Teen athlete benched by decades-old transfer rule

A teenage wrestling champion and hockey player from Stittsville says she's been barred from joining her school's sports teams because of an Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) regulation dating back to the 1980s.

Gabrielle Gareau,15, says her life revolves around sports. Last year, she decided to take it to the next level, transferring from Sacred Heart High School, where she attended Grades 7 and 8, to École secondaire publique Louis-Riel for Grade 9, where she could take part in a special hockey program.

The long commute from Stittsville to Gloucester meant she was sometimes waking up as early as 5 a.m. After homework and practice, she wasn't getting to bed until 11 p.m. or later.

In this case it's actually prohibiting people who should be participating. - Tim Hickey, wrestling coach

On top of that, it was hard to make friends because she lived so far away from most of her new classmates, Gareau said.

"I was tired all the time. I was stressed out," she said. "I started to, without realizing it, to pull out my eyelashes."

Gareau was diagnosed with the hair-pulling disorder trichotillomania. Along with her parents and family doctor, she decided it would be best to transfer back to her old school for Grade 10.

Happy return

A couple months into classes back at Sacred Heart, where her sister goes to school and her dad's a teacher, she's already feeling better.

"I loved my coming back, my friends, it was awesome. I was excited to start talking to them again and doing well in school — and then OFSAA decided to suspend me from wrestling and hockey for a year," Gareau said

Laura Glowacki/CBC

When Gareau transferred back to her old school, OFSAA informed her that according to their records, she was supposed to be attending Holy Trinity High School, about seven kilometres away.

Had she never left Sacred Heart, it wouldn't have been a problem, but under OFSAA's strict transfer rules meant to stop schools from stacking their sports teams with star athletes, students must attend their designated school if they want to compete, or take a year off.

Policy meant to prevent stacking

OFSAA wouldn't comment on Gareau's specific case, but in an email to CBC, the organization said "90 per cent" of students who have to transfer during high school are able to re-qualify immediately.

"OFSAA's transfer policy has been in effect since 1986 and it affects the athletic eligibility of students transferring schools. The policy has been adopted in order to discourage the stacking of teams and prevent the displacement of student-athletes from team rosters," OFSAA spokesperson Pat Park wrote.

"The policy provides a number of exceptions under which a student may be deemed eligible to participate and the vast majority of students do meet one of these exceptions."

Unfortunately for Gareau, she's among the small minority of students who don't qualify for the exceptions.

Transfer rule 'a shame'

Tim Hickey, a longtime volunteer wrestling coach at Sacred Heart, said in his sport, stacking high school teams is virtually unheard of.

"High schools don't try to take wrestlers from each other," Hickey said.

He called the OFSAA rule "a shame" because it's prevented Gareau, who last year was city-wide wrestling champion in her weight class, from competing this year.

"It may be a case of the rule does make sense in certain situations, but in this case it's actually prohibiting people who should be participating," Hickey said.

Laura Glowacki/CBC

'That rule was wrong to begin with'

For now, Gareau plans to continue playing hockey with the Nepean Wildcats. She's also taken up high school basketball, which runs tournaments through a separate sport authority.

As for wrestling, Gareau continues to attend a community dojo, but said nothing quite measures up to the OFSAA experience.

"When the ref holds your hand up saying that you won, it's just the best," she said.

While her return to Sacred Heart boosted her spirits, Gareau said the ban has made it bittersweet.

"My sister's hockey coach, Coach Jay, said it the best: If any end result in a rule is that a child cannot participate or is forced to quit a sport, that rule was wrong to begin with, no matter how you justify it."