FREDERICTON, N.B. — Every time Sara England steps out onto the pebbled ice she feels just a little bit closer to the mother she never really knew.
Saskatchewan's curling legend Sandra Schmirler died of cancer in 2000 — Sandra's daughter, Sara, was just two years old at the time.
"There have been times when the shot is just not there and it's the only shot I have but I make it," Sara said.
"Every single time my grandma and I look at each other and we both know there's an angel on that rock and that it's my mom."
Sara has watched all the old tapes of her mom's past curling triumphs, soaking up every made shot, smile and smirk to get a sense of the woman her mother was. Sandra Schmirler won three Scotties, three world championships and Olympic gold. She was Schmirler the curler.
There was a time in Sara's life when she didn't want to curl — living under her mother's larger-than-life shadow was seemingly too much at times.
"I didn't want to play the same sport as her and I wanted to be my own person," Sara said.
But when Sara's father, Shannon England and her grandmother, enrolled her in a Learn-to-Curl program in grade four, she was hooked.
"I think I it was the second class when I knew I'd be staying with this for good," Sara said.
Sara is now 21-years-old and skipping the University of Regina team at the University national championship this week in Fredericton. The past three seasons she's competed for Saskatchewan at the junior national championship.
There have been so many magical moments for the family over the years tied to curling, including during the 2018 junior provincial championship at the same Regina curling club Sandra won her first title.
Sara won her first junior title as a skip.
"The first time I skipped in a big event at the Callie I won and the first time my mom skipped at the Callie she won," Sara says, beaming with pride.
The Callie Club is located on Sandra Schmirler Way. All throughout it hang the banners of Schmirler's Scotties and world titles, as well as her Olympic gold in 1998. Sara can't escape it and doesn't want to — she's embracing it all now.
"It's a lot of pressure sometimes but it comes with a lot of amazing opportunities, especially working with her foundation," Sara says. "My whole family curls and obviously my mom was pretty good at it. Just getting to play the sport she loved and that I love means a lot."
Calling on her mom's rival
Sara is now getting ready to make the move from junior curling to the women's elite level. She's spent the last number of months talking with her father about who the perfect fit would be to help her understand the game — but more than that, help her understand who her mother was on and off the ice.
Two weeks ago Sara called retired illustrious Saskatchewan skip Michelle Englot to ask if she would consider getting back into the game and skip their team. Englot has been a part of 10 Scotties.
"I was so nervous. I was so nervous she would say no. Because then I had no idea where to go from there," Sara said.
When the two finally met to talk, Englot says she had an idea Sara might ask her to come out of retirement but had no idea in what capacity.
"I wasn't too sure what type of commitment she was looking for," Englot said.
"I made the decision to join the team right there on the spot. For me, Sara is just an incredible young lady and such a talented young player already," Englot said.
Remarkably, Englot and Schmirler attended their first Scotties together in 1987. Schmirler was playing third for a team skipped by Kathy Fahlman — Englot was asked to be the alternate.
Then throughout the 90's the two battled it out on the ice in Saskatchewan.
Now more than three decades later Englot wants to play a key role in helping Sandra's daughter get to her first national women's championship.
"We haven't talked about specific goals just yet. She does have goals of playing in the Scotties though but told me she doesn't expect that the first year," Englot said. "I kind of said, well I do. Maybe I put her on the spot a little but I think they have the talent."
At 55-years-old Englot thought her career was over. She didn't play this past year after two of the most successful seasons in her career — she left Saskatchewan for Manitoba and skipped a team that came within a few shots of winning a couple of years ago in a thrilling 2017 Scotties final against Rachel Homan.
The passion is still burning, now fuelled again by the daughter a curling champion.
"Her demeanour on the ice. The way that she throws. That smile is so similar. You can just see that she has the same fire as Sandra," Englot said of Sara England.
Building for the future while reflecting on the past
While Sara is going to be soaking up as much knowledge about curling as she can from Englot, she also hopes their time together will help her understand who her mother was just a little bit better.
"The only memories and knowledge I have of her is from what people tell me. So playing with someone who played against her and knew her is very special and exciting," Sara said.
Englot has a special bond with her two sons and appreciates a mother's bond with their children. She hopes to shed more light on the curler and woman Sandra was with Sara.
"I think because of the bond I have with my boys that was definitely something I thought about. I think I can kind of be a mother figure for Sara and the other girls," Englot said.
The skip also wants to help Sara carve out her own story in the curling world.
"She is her own person and deserves her own spotlight instead of being referred to as the daughter of a great curler. I think given what Sara has gone through in terms of growing up in that shadow I'm just so impressed with her," Englot said.
Make no mistake, these two want to win badly. They want to put on the Saskatchewan colours together at next year's Scotties in Moose Jaw — just down the road from where Sandra and her team rose to fame.
"If we could ever represent Saskatchewan in Saskatchewan that would be an amazing feeling," Sara said.
"I've always wanted to know if she lived through the cancer if she'd still be out here playing. I like to think she would be playing and that we would be playing together. But getting to play with Michelle is incredible and I'm so excited to play with her."
Something not lost on Englot for a second.
And most of all, the longtime skip is hoping to share with Sara the importance of building a strong team. Because that's what Englot says set Schmirler's team apart. They had chemistry unrivalled by any other rink in the game.
Now Englot gets that opportunity with Sara.
"If you have solid team chemistry then you can accomplish anything. That's what I would like to leave them with. Because that's what Sandra's team had."