Gold medallist Dara Howell discusses the two OCTs who helped her achieve her personal best both at school and on the slopes.
By Richard Ouzounian
Photos: James Heaslip; Hair & Makeup: Buffy Shields, Judy Inc.
Freestyle skier Dara Howell reached new heights earlier this year when she brought home an Olympic gold. But if it weren’t for two OCTs, she would have never landed such a daring dream.
“So many people helped put me on that podium in Sochi,” says the 20-year-old athlete. “Of course, my parents, friends and coaches played a big part, but I couldn’t have done any of it without Mr. Byl and Miss Williams.”
Howell is referring to her biggest cheerleaders at Huntsville High School — guidance counsellor Nico Byl, OCT, and principal Kimberly Williams, OCT.
It’s fair to say that fate was at its finest when Byl was paired up with a particularly ambitious teenager back in 2009. The Netherlands-born teacher, who once walked the Huntsville halls as a student, was not only well positioned to advise Howell academically but, as an avid skier and her racing coach, he was also well versed in her sport.
“I remember meeting with Dara and her dad,” Byl recalls. “She was in Grade 8 and into figure skating at the time, but she was already exploring her options for how to combine her academics with her athletics.”
That kind of mature, multi-tasking mind didn’t surprise Byl. He had already seen it in action with Howell’s parents, who have owned and operated an old-style family lodge in Muskoka for years. “When I see Dara, I see Doug and Dee in her; they’re planners. It’s the Howell way.”
“So many people helped put me on that podium in Sochi, but I couldn’t have done any of it without Mr. Byl and Miss Williams.”
Looking back, the gold medallist recognizes that in addition to giving the required advice of a counsellor, Byl provided her with something else — the support she needed to succeed.
“Mr. Byl knew how important skiing was to me and he was aware of my goals,” says Howell.“He understood me.”
Those last three words are possibly the most important ones a student can say about a teacher. Lucky for Howell, she had not one but two empathetic influences rooting for her along the way.
Williams may have arrived on the scene later than Byl but her fresh perspective and previous experience with high-performing students brought her up to speed in no time.
“I had moved to Huntsville just in time for Dara’s last two years of high school. Things were already progressing pretty quickly for her by then,” explains the Brampton, Ont. native. “I had only been on the job for a few weeks when her father made an appointment to discuss the extensive amount of time that Dara would need off that winter.”
Earlier in her education, Howell was able to synchronize sports and school without any trouble, but as her commitment to freestyle skiing grew, so did her workload. “I knew it would be a tough commitment to combine them both, but I guess I wanted to have it all,” recalls the Olympian. “It was really important that I graduate with everyone I’d grown up with.”
It wasn’t easy for Howell to maintain this balance, but that’s where Williams was able to help. “I thought she was fantastic. Here was a young lady who was pursuing a dream, dedicating her whole self to it, but also telling me that school was equally important to her.”
Although the skier had to miss a significant amount of class time for her training, she still managed to graduate on schedule, with her classmates. “Miss Williams was the one who made it all work,” says Howell.
By listening to her student’s needs and keeping a keen eye on Howell’s academic, athletic and social lives, Williams made sure the teenager received the necessary online support and one-on-one time she required from her teachers.
“We don’t give away credits,” the principal explains. “Dara worked hard and earned every one of them; of course, some were more challenging than others. She, for instance, had to complete her math courses online and, believe me, that would be a difficult task for anyone.”
It was a demanding process for a student who was in constant competitive training mode, but Howell remained determined. “She did her homework when she was on the road,” recalls Williams. “This meant skiing all day, then going back to her motel at night to work on her courses.”
The challenge of trying to do it all was not without its fair share of character-building moments. “My friends were supportive but they couldn’t relate to what I was going through,” says Howell. “There were times when they didn’t understand why I wasn’t able to hang with them.” Then her voice brightens. “But it all worked out in the long run.”
Indeed it did. Williams thinks back to the energy that filled the high school back on February 11 of this year, that historic day when the Huntsville community witnessed Howell win the first-ever gold medal for her sport at the Winter Olympics.
“It was the middle of the night but we opened up the school, so that students could watch the Games together. Cogeco had donated televisions (so that everyone could watch) and we set them up in the cafeteria. When Dara won, we all cried our eyes out. Then we celebrated with a pancake breakfast.”
For Williams, it’s not the fact that Howell won that’s so important; it’s how she won that makes her proud. “Dara set a goal for herself and then kept raising the bar. She proved that you can live in a small town, have friends and real family values, and still achieve your goals — if you’re willing to put in the work.”