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Vancouver Island athletes unearthed by RBC Training Ground

Rugby players now on the national program fast track
Carissa Norsten, a graduate of Queen Margaret’s School now attending the University of Victoria has earned RBC Future Olympian funding and multiple-year commitments from Rugby Canada. (Submitted by RBC Training Ground)

If you watched the Winter Olympics on TV, you probably saw ads promoting RBC Training Ground, a nation-wide talent identification program that seeks to find and fund Canada’s future Olympians.

That program has recently unearthed a pair of athletes with ties to the Cowichan Valley who are now on the fast track to future Summer Olympics.

Rugby players Carissa Norsten, a graduate of Queen Margaret’s School now attending the University of Victoria, and Ava Ference, a current student at Shawnigan Lake School, have earned RBC Future Olympian funding and multiple-year commitments from Rugby Canada as a result of the talent they displayed in basic testing. The players will be training with Rugby Canada’s Maple Leaf Academy development program and will use the funding from RBC to accelerate their journey to the Olympics.

Originally from northern Saskatchewan, where she excelled in several sports, including athletics, hockey, basketball and soccer, Norsten, 18, only started playing rugby three years ago, but her rise has been meteoric. She moved to the Cowichan Valley to work with coach Robin MacDowell and attended QMS for a year before moving on to UVic.

MacDowell was full of praise for Norsten’s development.

“I’m thrilled to see Carissa’s continued success after working incredibly hard recovering from knee surgery for the past year,” he said. “She in the that top one per cent of athletes in our country: not only is she athletically gifted, she is completely focused and driven in realizing her dreams to represent Canada in rugby sevens at multiple Olympic Games.

“Having attended several RBC Olympic testing events across western Canada the past four years, I have witnessed athletes from dozens of sports from teens to adults in their prime compete for a top spot. At only 18 years old Carissa is already among the best and one to watch on CBC Sports when the Summer Olympics come around.”

“Carissa is a developing athlete that we are keenly interested in continuing to support in development opportunities,” said Maple Leaf Academy coach Kelly Russell, the twin sister of Shawnigan Lake School coach Laura Russell. “She has a natural ability in speed and footwork and has continued to build her rugby specific skill sets. A focused learner Carissa has shown a consistent commitment to skill training and learning the game strategies and structures.”

Ference, 16, grew up in Edmonton, where her dad, Andrew, served as captain of the Edmonton Oilers between 2013 and 2015.

“Ava was first identified pre-covid in the RBC Training Ground Prairie talent ID programs,” Russell noted. “She is athletic and fast, with so much potential to be a playmaker on the rugby pitch that we’re excited to get her more deeply into our program.”

Norsten and Ference were among 4,000 athletes between the ages of 14 and 24 to take part in the RBC Training Ground search, which is free to enter. Only 30 athletes received funding.

Participants complete core speed, strength, power and endurance tests in front of talent scouts from nine different national sport organizations.

“While some participants are looking to re-energize or boost an Olympic dream in a sport they are already pursuing, others — like Olympic track cycling Gold medalist Kelsey Mitchell who was a soccer player when she participated in the program — participate with the hope of being discovered and directed toward an Olympic sport they may have never considered,” said Evan MacInnis, Technical Director for RBC Training Ground. “But they all rely on raw athleticism and determination to attract the attention of our sport partners and are excited to see where this program can take them.”

Eight RBC Training Ground athletes competed at the 2020 Olympics, with four winning medals: Mitchell, rowing gold medallist Avalon Wasteneys, cycling bronze medallist Lauriane Genest, and athletics bronze medallist Jerome Blake.

Three more Training Ground graduates competed at the 2022 Winter Olympics: Marion Thénault in freestyle skiing, and Mike Evelyn and Sara Villani in bobsleigh.

Registration for a new season of RBC Training Ground opens in January 2022. Visit for program information, in-person testing sites and virtual format testing options.

Kevin Rothbauer

About the Author: Kevin Rothbauer

Kevin Rothbauer is the sports reporter for the Cowichan Valley Citizen
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