Olivia DeMerchant determined to make her mark during a momentous year

Olivia Demerchant (photo credit: Terry Ritz)

As opening kickoff approaches at the 2017 IFAF Women’s World Football Championships in Vancouver, a new-look Canadian squad heralds the arrival of the next generation of gridiron superstars. Among such new faces is a powerful running back from New Brunswick whose breakthrough potential should reach a fascinating apex, resulting in a rise to prominence for Olivia DeMerchant.

Wearing number 33 for the Capital Area-Fredericton Lady Gladiators in the Maritime Women’s Football League (MWFL), DeMerchant is joined by two of her teammates on Team Canada’s roster; Alex Black and Kristin Chatterton. Although Atlantic Canada has the fewest number of players represented on the Canadian contingency, they certainly hold the potential to make the biggest impact.

DeMerchant in action with the Lady Gladiators during the 2017 MWFL season (Image obtained from Facebook)

Of note, Black, along with Saint John Storm legend Trina Graves are returning for their third stint with Team Canada, both having played at the inaugural IFAF Women’s Worlds in 2010. In addition to this distinguished pair, Chatterton also brings a veteran presence, as Vancouver signifies her second journey donning Canada’s colors.

While all have played together for Team New Brunswick, the chance to be part of the game’s biggest stage in Vancouver enhances the sense of teamwork and national pride. Although Black and Chatterton provide an element of familiarity for DeMerchant, the chance to call Graves a teammate, instead of in her usual role as rival with the Storm, certainly presents a unique novelty. As she speaks about the three-time veteran players, her respect and admiration rises to the surface,

“(As) I play for the Capital Lady Gladiators, playing on Team New Brunswick was the first time with Trina (Graves). However, I do play with Canadian seasoned Alex Black. Alex having played in two World Championships previously, (she) is one of the most inspiring players to play with. She may not talk much, but through her love of the game and game play, she is a great role model. Becoming great friends with her over the last year only makes it more exciting to stand next to her with the Canadian jersey on.”

Among such new faces, DeMerchant’s sporting background, accentuated by a remarkable gridiron proficiency, has enhanced her status as a very prominent competitor, definitely generating a remarkable reverence. In addition to the recent milestone of being named to Canada’s national football team, she first made an impression on the rugby pitch, where she currently stars for her club team, the Woodstock Wildmen.

While athletes in female football with other sporting backgrounds are highly common, the ability for those to manage two sports simultaneously, with their facilities to excel at a world-class level in both forums of competition is very uncommon. In MWFL lore, the only other competitor who held such unique status was Lori Boyles, who also competed with Canada’s national women’s ball hockey team.

Having become initially involved through football via individuals that she was acquainted with in rugby circles, DeMerchant has elevated the two-sport star concept to a whole other level. With the achievements on the pitch, such a background served as a catalyst towards a heightened sense of confidence on the gridiron. Taking into account the similarities between the sports, its physicality, fast-paced strategy, and the obligatory adrenaline rush of outrunning opponents for a score, DeMerchant was a natural, adjusting quickly to the gridiron.

“I first got involved with women’s tackle football through previous rugby friends. I wanted an outlet to have fun and stay fit with. In the Maritimes, there are not many options for women in sport. I played boys’ football in my senior year of high school and thought it would be sort of nostalgic.

I believe what I have achieved in rugby has given me the confidence in all aspects of my life. With football in particular, many of my skills are transferable and compliments my playing positions.”

Although DeMerchant’s skills in rugby and football run parallel to each other, emphasizing her athletic drive, it also allows for an exceptional athletic milestone. With 2017 representing Canada’s sesquicentennial, part of the sense of celebration is also attributed to the great progress achieved within its borders. The ability for women to emerge as sporting stars is more than just a cultural movement, it is a riveting statement on equality.

Having first earned the chance to compete for Canada’s national rugby team with their U20 roster in 2011, DeMerchant would compete on the game’s biggest stage at the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup, gaining a silver medal. This year, she gained the opportunity to compete for Canada, under the tutelage of head coach Francois Ratier, in a two-game exhibition versus the United States at San Diego’s Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Centre.

Known affectionately as “The Beast from the East”, DeMerchant also excelled in rugby at St. Francis Xavier University, earning a 2011 Atlantic University Sport All-Star nod at the Tight Head Prop position. Among her teammates at St. FX included Tyson Beukeboom, a BLG Awards Finalist, whose father once played for the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers. They would call each other teammates once again in the exhibition against US.

Considering that DeMerchant shall be competing in both rugby and football world championships during the calendar year 2017, it is an ideal mirror of what the sesquicentennial means. While the achievements in both sports may overlap this year, appearing analogous, the chance to don the Maple Leaf on multiple occasions is not lost on an ecstatic DeMerchant.

“No matter the sport, it is always the utmost honour to wear the Canadian leaf on my chest and be able to sing my anthem with pride. To be able to represent my country in two different sports in the same year; same month is beyond words.”

“No matter the sport, it is always the utmost honour to wear the Canadian leaf on my chest and be able to sing my anthem with pride. To be able to represent my country in two different sports in the same year; same month is beyond words.”

While the 2016 MWFL season with the Lady Gladiators was an essential first step towards this newest chapter in DeMerchant’s athletic odyssey, her affirmation as a star competitor truly took place at the Canadian National Women’s Football Championships. Adorned in sharp burgundy jerseys and silver pants, she was a force for Team New Brunswick, living up to her “Beast” moniker, solidifying the running game.

Punishing opposing defenses with her relentless determination, DeMerchant displayed an admirable resilience that provided Team New Brunswick an opportunity to remain competitive at Nationals. Rewarded for her effort with Most Valuable Player honors for her team in the bronze medal game, it was a coming-out party for the running back.

Challenging Team Alberta for a chance at a podium finish, DeMerchant was a prime time player, skills shining while she plowed through their defense for a pair of touchdowns. Gradually weakening their confidence, while instilling a belief that a podium finish was possible, it may have been one of the most inspiring performances at Nationals. Emerging with Tournament All-star honors, it only added to the sense of euphoric achievement,

“Coming into the tournament as a rookie for Team New Brunswick, I did not know what to expect. So to be named a Game MVP and a Tournament All-Star is an honour. Those awards are not what I play for, but validation of my effort is always rewarding.”

Undoubtedly, Canada’s hopes for its first-ever gold medal will depend on an effective running game, a challenge that DeMerchant, the pride of Mapledale, New Brunswick, is ready to accept with great vigor. While 2017 represents DeMerchant’s maiden voyage with Canada’s team, she may be the one whose impact transforms her from rookie into game changer.

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

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