Niverville Heritage Centre Gala hosts Jennifer Jones

More than 200 people attended the 2022 Niverville Heritage Centre Gala on November 5 to hear this year’s keynote speaker, Jennifer Jones. Jones is one of the most decorated and recognizable women in the history of curling.

After two years of COVID-related cancellations, the gala returned to wow its guests with a lavishly decorated hall and four-course steak dinner. The cost of the entire event was generously taken care of by anonymous donors, channelling all proceeds of the night toward the organizers’ almost $60,000 fundraising goal.

This year’s Heritage Centre projects include a variety of upgrades and improvements to the NCU Manor and the Heritage Life Personal Care Home, making life just a little bit better for its many aging residents.

Mayor Myron Dyck opened the ceremony with an introduction of Jones and her many accomplishments, most notably her gold medal win at the 2014 Olympic Games where she became the first female skip in history to go through the tournament entirely undefeated.

Jones is also a two-time Women’s Worlds champion, a six-time Canadian champion, and nine-time provincial champion.

“Sports is not the only place where there is stress and where success has been accomplished,” Dyck told the crowd. “Wes Hildebrand, the CAO of Niverville Heritage Centre, has seen his share of challenges in the past couple of years with running seniors housing and a health centre during a pandemic. Together with his staff, he has kept things moving forward with a calm countenance while piloting the Heritage Centre ship through winds from unknown directions and with unknown speeds.”

When Jones took the podium, she marvelled at the Heritage Centre’s aging-in-place facility and the ingenuity and dedication of the community that brought the unique model to life.

To the surprise of many guests, Jones shared her own distinct ties to the community. In years gone by, Niverville was home to Jones’s mother, her grandparents, and a collection of aunts and uncles. Jones’s great-grandparents lay buried at the Heritage Cemetery on Main Street.

For the balance of the night, Jones took the audience back in time through her infamous curling career, beginning in 2005 at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts when Team Jones won its first Canadian championship.

It was here that Jones gained notoriety for a closing shot that many sports commentators to this day still describe as the greatest championship shot in the history of the game.

In 2006, Team Jones entered the Olympic trials. Unfortunately, their dream was cut short when Jones developed kidney stone pain and the team performed poorly.

In the following four years, though, they collectively rose to the top of the podium almost everywhere they competed, eventually ranking number one in the world.

The 2010 Olympic trials soon followed, but once again the team played well below their expectations.

“We went to the trials and… every one of you here could have beat us,” Jones mused. “We were really bad. And it was in that moment that we really had to sit down and reflect. We had all these accomplishments, but when it came to the one that really [mattered], we didn’t bring out the best in each other.”

Jones described the following months as among the hardest she’s ever had to face as team leader. Knowing that a change in team members was necessary for their future success, it fell to her to shake the team up.

In the end, she says, it was the best decision she could have made.

“Change is how we embrace the greatest challenges in life,” said Jones.

New member Kaitlyn Lawes joined the team at a very young age and with little credibility apart from raw talent.

“Everyone thought we were a little bit crazy, because Kaitlyn wasn’t proven,” Jones said. “But what we did know is that she had the energy and excitement to learn and to evolve and to try new things. She was going to bring back our love of curling.”

Their first major curling event as a new team took place in Oslo, Norway in 2010. Jones says it was traditional for the team to tour portions of Europe prior to their big games. This time, they found themselves in Turkey, getting to know each other in the steamy milieu of a Turkish bath.

Inside the changing area, the ladies were each provided with miniscule towels to cover themselves. The scantily clad Kaitlyn led the way into the bath area.

“I’m hiding behind Jill, because she’s really tall,” Jones joked, Jill being a reference to none other than Jill Officer, Jones’s long-time second. “A lady grabbed Kaitlyn’s towel and ripped it off her. And I just said, ‘Welcome to the team!’ And we all laughed and laughed. It was in this moment that we found our team [because] we were vulnerable and willing to put ourselves out there in an uncomfortable situation.”

The team did in fact find their stride from that day forward, continuing to excel on the national and international circuits in the lead up to the 2014 Olympic trials.

But misfortune visited again, this time in the way of a massive knee injury sustained by Jones while watching her husband play at the World Championships in Switzerland. The fall left her with two pulled ligaments and damaged cartilage, requiring surgery.

Jones’s prognosis presented little hope of a full recovery before the Olympic trials. She was crestfallen. She’d let her team down.

To complicate matters further, Jones also discovered that she was pregnant with her first child. She was given two options: prolong the surgery until after the birth and abandon her Olympic dream or proceed with the surgery without the use of general anaesthesia.

She opted to move ahead with surgery.

Through morning sickness, Jones pushed through physiotherapy, working hard to get back on track for the upcoming Olympic trials.

“My team believed in me,” she said. “But I knew that if I never made a comeback, my team would know that I gave it my all and that is the power of a true team. By believing in me, they took away the stress of trying to make it up to them.”

Two and a half months later, and very pregnant, Jones was back on the ice.

A year later, Team Jones competed in the Olympic trials hosted in Winnipeg, just as her daughter Isabel turned 11 months old.

“The pressure could not possibly have been [greater]. We’re in Winnipeg at the MTS Centre and everybody was expecting great things from us—and we went and played better than we’ve ever played.”

In 2014, the team was bound for the Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

“It was a dream of a lifetime, but we made it that way,” she said. “We showed up at those Games with the biggest positive attitude I’ve ever seen of anybody… We went in with the attitude that nothing was going to stop us, and nothing did.”

The team went on to set performance records for curling that had never been seen before. It was the last shot of the final game which Jones describes as an adrenaline rush like she’s never experienced either before or since.

“I knew that if I missed that shot and I had to go and talk to the media afterward, [my teammates] would have been by my side. They would have told the media, ‘There’s nobody else we would rather have throw that last shot.’ And that’s why we made it.”

Team Jones’s successes continued and they later went on to qualify for the 2022 Olympics held in Beijing, China.

Jones closed her address by bringing the message back home. Just like Team Jones, it’s taken years of hard work and teamwork to make the Niverville Heritage Centre the success it is today.

“I look at this facility and how this town took responsibility [to make it happen],” she said. “To build this is remarkable to me. This should be in The Globe and Mail and The National Post… You took responsibility for your future by doing this and I’m so honoured to be a part of it.”

By the end of the event, organizers of the fundraising gala not only saw their $60,000 goal met but exceeded it by almost $6,000.

Hildebrand says he continues to be moved by the town’s ongoing generosity towards the seniors in the community. The gala was the icing on the cake which followed the spring reopening of much of the seniors programming that had been put on hold during the years of pandemic.

Brenda Sawatzky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Niverville Citizen