In finishing her cross-country journey, women’s hockey coach and competitive ball hockey player Ashley Gilbank has become the first Canadian woman to successfully complete a cross-country journey. Gilbank rollerbladed across Canada as part of a fundraising effort for mental health research. Her drive came after the loss of a close friend, Rachel Spearing, to suicide.
Her journey across Ontario was the longest, and in asking Gilbank about what stood out as the highlight of her journey, there were many other journeys to consider.
“Now that is a tough one to answer, as Ontario was 45 days long. Longer than the first five provinces combined, so it was very eventful. I think getting hit by the transport (near Kenora) is a memory that will always stick out.”
Gilbank’s visit to two rural areas in Ontario holds special memories for Gilbank. “In Hastings, the whole town came out to support me. As I skated into Pontypool, I was able to stop at the Spearing farm and pay tribute to Rachel and her family. Those two days are unforgettable. I kind of tie those two memories together as they happened so close to each and they both surprised me with how supportive they were.”
In Alberta, the majestic scenery and remarkable nature was of great comfort to Gilbank, “I would have to say skating into the mountains in Canmore was something I will never forget. It was like someone had dropped a big green screen in front of me. It was one of the easiest skating days as I was so distracted by the scenery. I think (my husband) Pierre had me pull over every km to take a picture!”
Many of her experiences in Alberta had very close ties to hockey. “When I think of Alberta, I think of hockey—touring the Rexall Center and the Saddledome. Watching Team Canada [women’s] practice and meeting some of the girls.”
While in Alberta, she had the opportunity to meet Hayley Wickenheiser and the members of her club team, the University of Calgary Dinos. “I was shocked how quickly they welcomed me. I was able to go in and talk a little about S4L and the girls listened and then asked me a lot of questions. It was really neat to be able to share my experiences with such an elite level of women's hockey players. Ever since I was a little, it was always my dream to play university hockey and I was in awe of every single one of them.”
After meeting the club, Skate4Life was the recipient of a donation of $1,000. “It literally was such a shock...not only because it was $1,000 but also because I was striving hard to reach $10,000 and they had just brought me so close that I knew at that moment I really could hit $10,000 by the end of my journey.”
As Gilbank reached the end of her journey in Victoria, British Columbia, the surprise of meeting Rachel Spearing’s mother, Sandy, and her family was a very pleasant one. “They surprised me, as Pierre, my dad and I was eating our dinner at Boston Pizza in Victoria. I can probably say to this day that is the most surprised I had ever been in my life.”
Their presence was a source of great pride and meaning for Gilbank. “I also cannot really explain what it was like to have them finish with me. The experience was that much more meaningful to me and my husband.” She continued, “Actually, the last few days I felt very numb. I was worried about finishing the journey. The night before we finished, when Sandy Spearing showed up, that changed everything. To explain what I mean, I have a quote of my journal entry I wrote that night:
Today I had to write. It is the last night of my journey. It is amazing to see how far I have come although to me I wasn't happy. I wasn't sad, I wasn't really anything. I was numb. And I was scared to finish numb. I didn't want to look back on this day and regret it. I don't have that fear anymore. I feel fulfilled. Like tonight was just what I needed. The weight has been lifted.
While she was speaking at a Children’s Hospital in British Columbia, there was a tragic case of teen suicide. The passing of Amanda Todd was not lost on Gilbank. “I know what the Spearings went through, and are going through. I know that is happening again with the Todd family. It was reported to me not long ago that a boy had died in my hometown from suicide, he was only 20 years old.”
She continued, “I believe the media need to be more proactive in sharing help services in their reports, whether it’s an article, news cast, radio broadcast etc. Teens, adults, teachers, everyone, need to know what they can do or where they can turn.”
While Gilbank has a highly deserved break, she is pondering the future. Her next goal is to register Skate 4 Life as a registered charity. She is also working on telling her story. As her cross country journey comes to a remarkable end, it is only the beginning of a bright future for Skate 4 Life.
All quotes obtained first-hand unless otherwise indicated