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Port aux Basques skating coach combines sport, adventure and a love of Newfoundland

Front, Mandi Harvey and Ashleigh Ingram wear the headbands coach Maxine Connolly knit for them as Christmas gifts; back, from left, Natalie Kettle, Connolly, Gina Carroll, Leah Leamon and Brooklyn Neil.
Front, Mandi Harvey and Ashleigh Ingram wear the headbands coach Maxine Connolly knit for them as Christmas gifts; back, from left, Natalie Kettle, Connolly, Gina Carroll, Leah Leamon and Brooklyn Neil. - Contributed

Returning from a competition in Botwood on the evening of Sunday, Jan. 20 turned into an adventure for some Port aux Basques skaters, parents and their coach, Maxine Connolly.

The five-car convoy had been getting regular weather reports from friends, and the high winds in the Wreckhouse area forced the group of 16 to seek shelter in the Codroy Valley rather than chance continuing on home to Port aux Basques.

“At no time did I feel like I was in danger,” recalls Connolly, who says the worst stretch of the return trip was between Robinson’s and Doyles. “By the time we got there (Doyles), it was decided that we’re not moving any farther.”

Connolly says they also encountered a motorist who had just come through the Wreckhouse and that person advised other vehicles, including a transport trailer, had already jackknifed.

Most of the group found shelter in a nearby private home owned by a relative. Since they also hadn’t eaten, they descended en masse to a convenience store and loaded up on food and snacks before hunkering down to ride out the wind.

“I ended up buying ice cream sandwiches so we’d have some dessert,” chuckles Connolly, who says the group were in good spirits.

The impromptu pyjama party, which necessitated some of the group sleeping on the floor or in strategically placed chairs, turned out to be a welcome bonding session.

“We’re always on the ice with the kids, and we love being with the kids, but sometimes it’s just nice to sit and chit chat with our skating family,” notes Connolly.

This was the first time Connolly had been caught by the Wreckhouse, but this adventure was the most recent in a long line of unexpected Newfoundland experiences for the figure skating coach, who still spends about half the year in Chelmsford, near Sudbury, Ontario during the summer season.

OPPORTUNITY

Connolly had been looking for a coaching opportunity and found the Port aux Basques position on the Skate Canada website. She had been to Newfoundland previously as part of Team Ontario for the Special Olympics Winter Games in 2016.

Although her visit was largely restricted to the drive between Marble Mountain and the rink, Connolly says she was still taken aback by the scenery and longed to see more of the province.

“When I was here for those six days I fell in love with the people,” admits a suddenly emotional Connolly. “We had such a great time here as a team, and me individually.”

As part of her experience, Connolly was officially screeched in with Purity syrup and ate black bear meatballs and cod tongue, among other delicacies. She learned and sang a song, wore a Sou’wester for her official photo, and was knighted with oars.

“I’m more of a vegetarian than I am a meat person,” says Connolly. “When I phoned home and told my husband that I ate those things he could not believe that I would do that, but I so wanted to be part of that experience.”

A little over two months later Connolly returned to Newfoundland with her husband and daughter in tow. They stayed for 18 days, flying into St. John’s, and drove through most of the province, including the Northern Peninsula, although they didn’t venture west past Deer Lake.

“We just had a fabulous time,” she said.

Within a few days of returning home, Connolly noticed the coaching position for Port aux Basques, but it wasn’t until November 2016 that she finally looked into the opportunity. She and her husband travelled to visit the club and the area in April 2017 to see if it would be a good fit for them.

“My husband and I were looking for a different type of lifestyle,” says Connolly, who timed her visit during an ice show. “I did two days of coaching and meeting the parents, and I met with the executive.”

NO REGRETS

In October 2017 she began coaching the Port aux Basques Figure Skating Club (PABFSC), a decision she in no way regrets. Instead of a 100 kilometre commute to coach, she now has only a short walk to the rink. In fact, Connolly prefers to walk everywhere so as to enjoy the stunning mountain and ocean views.

“You guys have real beauty here and you take it for granted,” she chuckles. “I just love it.”

Last summer Connolly spent a bit of time coaching in Corner Brook, and got to experience even more Newfoundland culture. She danced with an ugly stick, jumped onto a boat tour with 15 strangers and joined them for supper, and even went cod fishing on the Atlantic Ocean all by herself.

“I’d never been fishing before,” says Connolly. “I got four in the first 20 minutes I was out there.”

Since Connolly doesn’t eat fish she gave them to the tour operator, a decision her friends later gave her a hard time about.

“They’re like, ‘Next time you’re going to give it to us,’” she said.

The fishing trip almost didn’t happen, but it has proved to be one of her more memorable experiences. She had left a voicemail with an operator who was no longer in business, but when she drove to the site another guide offered to take her instead. Because of the lack of cell service, she couldn’t Google her new guide, but she made the decision to just roll with it.

“It was my birthday. I was all by myself. I wanted to do something,” she said.

Connolly asked if she would see whales, thinking she was about to venture out on a larger boat. Instead she was helped into an orange dory by a guide wearing full oil slickers.

“I had no idea what a dory is because in Ontario we don’t call boats dories,” says Connolly. “They’re not that big. I said, ‘Oh my God. What am I doing?’”

There weren’t any whales, so instead her guide caught a perch they then used to feed wild eagles.

“I had the best time,” says Connolly. “It’s been quite the experience.”

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