Aliya Howard was just six years old when she was first mesmerized by speed skating while watching the 2006 Winter Olympics on television.
At the time, her mother Melanie didn’t think too much of her daughter’s comments of how she’d like to take up the sport.
“Then, in the fall of that year when September came, we started looking for activities for her to do,” the elder Howard said of her daughter.
An advertisement in a Quebec-based newspaper that a speed skating club in Laval was seeking new participants caught her attention so she signed her daughter up.
And now Aliya, a 13-year-old Mohawk who was born in Kanehsatake, Que. but who now lives in Kingston, Ont., has her own Olympic dreams.
“I hope to make it to the 2022 Olympics,” said Aliya, a Grade 7 student at Calvin Park Public School.
Despite her young age, Aliya, is already making a name for herself in the sport. She was recently named to the Ontario speed skating long track development team.
Those on this squad—four females and four males—are chosen for their perceived future greatness in the sport.
Aliya is three years younger than the second youngest member on this year’s team. And her mother, the president of the Kingston Striders Speed Skating Club, believes her daughter might also be the youngest ever named to the club.
Aliya was chosen for the Ontario development squad primarily for her efforts this past season. This past February she captured four medals (one gold, two silver and a bronze) in her 11-year-old age group at the Canadian long track championships, which were staged in Fort St. John, B.C.
Though she’s already turned 13, Aliya will compete in the girls’ 12-year-old category at this year’s nationals, set for Feb. 9 and 10 in Winnipeg. Competitors at the nationals enter the age grouping they were in as of July 1 the previous year.
Aliya will take part in four events at the national championships. She’ll skate in the 100-metre and 500-metre Olympic-style events, in which two participants skate off at a time. And she’s also entered in the 300-metre and 3,000-metre mass start races.
Aliya’s favourite distance to race at is 500 metres. That’s the event she won gold in at the 2012 Canadian age group championships.
“It’s sort of like a middle distance,” she said of the 500-metre race. “I don’t like sprints when you don’t have time to get into your technique. And I don’t really like the long distances. You’re dead tired by the end of it.”
A year ago the nationals were indoors. But this time around they’ll be outdoors—a fact Aliya is not that keen about.
“It’s probably going to be freezing cold,” she said. “When it’s indoors you don’t have to worry about the ice conditions and there is no wind.”
Yet she still has some high expectation for the upcoming national meet.
“I would like to maintain the title (in my 500-metre race),” she said. “And I want to get some good times.”
Kelly Ball, Aliya’s coach with the Kingston club, has been working with her young skater for three years now. And she believes Aliya has a bright future in the sport. But she can’t be sure at this point whether Aliya will go on to become an Olympian.
“She has the potential and she has the skill,” Ball said. “It’s going to come down to what she has inside and if she wants it. It’s a lot of work.”
Melanie Howard said her daughter had struggled somewhat in the sport, up until this past season when she had a breakout campaign.
“Speed skating is probably 70 per cent technique,” Melanie said. “Once you get a handle on that and your muscles can be used efficiently, things start to happen.”
And though somewhat surprised with her recent results, Howard isn’t shocked to see her daughter excelling in a sport.
“She has pretty good base athletic skills,” she said. “She’s always been a fast runner. And she’s naturally very athletic. It all came together for her last season.”
Besides speed skating, Aliya has also competed in track and field events for her school. And she’s also dabbled in the sport of fencing.
But most of all she enjoys being out on the ice.
“I really like how we go really fast on the ice,” she said. “I enjoy skating overall. And I also like it because it is different. I like to be different. Everybody else seems to like doing sports like hockey, basketball and soccer.”