All it took was a sign.
Hallie Clarke, 19, was born in Belleville, Ontario, but spent time living in Calgary, Boston, Buffalo and elsewhere.
The nomadic nature of Clarke’s upbringing left her with deep roots in both Canada and the United States, and she had to make a big decision last summer, the genesis of which began about five years ago.
Clarke was just in Alberta when she walked into WinSport Arena, where her mother worked as a power skating coach, and discovered her calling.
“I saw this ‘Learn to Push’ sign and I thought, ‘That sounds so Canadian. I have to try this.’ And then I tried it once and then I kept going and never stopped,” Clarke recalled to CBC Sports recently.
Clarke quickly went from a local recreational slider to a development athlete with Team Canada to an alternate on the Beijing 2022 Olympic team. But after those Games ended without Clarke even making the trip to China, athletes of Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton brought forward accusations of a toxic environment created by “authoritarian” leadership.
Seeking greater stability, positivity and opportunity, Clarke moved south of the border to join the US team. He made his World Cup debut as an American and fell to a pair of second-place finishes, including in Whistler, BC. She closed the season by placing tenth at the world championships in Switzerland.
However, despite the success, Clarke’s path to the 2026 Olympic Games in Italy remained confusing, as she had just begun the process of obtaining US citizenship. Team Canada then hired Joe Cecchini, Clarke’s personal trainer and the man who oversaw his first bobsled descent in Calgary, as his head coach.
And so, once again, Clarke was on the move, this time back to Canada.
“I had heard that the whole organization has really rebooted. They have completely new leadership. They had really turned the page. And Canada is my home. I’m Canadian and it’s a privilege to compete for Canada. So I’m very excited to be back,” Clarke said.
Now, Clarke is a full member of the Canadian skeleton team. The first World Cup of the season begins Thursday at 9 p.m. ET in Yanqing, China, with live streaming on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app and CBC Gem.
Clarke will be reunited with fellow veterans Mirela Rahneva and Jane Channell, each of whom are two-time Olympians and competed before her in Beijing.
“The Olympic year is chaotic trying to qualify, but I had really amazing teammates. We all support each other a lot.” Clarke said. “Obviously there are always things going on behind the scenes, but there will always be those things. Other than that, I was very lucky to have good teammates.”
Cecchini, who has privately coached several Canadians, said Clarke can bridge the gap between Rahneva and Channell, for whom 2026 could be their last Olympics, and the next generation of Canadian sliders.
For now, however, she said the women’s team has great potential heading into the Games.
While Cecchini’s goal is to appear on the Olympic podium, although organizers do not yet know where the sliding events will take place, the former Italian Olympian is primarily charged with restoring order at Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton.
He said his “biggest accomplishment” to date is having all of the organization’s coaches obtain full certification, including safe sports training.
“There wasn’t a lot of training before, but I think the coaches have really done a good job of bringing the team together,” Clarke said.
After conducting a thorough analysis of the program, Cecchini said he also intends to create transparent pathways for athletes and coaches to advance through the system.
“I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand every aspect of what happened,” he said. “But I coached a lot of Canadian athletes. [privately] and I was listening to their difficulties, I was listening to their stories. And when there was an opportunity, I thought I could have an impact both on the culture of the program but also from a development path.”
Cecchini, 41, from Trail, BC, has 20 years of experience in policing, often working in mental health departments. He said he tries to bring that to sport by understanding the needs of athletes and creating an open dialogue.
“It’s not so much about everyone having the same opinion and the same voice, but it’s about having alignment. And that’s why all of our athletes are aligned. Their goals are aligned for the program, for themselves. They may have different opinions about how we should get there, but if your goals are aligned, we can create a shared vision for our program,” he said.
Meanwhile, Clarke said there is a notable difference in his return.
“Everything is really positive. Everyone is really focused on making sure the athletes have everything they need to be the best they can be on and off the ice,” he said.
As a coach, Cecchini must strike that delicate balance of pushing his athletes to do their best without overdoing it.
He said it’s “amazing to hear” that he was instrumental in Clarke’s return to the team.
“When you hear an athlete say that they’re excited to rejoin the program and that a big factor was the work that you’re doing, it makes it all worth it. So that’s the biggest compliment you can receive,” he said.
Now, with Clarke and Cecchini back on board, the Canadian skeleton can begin to turn the page.
“Believe [Clarke] one day she will be a world champion and/or Olympic medalist,” Cecchini said. “She works very hard. She has dedicated herself to this and has shown every step of the development path that she is in it to win.”
Clarke has imagined what that medal moment will feel like.
“You just gave me chills thinking about it,” he said. “Honestly, it would mean the world to me. When I think about representing Canada and wearing the Maple Leaf, I just think about all my family and friends and this country that gives me so many opportunities.
“Being able to represent everything my family and friends have done for me while I’ve lived in this country would be really special.”