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Sisters who were stranded in South Africa last year head back for field hockey Junior World Cup

North Vancouver's Nora and Arden Goddard-Despot and the rest of Team Canada are getting another crack at a tournament that was suddenly cancelled by the Omicron variant.

It was a dream come true, and then a nightmare, and then a bizarre event bordering on a full-blown international crisis.

And now a pair of North Vancouver siblings are hoping to do it all over again, minus the nightmare portion.

Arden and Nora Goddard-Despot were two of five North Shore players – the others were Bronwyn Bird, Brooke McCusker and Grace Delmotte – who joined the Canadian women’s junior national field hockey team on a trip to South Africa for the Junior World Cup, scheduled for December 2021, the first time the team had made it to the tournament since 2013.

The tournament, which would have been the high point of their young careers, suddenly became a truly frightening and uncertain situation as the Omicron variant of COVID-19, first detected in South Africa, began its rapid spread not long after the teams arrived in the country. The event unravelled within a single day, said Nora.

“It was a really quick escalation,” she said. “I remember the morning it happened, we went to breakfast as a team and were hearing buzz of a new variant. People were worried about it. Then midway through the day we had teams dropping out. And then at the end of the day, the World Cup was cancelled. It was within a 10-hour period that the whole thing just crashed and burned.”

The players were stunned.

“It was devastating,” said Nora. “We worked so hard to get there. … Everyone was super excited and focused and locked in. There was just a really good energy with the team. And then it was just like getting the wind torn out from your sails. Our coaches told us [it was cancelled], and I just remember there being silence for a minute. And you could hear girls starting to cry, and we just, we didn't know what to do with ourselves. And then that night was particularly tough, and then the day after was really, really hard as well.”

Arden, Nora’s younger sister, was set to compete internationally for Team Canada for the first time in her life.

“It just felt devastating,” she said. “You get a chance to go and play your first international games, and it feels like it’s taken away forever.”

The team regrouped within a couple of days, and the Canadian coaches turned the trip into a training camp, using the time in their suddenly wide-open schedule wisely. But as the sting of missing the tournament started to wear off, they slowly became aware of another potentially even more volatile situation: they couldn’t leave South Africa. With the world going back on high alert, particularly in relation to South Africa, the team couldn’t find any flights to get them back home. It felt a bit like March 2020, the very start of the pandemic panic, all over again, the sisters said.

“Countries were closing their borders to flights from South Africa,” said Nora. “It was like, OK we think we can go to Germany, or we can get into Switzerland, and things kept getting moved around and rebooked, and rules were being put in place, and there were definitely days where you just sort of sat there and felt a bit hopeless.”

Air Canada was working hard to get them back home, Nora said, but it was a difficult situation, and it was nearly three weeks after they arrived in South Africa before they finally were able to get on a plane and leave the country.

“I felt nervous until we were on Canadian soil,” Nora said about the journey home.

“It was such a relief,” added Arden. “It was a lot to go through mentally, and then when you’re at home it feels like you can finally take a deep breath. I loved being in a [Calgary] hotel room with Nora for three days and just seeing her beautiful face every day.”

And now the team is going back to the same place for the same tournament, although they are hoping all the drama will play out on the field rather than off it. There have also been changes to the lineup, with several players unable to attend, leaving Arden and Nora as the only two North Shore players making the trip. The tournament will be held April 1-12, back at the same facility in Potchefstroom, South Africa. It’ll be a bit odd going back there, the sisters said, but also comforting in a way, as they’ve been there before and know what to expect.

“It does feel weirdly like a home field advantage, because we had that opportunity to train there,” said Nora. “It’s a very weird feeling to go back, but I’m very excited.”

One more obstacle to overcome, is the program is largely self-funded, meaning the players need to do a lot of fundraising – typically hitting up friends and family members – to be able to travel and play. There weren’t any refunds offered after the first trip to South Africa, so the bills are adding up, and they are needing to raise money all over again.

“People have been so insanely generous and kind,” said Nora. “But it’s been a little tougher this time around. I definitely feel a little bad sometimes – I think the Canadian in me comes out a little bit, and I’m like, ‘Oh geez, sorry’ – but everyone has been so generous and awesome. But it is tough for sure.”

Donations to help fund the trip back to South Africa can be made on the charity CanadaHelp's webpage here for Nora and here for Arden.