Maryanne Umbsaar has never felt more connected to a team — a team that never got the chance to step onto the pitch together.
Umbsaar was born in Calgary and played field hockey growing up in the B.C. Okanagan. She moved back to Calgary when she was 19 and went on a 25-year hockey hiatus until rediscovering the sport in her mid-40s. Fifteen years later, Umbsaar still plays with the Astros Hockey Club in Calgary and is now a member of the O55 Women’s Masters National Team.
The 2020 Masters World Cup was scheduled to take place in the fall in Cape Town, South Africa. Team Canada was going to send several teams over the varied masters divisions. When the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, however, everything changed.
Umbsaar and Clare Ford, age-group coordinators for the O55 team, decided they wanted to keep their group engaged, so on May 13, 2020, they launched the “As the Crow Flies: Kilometre Challenge.” — A virtual journey from Vancouver to Cape Town.
“We did not know how long the delay was going to be; we had no idea what was going to happen,” Umbsaar said. “We wanted to keep a feel of camaraderie going forward. I figured, if we aren’t going to travel to Cape Town in real life, can we travel there virtually.”
The concept was simple. Every time a player did any physical activity, be it walking, running, cycling or other, they logged the distance towards the communal total. Thirteen players from the O55 team joined the initiative to travel the 16,440 kilometres from Vancouver to Cape Town. They created a Whatsapp chat group to log the totals, and the team was off on their journey. According to Umbsaar, what started as a fitness challenge, became a year-long team-building exercise.
What started as a fitness challenge became a motivating and connecting experience through a most difficult year. Photos Provided.
“We didn’t want to put any pressure, constraints or minimums. Whatever it was that people wanted to do, we’ll just keep adding to our tally,” she said. “Everyone has hung in there for more than a year.”
Ford, the co-organizer of the O55 Masters National Team, has been playing field hockey her whole life after growing up around the game in the UK. Her first Masters World Cup was in 2018 in Barcelona. She said masters hockey is the perfect avenue to keep competing while developing connection and camaraderie with her peers. Nowhere was the camaraderie more on display than during the pandemic with the As the Crow Flies initiative.
Thirteen players from the Women’s O55 National Team joined the Kilometre Challenge: Clare Ford, Lynda Lawrence, Marnie Schigas, Alanna Martin, Cathy Romans, Corrie Guraliuk, Eliner Maxwell-Smith, Heather Benson, Kelly Olsen, Sandra Chamberlin, Teresa Schwartz, Maryanne Umbsaar.
“It was very inspiring. I felt like I couldn’t let a day pass without logging some kilometres, whatever it may be,” Ford said.
The pandemic has affected everyone in different ways. But for many athletes, it meant staying off the field of play and keeping their distance from teammates. For Ford, this kilometre challenge kept her connected to her peers and opened the door for her to rediscover nature.
“It can be really sad not playing hockey, so [the kilometre challenge] was very important for us to all have a virtual space where we could touch base and stay motivated,” Ford said. “Whether it was doing the BCMC hike, walking up Grouse Mountain or running through Pacific Spirit Park with my dog; Just being in nature was really refreshing considering what was going on.”
Anything could be submitted from ice hockey to kayaking and hiking and skiing. Photos provided.
The team walked, ran, paddle-boarded, swam, hiked, skied, kayaked and cycled the requisite 16,440 kilometres and ‘arrived’ in Cape Town on October 20, 2020. At that point, the group made the decision to keep the initiative alive and set a goal to attempt to circumnavigate the globe.
“We needed some stopping points, so we hit Melbourne — where the next Golden Oldies was supposed to be — then we added a pit stop in Hawaii…because everybody loves Hawaii,” Umbsaar said. “Now we’re going to Victoria.”
The team is currently floating somewhere in the Pacific Ocean en route from Honolulu to Victoria. They have accrued 37,556 kilometres to date. Umbsaar, who lives in Calgary said the team wouldn’t let the expedition stop in Victoria. Instead, the initiative will finish when they’ve reached Umbsaar’s doorstep. The final distance upon completion will be 40,765 kilometres. It’s quite the journey for a team that will never wind up taking the field together.
Umbsaar said that this project has become much more than a fitness challenge. Being the only Alberta-based team member, she has felt connected and included in the team from day one.
“We’ve been posting pictures of where we’ve been or what activity we’ve been doing,” she said. “It’s been the perfect format for us to stay connected. It’s been a great motivator…everyone wants to add to the total. We all feel that drive to contribute and support the team. I’m always thinking about how I can add a few more kilometres to that total.”
It’s stated that to circumnavigate the globe at the equator (the Earth’s widest point), the crow must fly 40,075 kilometres. And although this team will never take the field as this exact unit, they will have accomplished an amazing feat and have grown closer as friends and teammates.
They have 3,000km left to complete their goal.