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Hallie Clarke’s return a step in right direction for rebuilding Canadian skeleton program

All it took was a sign.

Hallie Clarke, 18, was born in Belleville, Ont., but has spent time living in Calgary, Boston, Buffalo and elsewhere.

The nomadic nature of Clarke’s upbringing left her with deep roots in both Canada and the U.S. — and an important decision to make this past summer, the genesis of which began about five years ago.

Clarke was freshly in Alberta when she walked into WinSport Arena — where her mom was working as a power skating coach — and discovered her calling.

“I happened to see this ‘Learn to push’ sign and I was like, ‘That sounds so Canadian. I have to try this.’ And then I tried it once and then I just kind of kept going and never stopped,” Clarke recalled to CBC Sports recently.

Quickly, Clarke went from a recreational local slider to a developmental athlete with Team Canada to an alternate on the 2022 Beijing Olympic team. But after those Games ended without Clarke even making the trip to China, athletes within Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton came forward with accusations of a toxic environment created by “authoritarian” leadership.

Seeking increased stability, positivity and opportunity, Clarke moved south of the border to join the U.S. team. She made her World Cup debut as an American and slid to a pair of second-place finishes, including in Whistler, B.C. She closed the season by placing 10th at the world championships in Switzerland.

Despite the success, however, Clarke’s path to the 2026 Italy Olympics remained foggy as she’d just begun the process to obtain U.S. citizenship. Then, Team Canada hired Joe Cecchini — Clarke’s personal coach and the man who oversaw her first-ever downhill sled ride back in Calgary — as its head coach.

And so, once again, Clarke was on the move — this time back to Canada.

“I had heard that the whole organization has really done a reset. They have completely new leadership. They had really turned over a new leaf. And Canada is my home. I’m Canadian and it’s a privilege to compete for Canada. So I am really excited to be back,” Clarke said.

Now, Clarke is a full-fledged member of the Canadian skeleton team. The first World Cup of the season begins Thursday at 9 p.m. ET in Yanqing, China, with live streaming on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app and CBC Gem.

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Strong trio

Clarke will be re-joining veteran teammates Mirela Rahneva and Jane Channell, each of whom are two-time Olympians that competed ahead of her in Beijing.

“Olympic year is chaotic trying to qualify, but I had really amazing teammates. We were all really supportive of each other.” Clarke said. “Obviously there’s always stuff going on behind the scenes, but there’s always going to be that stuff. So that aside, I was really lucky to have good teammates.”

Cecchini, who privately coached several Canadians, said Clarke can bridge the gap from Rahneva and Channell, for whom 2026 could be their final Olympics, to the next generation of Canadian sliders.

For now, though, he said the women’s team has high potential leading into the Games.

“The three of them kind of feed off each other. So when you have one person doing really well, that’s awesome. But when you have three, you know they can really support each other and push each other to achieve great things,” he told CBC Sports.

While an Olympic podium appearance is the goal for Cecchini — though organizers still don’t know where sliding events will even take place — the former Italian Olympian is mainly charged with restoring order to Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton.

He said his “biggest achievement” to date is having every coach in the organization become fully certified, including safe-sport training.

“There wasn’t a lot of coaching before, but I think that the coaches have really done a good job of bringing the team together,” Clarke said.

After conducting a full analysis of the program, Cecchini said he’s also intent on creating transparent pathways for athletes and coaches to move through the system.

“I don’t think I will ever fully understand every aspect of what happened,” he said. “But I was coaching a lot of the Canadian athletes [privately] and I was hearing their plights, I was hearing their stories. And when there was an opening, I thought that I could make an impact both on the culture of the program but also from a development pathway.”

Trio of new coaches with Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton pose for picture.
Cecchini, centre, is the new head coach of Canada’s skeleton team while Micaela Widmer, left, will serve as team manager and Kevin Boyer, right, is an assistant technical coach. (X/@BobCANSkel)

‘Alignment’

Cecchini, the 41-year-old from Trail, B.C., has 20 years of experience in law enforcement, where he often worked in mental health departments. He said he tries to bring that into sport by understanding an athlete’s needs and creating an open dialogue.

“It’s not so much about everyone having the same opinion and having the same voice, but having an alignment. And so all of our athletes are in alignment. Their goals are in alignment for the program, for themselves. They might have different opinions on how we need to get there, but if their goals are in alignment, we can create a shared vision for our program,” he said.

Meanwhile, Clarke said there is one noticeable difference in her return.

“Everything is really positive. Everyone is really focused on making sure that the athletes have everything they need to be their best selves both on and off the ice,” she said.

As a coach, Cecchini must strike that delicate balance of pushing his athletes to be at their best without overdoing it.

He said it’s “awesome to hear” that he was a deciding element in Clarke’s return to the team.

“When you hear an athlete say they’re excited to rejoin the program and a major factor was the work that you’re doing that kind of makes it all worthwhile. So it’s the highest compliment that you can get,” he said.

Now, with Clarke and Cecchini back aboard, Canadian skeleton can begin to turn the page.

“I think [Clarke] will be a world champion one day and/or an Olympic medallist,” Cecchini said. “She works really hard. She’s dedicated herself to this and she has proven every step of the way through the development pathway that she’s there to win.”

Clarke has envisioned what that medal moment may feel like.

“You just sent chills thinking about it,” she said. “It would mean the world to me, honestly. When I think about representing Canada and wearing the Maple Leaf, I just think of all of my family and friends and this country giving me so many opportunities.

“Being able to represent everything that my family and friends have done for me while living in this country would be really special.”

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