Good news in the news!
This article quickly spread like wildfire among Wellanders on social media. An excellently written piece on Welland that will make anyone from here proud!
WELLAND—Even as a teenager, Stacey Allaster knew she wanted to work in the world of sport. She’d leave home at seven in the morning and not return until 10 o’clock at night, her days crammed full of tennis, soccer practices or hours spent skiing on a tiny hill in Niagara.
“At the Welland Tennis Club, so many of the adult members were supportive of me, a young teenage girl,” Allaster recalls.
Decades later, as CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association, the tables are somewhat turned: now, she’s making global stars of female athletes.
Allaster’s rise to the top — Forbes magazine has called her one of the ‘Most Powerful Women in Sports’ — is an inspiring Welland success story. But she’s not the only woman from this Niagara city of 50,000 leading the way for athletes.
Michele O’Keefe, executive director at Canada Basketball, grew up in Welland. So did Kelly Murumets, president and CEO of Tennis Canada, Susan Kitchen, executive director of the Coaches Association of Ontario, and Sandra Gage, chief marketing and communications officer for FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015.
They’re all about the same age, and all shared the same sporting experience that this somewhat sleepy city provided. Tennis, soccer, basketball, rowing, skiing — they did it all. Their paths crossed on the track, on the field, at competitions. They shared coaches, mentors and friends.
So how did so many Welland women wind up in the upper echelons of sport?
“It’s something in the water in the Niagara region, I always say,” Gage jokes, down the line from her Ottawa office.
There’s more to it, of course. When you talk to residents of Welland — both past and present — they point to the athletic culture that’s woven into the civic fabric.
Stretches of farmland and country roads lead into Welland, dissected by its famous canal at the midway point between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. It’s quaint and unassuming, with rows of wartime homes and simple storefronts harkening back to another era. But under that bucolic exterior, Welland seems to be a hotbed for sports management talent.
The city is home to dozens of sport organizations and clubs, and Welland’s Sports Wall of Fame — featuring over a hundred athletes, coaches and sports writers — is proudly displayed at the unassuming Seaway Mall.
Residents of the Rose City (Welland’s civic nickname) can rattle off the names of the women who’ve left to lead sporting organizations, and it really seems as if everyone knows everyone.
In a phone call from her Florida office, Allaster recalls falling in love with tennis after moving to Welland as a child.
Now 51, Allaster remembers being chosen for a tennis scholarship as an eighth grader in the 1970s, and spending every summer over the next decade at the Welland Tennis Club. She remembers her first job, cleaning the red clay courts in exchange for 25 cents or a can of pop. She also remembers becoming a certified teaching professional at 16, recruiting over a hundred young players for a junior program, and getting her first paycheck — for $15.
Allaster has come a long way since then. The WTA is a leader in women’s sports, was founded by former world No. 1 professional tennis player Billie Jean King and, in 2013, its tournament prize money hit the $118 million mark. But those memories of growing up and playing sports in Welland remain.
“I think sport just surrounded me,” she says.
“It’s a big sports town,” echoes O’Keefe, who started playing basketball in Welland in Grade 7. “People are always participating when they’re young, and stay involved.”
That’s definitely been O’Keefe’s experience. Now 50, she gets fired up talking about Ontario’s growing club system and recent Canadian drafts into the WNBA. It’s that love for the game that keeps bringing O’Keefe back to her roots, first as a program co-ordinator for Canada Basketball in 1994, and later as a coach in Burlington. Seven years ago, after a stint in banking, she started looking into opportunities with Ontario Basketball, and later became Canada Basketball’s executive director.
She played on the same team as Gage, who is looking forward to next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, even though she was never a soccer player.
“It goes back to what I learned about the value of sport, and I learned that in Welland,” Gage, 47, says. “It gave me somewhere to belong.”
That sense of belonging seems to stem from the connections fostered within Welland’s community — including relationships that have stood the tests of time and distance, with Allaster now living in Florida, Gage in Ottawa and the other three women in the Toronto area.
Meeting for the Star’s photo shoot one night in the lobby of Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre, a slick, modern facility carved out of the historic Maple Leaf Gardens, the five Welland women reunite in a flurry of hugs and laughter. Once the shoot wraps up, Murumets dashes to a dinner, but the other women say they’re going to grab drinks together. There’s no shortage of conversation, ranging from sports management shop talk to shared hometown memories.
Allaster and Gage both graduated from Notre Dame high school; Murumets, Kitchen and O’Keefe from Welland Centennial. Their paths crossed in various ways, from shared coaches to mutual friends. Allaster once taught O’Keefe tennis lessons, and O’Keefe was even in Gage’s older sister’s bridal party. It’s a small town thing, they say.
Allaster also has a childhood link to Paul Beeston, president of the Toronto Blue Jays and one of the most recognizable sports management success stories from Welland. She once lived right next door to his parents and shoveled their sidewalk in the winter.
O’Keefe says she always felt part of a team while growing up in Welland, and was particularly inspired by coaches, like Margaret Clark, who fueled her long-lasting love of basketball.
Clark, now 73, is still in Welland, living on a quiet street in the south end. Sitting on her living room couch, she looks back fondly on her time coaching in the 1970s and 1980s, and recalls working with both Gage and O’Keefe when they were teenagers.
“One of the things I notice now is the kids play the sport because they like it . . . but these kids from before, they lived for it,” she says. “It was part of their life.”
Murumets played all sorts of sports, including tennis, track and field, basketball and volleyball while attending Welland Centennial. The 51-year-old — whose resume includes a seven-year stint as president and CEO of ParticipACTION — went to 10 different schools throughout her childhood, the frequent moves caused by her father’s job as a bank manager.
“Sport was my way of quickly integrating,” she explains.
Murumets took over Tennis Canada in March 2014 and recalls having a close relationship with her coaches.
“We didn’t just play basketball with our coaches,” she says. “We babysat their kids and taught their kids swimming lessons and went sailing with their families.”
Kitchen had a similar experience as a high school student in the late 1970s. The 53-year-old head of the Ontario Coaches Association recalls students knowing everyone on staff, including their coaches.
“A coach is often where young people go to,” she says.
Though they’ve all left Welland, they still credit the wealth of athletic opportunities and the town’s love of sport for their success.
But still: Why Welland?
How did this one small city with a five-digit population, located hours away from any major Canadian sports centre, produce some of the biggest female names in sports management?
Maybe, just maybe, there really is something in the water.