glad the Sandra Schmirler Foundation has carried on Sandra’s legacy by helping save the lives of countless babies born premature and critically ill with equipment funded in her name. The annual telethons at the Scotties and other fundraising events for the Foundation are remarkable. I’m quite sure there are many donors who never had a chance to see Sandra or her team play, but that speaks to the Foundation’s mission that every baby deserves the right to grow up and be a champion like Sandra.

We love curling and we love Sandra and nothing will ever change that. We will not weep for the memories. We will instead celebrate her life and that effervescent smile. She was the queen of many hearts and the queen of our hearts.

That’s why I consider her the greatest athlete of all and, simply, someone who represented so much more than that.

Perry Lefko
Author of The Queen of Curling

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For the Love of Family. Forever in our Hearts.