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Just out of high school, our Athlete of the Year

Ayanna Badali

Ayanna Badali [Photo: Allan Williams]

It’s a good thing Ayanna Badali broke her ankle when she was 13 years old. If not she might have become a hockey player and never taken up the sport where she is making a name for herself.

Instead she has become Leaside’s Athlete of the Year, just five months out of high school, named to the honour for her speed skating accomplishments by the Leaside Sports Hall of Fame. She won Ontario short track speed skating titles in 2013 and 2014, and competed for Team Ontario in the Canadian championships in Prince George, BC.

The broken ankle happened a day before hockey camp where she was to try out for a high grade competitive team. At practice she lost her footing and crashed into the boards.

The forced time-out made her and her parents think about what she could do while waiting for a new hockey season. 

They decided to look at speed skating and found a club, the Toronto Cyclones, offering a Learn to Speed Skate program that started just a few weeks later, when her ankle would be healed. Ayanna signed up.

“I enjoyed it right away,” she says. “I could feel the wind whizzing by my ears. You can actually hear the wind!”

After that first session, her mother, Denise Makovac-Badali, recalls, “She had the biggest smile I’ve ever seen.”

She had always loved speed in skating, starting when she was 5 or 6 years old learning to skate at the Hodgson outdoor rink near Davisville and Mt. Pleasant.

“I saw these two older kids skating around the rink in speed skates and thought, ‘That looks really cool – I want to try that.’”

But she took up hockey first, playing in a girls’ league in North York and at Bessborough school where for three years, in grades 6, 7 and 8, she was the only girl on a team of boys.

She was good, playing on increasingly competitive teams, and always the fastest skater.

“What I liked most was going fast. I cared more about that than stick-handling or shooting,” Ayanna says.

“When they were doing drills in practice,” her mom says, “the coach used to hold her back to give the other kids a head start.”

When she switched to speed skating she focused on short track events and began winning regional golds almost immediately.

Where did this seemingly natural talent come from?

Ayanna’s parents say they knew she would be athletic from the time she was a toddler.

“She was always a super-physical kid,” says her mom.

“She would climb up my arm, over my head and down the other arm,” says her father Paul Badali. “Her physical prowess has always stood out – she has a lot of power behind her athleticism.”

That made her very different from her sister Kalila, 2 1/2 years older, her parents say .

“She was the more active one,” Kalila says. “I mostly wanted to tell stories.”

Her father remembers walking with his two daughters to Bessborough school every morning from their home at Bayview and Fleming. “But from the time she could walk Ayanna would never ride in the stroller. She always insisted on walking.”

Paul Badali, (whose father Gus Badali was the former player agent for NHL greats like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Paul Coffey) is an athlete himself, holding a 4th degree in jujitsu and competitive in mixed martial arts (MMA).

He began training both his daughters from an early age in jujitsu and kickboxing.

Ayanna also participated in MMA, competing against the guys, even after taking up speed skating. “I’m naturally competitive and MMA brought it out. I always wanted to beat the boys. And it shaped how I did things in speed skating.”

“My parents have been extreme supporters,” says Ayanna, each in different ways.

“I’ve been the more pragmatic one,” says her mother, “getting the equipment, taking Ayanna to practice, registering her for events. Paul’s been in the background with the mental game.”  Which makes sense since he’s an exercise psychotherapist in addition to being an athlete.

“We would discuss how the mind, body and brain connect,” he says. “Competitions are tough: mentally taxing and physically taxing. In hockey there’s a team but in speed skating all the pressure’s on you – you need a strong mental game.

“Ayanna’s really great at balancing training with social, school, family life, and sleeping, all in a way that is healthy,” adds her dad. So her parents don’t seem unduly worried about Ayanna living away from home for the first time.

After four years at Leaside High, Ayanna moved to McGill University in September to pursue a bachelor of education in health and physical education. In Montreal she trains at the Maurice Richard Rink which has been converted to Canada’s premier short track speed skating facility. Her coach is Olympic gold medalist Marc Gagnon.

“I’m doing exactly what I did here in Toronto,” says Ayanna. “I’m on the ice six days a week at 7 a.m. and working hard towards competing at the Canada Winter Games in Prince George in February 2015, and the World Junior Championships after that.”

Denise and Paul Badali, members of the Leaside Badali family, are eager to acknowledge the support of the Justin Eves Foundation and of Isabel Bassett for the scholarship which has enabled Ayanna to attend McGill University and pursue her training in Montreal. “It’s a costly sport,” says Denise Badali, “and we’re extremely grateful.”

Argo CEO keynote speaker at Nov. 21 induction

LSHF-LogoAyanna Badali, named Leaside’s Athlete of the Year by the Leaside Sports Hall of Fame, will be honoured at the 2nd Annual Leaside Sports Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and Community Reception at Leaside Gardens on Friday, Nov. 21, along with this year’s Hall of Fame inductees Jack Caffery, Joe Krol, Christine Pellerin and Dr. Sidney Soanes, who were profiled in last month’s Leaside Life issue.

Keynote speaker will be Chris Rudge, executive chairman and CEO of the Toronto Argonaut Football Club. Rudge was formerly the president of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Tickets are available through any of Leaside’s sports associations, at the arena or at www.leasidesports.com.