Curlers, cross-country skier from Manitoba proud to represent Canada at World University Games

Brianna Cullen of Swan River, Man., front left, and her University of Alberta teammates earned the right to represent Canada in women's curling at the FISU World University Winter Games after winning a qualifier in Ottawa in last September. (Claudette Bockstael/Curling Canada - image credit)
Brianna Cullen of Swan River, Man., front left, and her University of Alberta teammates earned the right to represent Canada in women's curling at the FISU World University Winter Games after winning a qualifier in Ottawa in last September. (Claudette Bockstael/Curling Canada - image credit)

Manitoba curler Brianna Cullen still has the jerseys she got for the 2021 world junior curling championships hanging in her closet — though she never got a chance to wear them in competition.

That event was cancelled as a result of the pandemic, but this month, Cullen is finally getting another chance to wear the red and white on the international stage.

Cullen and her University of Alberta Panda teammates, including fellow Manitoban Serena Gray-Withers, will be wearing the maple leaf at the FISU World University Winter Games, officially known as the Winter Universiade.

The 31st edition of the multi-sport event organized by the International University Sports Federation (or Fédération Internationale du Sport Universitaire) begins Thursday in Lake Placid, N.Y., and runs until Jan. 22.

The Edmonton-based curling squad punched their ticket to the Empire State by virtue of a perfect 6-0 record at Curling Canada's September 2022 qualifier in Ottawa, which included an 11-4 victory over the University of Regina Cougars in the final.

Cullen's team blew the game open with five points in the third end, before stealing two more points in the eighth end to seal their spot in Lake Placid.

"It hit me right away — like right after we won, I was pretty ecstatic," said the 21-year-old, who plays second for the Pandas.

Cullen is from the western Manitoba town of Swan River, and is one of six people from the province who are part of the contingent of Canadian athletes for this year's University Winter Games.

The third-year kinesiology student says the opportunity to go with Gray-Withers is especially gratifying — the two have been on the same curling team for the past six seasons.

"We've been playing together for all of the big accomplishments we've each made in our curling careers, so it's nice to continue that trend and be there with each other," Cullen said.

'Definitely … going to be some butterflies'

Gray-Withers, 21, is the team's alternate and may not see game action in New York, but she's thrilled to be joining her teammates and helping in any way she can.

"We worked so hard to get there … [and] all that hard work was shown and demonstrated into that win, so it was really cool," she said.

Like Cullen, Gray-Withers — a third-year marketing student who is from Rosewood, in southeastern Manitoba — has never had a chance to represent Canada at an international tournament.

Claudette Bockstael/Curling Canada
Claudette Bockstael/Curling Canada

"I definitely think that there's going to be some butterflies. It's definitely nerve-racking playing at a world event, especially with a Canadian flag on your back, because they all have you as a target," Gray-Withers said.

Canada has competed in women's curling at seven previous editions of the University Winter Games, winning gold twice: 2017 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and a decade earlier in Turin, Italy.

The Canadian women finished fifth the last time the biennial Winter Games were held — the 2019 event in Krasnoyarsk, Russia.

Across all sports, Canada has won a total of 19 gold medals at previous Winter Games — a number Cullen would love to be able to add to.

"It'd be pretty surreal," Cullen said. "It's crazy that we're even going and I get to represent [my] country, so to be able to bring one back would be that much better."

Conno Hood/University of Alberta Athletics
Conno Hood/University of Alberta Athletics

Canada opens play in the 10-team tournament against South Korea on Friday at 1 p.m.

The top four teams advance to the playoffs.

'A mini-Olympics kind of vibe'

Canada hasn't had as much success in cross-country skiing at the Winter Games as it's had on the curling rink, but Winnipegger Conor McGovern hopes to change that.

Canada's lone cross-country skiing medal at the Winter University Games came in Belluno, Italy, in 1985 — a bronze in the men's 4x10-kilometre relay race.

McGovern, 23, is a fifth-year organic chemistry student with the Lakehead University Thunderwolves in Thunder Bay, Ont., and one of 12 cross-country skiing Canadians in Lake Placid attempting to end that drought.

"If something like that happened, it would be a pretty cool moment," McGovern said of the possibility of reaching the podium.

But that's not his goal. He wants to enjoy the experience of being at the Games.

Submitted by Lakehead Athletics
Submitted by Lakehead Athletics

"I think it's going to be really fun, racing a whole bunch of guys I've never raced against from a bunch of different countries," McGovern said.

"The whole multi-sport Games nature of it is cool, too … [and getting to] meet some people from different sports, like a mini-Olympics kind of vibe."

There are six cross-country skiing events at the Games. McGovern doesn't know which events he will be participating in, but he believes the 30-kilometre classic-ski race, with a mass start, is his best event.

He's also proud to represent his school, province and country.

"I've never represented Canada before at a race, so I think wearing that Canada suit is going to be pretty cool," McGovern said.

"Being from Manitoba, we're kind of maybe not a traditional cross-country skiing powerhouse province, but I definitely have some pride being from Manitoba."