Story and photo credit: Brad McLeod, Cranbrook Townsman
After a year away from the game, starting right side hitter and Avalanche captain Mikaela Pushor has never seen the sport more clearly. With a new mindset and the same tremendous skills she's always possessed, she is having a great first year at COTR — and she's doing it with the help of some old friends.
"I think that people lose sight of the fun in sports, they get so stressed out about winning and being the best and beating everyone ... for me, sports should be a way of escaping and I think it should be enjoyable ultimately."
Mikaela Pushor is a winner, there's no doubt about it. The 21-year-old right side hitter may only be in her first year with the College of the Rockies Avalanche women's volleyball team, but she already has quite a few accolades to her name.
She won a high school provincial championship in 2013, was named the Female Rookie of the Year at Olds College in 2014, earned a bronze medal in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference in 2015 — but what's really made her a winner is her attitude towards it all.
"I think a lot of people lose the fun in it," Pushor says, explaining her new philosophy on competitive sports. "That's kind of what I bring to the team … I just try and enjoy it as much as possible and have fun doing it.
It's been quite the journey for Pushor to get where she is today. The player and person she has become has developed immensely since she took up volleyball in sixth grade.
"My mom played in high school and my brother as well, so I just tried to keep up with the fam," she says. "[My high school career] was really, really good. We won provincials in my Grade 12 year [and] I loved my coach and my school."
Pushor was then recruited to play for the Olds College Broncos, which she did straight out of high school. Leaving home and joining the ACAC was a big adjustment, but overall Pushor enjoyed the experience.
"[Olds] was good, I enjoyed it more my second year, because I was more used to things and I put myself out there more, but it was a really good experience," she says. "I made some really good friends that I'm still close with and we had a good team."
While she personally took time to adjust, her game didn't skip a beat coming out of high school and she was named the Broncos Female Rookie of the Year.
"I was really, really honoured [by that]," she says on the achievement. "I wasn't expecting it — it was crazy, but it definitely put me in a good position for my second year."
In that second season, the Broncos had an incredible year which ended in a third place finish in a league with 14 teams. While Pushor had finished a medical receptionist program at Olds, the stage was set for her to continue her ascent to volleyball greatness.
And then, she took a year off — a year off of volleyball, a year off of school, a year off of everything.
"Honestly, I think I needed [the time off], I'd been playing volleyball since Grade 6 and I hadn't really taken a break up until that point," she says. "I just wanted to stay in Lethbridge and work and just kind of spend some time for myself to figure out what I wanted to do."
Pushor spent her down time working at a ceramics painting store and occasionally played co-ed volleyball. It became quickly apparent, however, that she wanted more.
"It was kind of the plan all along to take a year off [and] I knew I'd get back into it at some point. I guess I missed it a lot."
As it so happened, the perfect opportunity was right under her nose.
With two of her best high school friends having the time of their lives at the College of the Rockies, playing with the Avalanche was an opportunity that Pushor just couldn't pass up.
"Alexa and Miranda had a lot to do with [why I chose to come to COTR]. Playing with them again is something I never thought I'd do … it's been amazing so far to reunite with them," she says. "[Being on a team with them after all this time] is really unique. You don't get to experience that a lot.
"Also, the location [was a huge draw]. I love BC [and] I definitely want to end up here, eventually."
Surrounded by mountains and great friends, Pushor says she has had a wonderful transition to her new team and city.
"It was surprisingly super easy [to adjust to playing with the Avalanche]," she says. "All the girls are very open and inviting."
"Being in my third year now, I don't have any restrictions on me. So, I put myself out there and got to know everyone. We've created some amazing relationships [and] our team chemistry is really good."
While that chemistry hasn't yet resulted in too many wins, Pushor's lack of anxiety when it comes to being overly-competitive is a change that has made this season of volleyball her most enjoyable one to date.
"[In the past], I never thought I was good enough on the court," she says, further explaining why she's so determined to put fun at the forefront of the game. "This year, it's helped me to be a little bit more relaxed and enjoy whatever comes my way."
One thing that's come her way, is being named the captain of the Avalanche in her first year. The squad has three captains, a designation she shares with Alexa Koshman and Taylor Forster, but she is the one and only floor captain.
While her official duties include doing the opening coin toss and being the team's representative to talk to the referee, she believes her mission goes a lot deeper than that.
"I'm very honoured and blessed that I get to fill that role on the court, but at the same time that line of tape across my number is just a reminder that I have to be 100 percent at all times for my team," she explains. "I have to be positive and support everyone and my job is to bring everyone up and make it relaxed and fun on the court."
Although Pushor has a solid grasp on what to do on the volleyball court, when it comes to her life ambitions, she is still very much a work in progress. Now in her second stint at college, she is simply trying to experience as much as she can before inevitably deciding what path to walk down.
"At [my last school], they didn't really have very many regular courses — like Sociology — it was just like agriculture or veterinary stuff. So, here I get to choose between Psychology and those neat things I'm actually really interested in."
"I'm trying to enjoy the experience as much as possible, but at the same time, I'm a little bit stressed because I want to find my career. I think I do want to work with people in some way and give back to the community — I'm just not sure how yet."
Pushor expects to stay with the Avalanche for at least another season, so she should have plenty of time to come to some decisions.
Right now though, she still has her refuge on the court, a place she strives to always keep fun. And why wouldn't it be? She plays with some of her best old friends, and now some new ones. She gets to be a leader and the captain, and she gets to play in front of some wild fans.
"I'm surprised by how much support there is here for our team, we didn't really have that many fans come out and watch [at my old college]," she says. "It's really cool to see faces in the crowd that you know and also just people supporting you and cheering you on, even when they don't know you."
At 2-6 so far this season, Pushor and the Avs have a big weekend coming up. Starting on Thursday and ending on Sunday, they play four straight games on the road against Columbia Bible College and the University of Fraser Valley with a chance to right the ship.
"Every game has been a learning process [and] I think that our last weekend, we definitely learned the most about each other and ourselves," she says. "So, I'm really excited about [this] weekend to see how we do there. Honestly, every day I think we're just getting stronger and stronger."
After their games in the Fraser Valley, the Avs won't play again until January. It's a crucially important stretch of matches that could get them geared up for a championship run in 2017, or make them want to go into hibernation.
One thing is for sure though: whether they win or lose this weekend, win or lose at provincials — Mikaela Pushor will still be a winner.
By keeping it fun, for herself and her teammates, she's already won. That's the ultimate goal.