Alumnae Spotlight: In Conversation with Camryn Wong ‘18

Living the Dream with Team China and the Winter Olympics: In Conversation with Camryn Wong ‘18

Q. What a year it has been for you, Camryn! Winter Olympics in Beijing with Team China’s ice hockey team. Tell us about that experience from the very beginning. How did you end up on Team China?
A. This year has been nothing but an adventure of a lifetime. So many irreplaceable memories and experiences that I will cherish forever. With that said, the lengthy process in becoming a national team member for China began in Toronto the Summer of 2019. That was my first invitation to their camp and also happened to be the last camp held due to the pandemic. At the time, the head coach of the Chinese pro team (Kunlun Red Star Club – KRS) who led the camp, was later named head coach of the national team, therefore I was fortunate to establish a relationship with him. Since the first camp in 2019, we maintained a close relationship and they monitored my development while I was playing for school at UCONN. Not long after, in July 2021 I received a call that I had been selected to attend training camp (August-December), this would turn into the Olympic team roster. Leading up to the Olympics, we played in a professional women’s hockey league in Russia and ultimately, this was where the road to the Olympics began. 

In a way, it is incredibly hard to explain my experience at the Olympics because the entire time, everything felt so surreal. To be a part of the host country in front of a billion people is truly a numbing feeling. Although all three Olympic villages were a strictly closed loop, meaning once you were in the bubble you weren’t allowed to leave and on the other hand no one from the outside could enter due to COVID; I definitely feel like we as an athletic community made the best of the situation. Many of us visited other villages or facilities to watch other competitions. For any athlete, to compete on the ‘world stage’ with the athletic caliber of role models that you idolize growing up, sets an unimaginable standard for yourself to compete against. This process was nothing but a constant mental and physical grind. It was a reminder of why I had spent practically my whole life dedicated to this single sport through passion, commitment, resilience, and sacrifice. To attain a goal in my athletic career that seemed so out of reach just a few years ago, but to be able to say I did so at the age of 21 is something I feel proud to say.

The big question, ‘how did I end up on Team China’ happens to be a common one. As a Chinese-Canadian and growing up in a household where my parents speak both Cantonese and English fluently, it is without a doubt that being Chinese is something I’m proud of. I saw this as an opportunity to learn, connect and immerse myself in Chinese culture. In the media, I am what they call a ‘naturalized player’ through the heritage of my relatives. An example of another naturalized athlete who has attained a vast amount of spotlight is Eileen Gu, a Chinese Freestyle skier. Our heritage linked us closely and we immediately became a family, I felt welcomed by my teammates right away and I feel beyond lucky to be able to have represented not only myself but also my ancestors. 

Q. Was some of your training in Russia? What was that experience like?
A. Yes! Actually, the majority of our training camp in preparation for the Olympics was held in Russia. Shenzhen, China would normally be the home to KRS, however due to COVID and China’s strict travel restrictions, management seeked alternative ways to maintain the professional team’s ability to continue playing. I arrived in Moscow early August and spent five months playing on KRS under the sanction of the Chinese National team. Although playing on a pro team overseas was something I always thought about pursuing after university, I definitely had moments of hesitations leading up to this decision but deep down I knew there was no way I was going to pass up on an opportunity like this. 

Russia was a beautiful city with a lot of history and culture. Being a part of the Russian Hockey League, teams were situated all around the country which allowed us to travel to many small towns and big cities in Russia, to name a few: Chelyabinsk, Yaroslavl, Dimitrov, Yekaterinburg, St.Petersburg, and Moscow. When we had free time or rest days, I would try my best to venture to art exhibits or museums, for example I visited the State Hermitage Museum, also known as the Ice Palace. If we weren’t traveling for away-games, each day would consist of a morning ice session, followed by off-ice training, and occasionally team meetings/video instruction. I definitely don’t miss Moscow’s grueling traffic – what would be a 30-minute ride here would sometimes take up to two hours. Overall, playing in the Russian league and adapting to a whole new lifestyle in a foreign country was an adjustment period. One of the biggest hurdles was the language barrier. Especially in small towns or rural areas where most locals spoke little to no English, I became very dependent on Google translate. In bigger cities like Yekaterinburg, St.Petersburg, and Moscow, most locals could speak English and were really kind and patient as we clearly were visiting. 

All in all, I loved my time in Russia and the relaxed COVID restrictions made exploring the country fairly easy. I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel through hockey and see the world but also maintain the familiarity of an ice rink and sport. 

Q. Describe being on Team China? What was that like?
A. I truly feel honoured to have been a part of a team that felt so close-knit, family-oriented, and collectively valued Chinese culture. It’s a special feeling to meet both Chinese-born, and naturalized players from all around North America that came together to share our passion for hockey and ultimately strive to achieve a common goal. After playing a variety of sports my whole life, I felt so grateful to reflect on how unique this team truly was. To wake up every day and know that no matter the situation, I had a whole family of teammates that genuinely cared to better one another on and off the ice is truly humbling. 

Our team of 23 consisted of a wide range of ages, from 19 through 33 year-olds. Being able to play with such various ages taught me a lot. Observing how calm, composed, and collected our veteran players carried themselves is admirable, to say the least. I have many thanks to our veteran leaders for how they guided us young guns through this whole process. To this day, I still maintain a close relationship with many of my teammates around the world and know these friendships will last a lifetime. 

Q. Any particular unforgettable memories you can share with us about the Olympics in Beijing?
A. One of my many favourite memories from the Olympics would have to be the Opening Ceremonies. Being the host country, walking down a dark tunnel into a national stadium packed with 80,000 people supporting you is still an indescribable feeling. 

Another memory and actually how I met many athletes in various sports was through the Olympic pin trading tradition. For example, my first pin was from Shaun White on team USA right after the opening ceremonies when all of us athletes were running around trying to find our team buses. After a few weeks, everyone’s lanyard tags were all shiny and filled with so many different countries and sports. 

The stereotype that athletes maintain a strict diet even when traveling proved to be false as the KFC and Pizza Hut in the Olympic village were consistently sold out every day. As one would assume, athletes in general are quite conscious of what goes into our bodies and the importance of proper nutrition, but clearly many of us craved our Combo As and Bs! It was beneficial being the host team because we soon learned the loophole of calling ahead of time for pick-up before they sold out for the day. 

BEIJING, CHINA – FEBRUARY 04: Team China celebrate their win during the Women’s Preliminary Round Group B match against Team Denmark at Wukesong Sports Centre on February 04, 2022 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Q. Where are you now? Back to university and what are your plans for the future?
A. Once arriving home from the Olympics, there was no time wasted as we had merely one month to rest before flying to Poland for the World Championships to begin the journey of qualifying for the 2026 games. I am now back in Vancouver catching up with my family and friends and of course training for next season. I was fortunate that my university coach allowed me to take last year off, so my plan is to return to NCAA Division 1 hockey at the University of Connecticut (UCONN) and complete my business degree in Marketing. 

I am excited to return to campus and play alongside some familiar faces and to hopefully end my university career on a high note. My only wish is that classes will resume back to normal and we all can return to the normal classroom/lecture hall environment. Currently, my main focus is to complete school in the spring of 2023 while continuing to develop myself on and off the ice. Post-graduation, I would love to explore any opportunities within the marketing or management field and intern in New York for the Summer. From there, I would like to keep my options open to play hockey professionally either back with KRS, or in Europe as I feel it would be a great way to meet people and travel the world with purpose. I am excited for what my potential future could look like and am proud of how much the female game has grown globally. 

Q. Do you have any tips for current students considering a varsity sports pathway?
A. For anyone considering playing varsity sports, my tip for you is, don’t rush the process. Take the time to think about what you truly want out of your experience and if you have the opportunity to visit schools you’re interested in, do it! Although big-name schools may seem enticing, that doesn’t mean they will be a good fit for you—trust your gut, and trust your instincts. No one knows you better than yourself. 

Another piece of advice I can offer for students considering the college route is, don’t specialize in one sport too early. If you enjoy playing other sports, continue to do so! Incorporating a variety of athletic skills will subconsciously enhance your game in more ways than you’d think. To this day, I still enjoy playing other sports and am always trying to find alternative ways to train. 

Know that opportunity comes with sacrifice. Enjoy the process and stay true to yourself.

Alumnae Spotlight: Olivia McNeill ’19, Freeride Skier

Q. First of all, can you explain what freeride skiing is?
A. I usually start explaining the sport to people who are unfamiliar with freeride by saying that I jump off cliffs. It’s short, quick— an attention grabber for sure. After that, if they’re interested, I go into the details. Often, if you watch a ski movie, you are likely watching some form of Freeride as filming is a really big part of the sport. What I’m primarily involved in are the competitions. These competitions are held on unaltered terrain and offer a lot of opportunity for creativity as we choose our own way down the mountain, as opposed to being confined by gates or something else of the sort. We’re judged on where we choose to go (and how difficult it is), and then on how well we execute these plans (through technique, fluidity, control, and style). Freeride is about using and interacting with the natural terrain of the mountain, so knowing the conditions, how snow works, and having a good eye plays an important part. We’re not allowed to ski these faces before the competition and look at them for hours on end through binoculars— this means our first time going down the run will be during the competition!

Q. When did you start skiing and what was the pathway that took you to the Freeride World Tour 2022?
I started skiing when I was about 6 years old, and haven’t really looked back since. I got into freeride specifically by accident. When I was 11, my friend brought me along to tryouts and, after learning that I had gotten into the club, I called my parents at lunch from my coach’s phone. I told them I had ‘made it into Freeride!’ When they asked me what it was, I couldn’t quite give them an answer. Though of course, I would quickly learn. I promptly began competing and got more and more into it. From Grade 9 onwards, my winters became almost entirely consumed with travel and competitions. I’m really thankful for all the support I received that allowed me to fully pursue two things that I love so much: skiing and school. After graduating, I took a gap year to compete in the Freeride World Qualifiers (FWQ— the adult circuit for freeride competitions) hoping to try my hand at qualifying for the world tour. I actually managed to make the tour for the 2021 season, but promptly broke my leg quite early into the competition season. Luckily for me, they really liked what I had shown before getting injured, and invited me back for the 2022 circuit.

Q. You travelled all over Europe in the spring and the competition only ended a few weeks ago in Switzerland. What was that experience like?
A. This winter was a crazy experience for sure. I’ve met people from all over the world, spent a lot of time navigating trains and buses, and reminded myself that I do actually know how to speak French. I ended the season feeling exhausted and rewarded… which is pretty good if you ask me!

Q. You achieved 3rd place overall – what an achievement. Olivia. What was your game plan at the start and were you pleased with the overall result?
A. I’ve had a really tough run over the past five years dealing with injuries, stemming from a bad ankle injury I got in Grade 11, and culminating in me breaking my leg last February. My game plan going into this season was to make it through the whole season, and not re-injure anything important. While I did grapple with balancing university and variable physical health this winter, I managed to make it all the way to finals— coming 3rd overall on top of that is something I’m very excited about. Going forward, I plan to set my sights a little higher. Health is definitely a priority, but I’m also going to set more specific goals for myself. I’m less interested in specific results, and more in pushing myself to physically and mentally do more than I have before. I want to know just how much I am capable of doing.

Q. What were your prized possessions whilst travelling during the spring?
A. I would say my prized possessions for traveling around this ski season were my funky hats and my sketchbook.  Hats of course are essential, given all the cold places I found myself in, and since I’m pretty much living out of a suitcase all winter, it’s nice to still be able to throw a little bit of my personality and joy for fashion into the mix. Sketchbooks are also essential for me, a way to keep up with art even when I’m constantly on the move. Also, I always bring with me a tiny burgundy bear (creatively named burgundy bear) that I used to travel with when I was really young and has now become a tradition and good luck charm.

Q. What advice do you have for York House students looking to get involved in an extreme sport like freeride skiing?
A. I often receive a lot of advice like reach out to others in the industry and expose yourself to people who push you to improve. Set tangible goals. I feel like these are applicable across almost all the things that you work towards in life. 

But there’s a piece of advice that I don’t hear as much and really want to bring to the forefront. It may sound a little cheesy, but I think it’s important to always do it for you. There are a lot of things that come up in extreme sports (especially as a girl I’ve noticed) that can make this vision a little foggy—sponsors, results, feeling out of place or overwhelmed. But as long as you are doing it for yourself, you’re going to improve momentously and you’re going to have fun doing it. I’m in an extreme sport because I love it and that’s really all there is to it. It’s a lot of work, and losing sight of the why and the joy can make it exhausting. This type of skiing is hard work, but there is so much fun and joy in it too. So stay safe, and remember why you’re doing it in the first place.

Q. What are your key takeaways from this experience?
A. I’ve learned a lot about my priorities over the past season— more about what they are, what I want them to be, and how I can go about actually prioritizing them. 

Another key takeaway is an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. So many people have helped me get to where I am and are still helping me along my way. Gratitude for everyone who has offered me support and confidence and given me a chance to prove myself, to all those who believed in me and stayed up late into the night (often until 4am!) to watch me compete—it’s been especially important to me this season to really show this gratitude.

Q. You are currently studying at UBC. Did you have to take a year off your studies or how did you make that work?
A. I am indeed currently studying at UBC. It’s been hectic, that’s for sure. I’m hoping to complete a double honours major in English Language and International Relations, and many important classes for me really do seem to only be offered during the winter. Now, while I may say this as the reason why I’m doing both full-time school and a world tour, the truth is I absolutely love school and get some pretty serious FOMO while I’m off skiing. Something I’m sure many of you remember about me is that I really love learning, so I find it really hard to step away from school completely, especially for an entire semester. Next winter I intend to fully commit to skiing as it really is a full-time job and, I am currently very immersed in summer classes. I’ve had an extremely unorthodox university experience thus far, and doubt that will end anytime soon.

Q. What’s next for you, Olivia? What are your future plans?
A. In the short term, I am going to give my all to Freeride for the 2023 season and see where that takes me. Within the sport, I still have a lot of goals I would like to achieve for myself and am really enjoying all the opportunities competitions have given me.

Looking further into the future, I want to always be able to ski and for skiing to always be something that I love to do. I’ve heard a lot of friends start to resent competitions and then the sport itself because the reality of it is that the external culture is very draining. Skiing has given me so much, and I want to maintain a positive relationship with the sport. For me, I don’t think that means pursuing it as a profession, but still setting myself up for a life where I can enjoy all that the mountains have to offer (also, my knees certainly won’t last forever, especially if I keep jumping off 30-foot cliffs). I hope to involve myself in sustainable development, and am very invested in the interdisciplinary approaches that are currently being investigated on that front, but we’ll see!