TORONTO, Ont. – She never dreamed that any of it might be possible.
When Nicole Luchanski got her start in baseball, she had never imagined that someday she would have the opportunity to appear on the world stage in a multi-sport event like the Pan/Parapan American Games, the closest thing the sport has to the Olympics at the present moment.
The 25-year-old middle infielder didn’t know her atypical sport choice would eventually earn her sponsorships, or that she would ever be able to pursue athletics full-time for any period.
But it has, she is, and things are only continuing to get better for the native of Edmonton, Alta., who has used the support of the Pan Am Games title sponsor, CIBC, and their Team Next program to secure stability in her training and competition practices like never before.
“[CIBC] decided to do is create a sponsorship and mentorship program for an athlete from every sport discipline,” Luchanski said. “The national sport organizations nominated people from their sport and I was nominated, applied, and was chosen by the selection committee in 2014 …
“It’s made a huge difference because I never had any sponsors. I don’t think anyone in women’s baseball has any sponsors, so just to be introduced to the possibility of it encouraged me to pursue training full-time in the six months leading up to the Pan Am selection and to the Pan Am games, which I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t known I could have support like that.”
Team Canada’s second baseman has been a sparkplug for the offence since she joined the women’s squad as a 16-year-old in 2006, hitting out of the leadoff spot, always threatening on the basepaths, and providing consistency in all facets of her game. Manager Andre Lachance was especially excited at her opportunity with Team Next and what it would mean for Luchanski.
“There’s no doubt that she makes a difference all the time,” Lachance said. “She likes to get dirty, she likes to dive, she likes to play hard all the time, and that’s the type of player we like; the type of Canadian player who represents the country very well …
“She was one of the best candidates to do that, to represent a company like this one, because of her dedication towards training and towards our team and everything. It means a lot for her too.”
Luchanski is in her second year of the three-year sponsorship program for up-and-coming amateur athletes, as it leads up to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She is one of 67 recipients chosen for the support – financially assisted with $5,000 a year for each of the years – and though baseball will not be a part of the next Olympic Games, Team Next has helped tremendously in her preparation for the Pan Am selection camp, currently taking place in the Toronto area.
“The financial help has been huge for sure, when you’re not working and you don’t have a paycheque coming in,” Luchanski said. “And then on top of that you’re trying to pay for high-performance gyms and baseball academies.
“But it’s also the community – you are set up with an Olympian and my mentor is Kara Lang. They’re giving us insight from people who have been there and done it before, played in major multi-sport games. To have the support system of people who are working with you and really want you to do your best…that’s been helpful.”
Luchanski has received additional assistance with the help of Team Next, earning sponsorships from a training facility at home in Alberta and from Easton, offering top-of-the-line equipment to get her geared up for the next level of competition.
“I discovered this place called The Base by River Valley Health in Edmonton and their whole mission statement is to help athletes achieve their last 5% of their potential by staying healthy and being the healthiest and best body they have,” she said. “Almost everyone has some sort of nagging injuries; they’re really focusing on those. It’s multi-disciplinary – weight coach, strength coach, chiro, physio, mental training, nutrition – so you can imagine that would be very expensive.
“I was able to take some of my CIBC Team Next funding and get involved in their program, but they’ve sponsored me as well and cut me a deal where I only pay for a portion of it and they cover the rest, so that’s been a really cool experience. Easton’s been great too. They’ve provided me with some equipment and it’s been really good…I’ve really enjoyed the glove and bat already.”
Each year, the program’s participants are brought together to one location, where they can learn more about things like how to deal with interviews if they haven’t been in the spotlight much before and how to entice other sponsors to support them, along with nutrition sessions, sport psychology sessions, and what to expect from the Pan Am Games.
“The neat thing about this program is that they tried to choose athletes who are either young or haven’t had any sponsors before, so a lot of us are starting out in this sort of sponsorship world, and we haven’t been on the big international stage,” Luchanski said.
“The coolest part is being around so many athletes from different sports. I’ve been around a lot of elite athletes but generally baseball players, so to see them and then I see their names in the paper an on TV … it’s been really cool to be around people who are future Olympians.”
Women’s baseball will be on the biggest stage it has ever been afforded at the Pan Am Games, with the national team competing solely in World Cup tournaments previously. Luchanski is most looking forward to trying to put a stamp on her sport in a more impactful way than she ever thought possible before.
“I’m so excited for women’s baseball in general to be on that stage because we deserve it,” she said. “I can’t wait for girls and women everywhere to see us play at the same level as everyone else in the Pan Ams and realize that women’s baseball is a really great sport and they should be involved and play and never be pushed out of it or quit.”
Having spent a little bit of time in the spotlight over the last while thanks to Team Next, Luchanski has been able to advocate for her sport and for the upcoming event. More people are becoming interested, and she is anxiously awaiting her squad’s turn to step out on the field and show them what they’ve got.
“People should know it’s the same game as men’s baseball, other than we use metal bats and it’s seven innings,” Luchanski said. “Everything else is exactly the same and it’s a really exciting game to watch because we’re pitching from the same distance as men, but we’re not quite as strong so the offensive part of the game is really exciting.
“You don’t see pitchers striking out 15 people a game, there are going to be hits, the ball will be in play, and defence has to be really strong. It’s not the same as the men’s game but it’s equally as fun to watch in a different way.”
Not only is the Women’s National Team getting the chance to participate in a multi-sport event for the first time at the Pan Am Games, but they will also be playing on home soil, with all of the tournament’s baseball and softball games – for men and women – taking place in Ajax, Ont.
When Luchanski had the opportunity to play at home in Edmonton during the 2012 Women’s Baseball World Cup, the team winning bronze at the tournament, she thought that would forever be the highlight of her career. Now, she has her sights set higher.
“It will be more exciting [than Edmonton] and I never thought I would say that,” she said. “When the World Cup was in Edmonton, I thought that was going to be the biggest thing in my life because that’s my hometown and that was the biggest stage at the time. Then we found out that we got into the Pan Ams and not only that, but it’s in Toronto in the biggest city in Canada, so it just keeps going up and up and getting more exciting.”
With Baseball Canada’s selection camp wrapping up Sunday at Rogers Centre, Luchanski is excited at the possibility of remaining on the squad to compete at the highest level, after almost a decade of wearing her nation’s colours.
“One of my favourite moments was just making it,” she said. “I had dreamed about it and worked so hard for two years and then I got the chance … and that was a dream come true. Obviously now that has to be topped and this is the stage that can finally top that emotion of achieving the goal and making the team for the first time. It’s really overwhelming and this can be the stage that will one-up it.”