There are lots of stories about ultracompetitive siblings who battled each other growing up and went on to fame in their particular sport. Think of the Staals and Sutters. But there is one sibling combination that stands apart: Heather and Jim Steacy.
These two get along so well they live together, train together, travel together and are now headed to the Olympics together in the same event, the hammer throw. Even their father, Graham, can’t recall much sibling rivalry growing up (there’s another brother, Sean, who also throws hammer).
“There was very little squabbling,” Graham said from the family home in Lethbridge, Alta., where Jim, 28, and Heather, 24, still live in their childhood rooms. Sean, 26, lives across town. “We just kind of kicked them out if they did that and told them to play in the backyard for an hour or two to cool off. In general there was very little of that,” he added.
“We do get along pretty well,” Heather said. “I think the three of us kind of went through the typical sibling thing when we were younger but I think we all get along really well now that we are adults. It’s kind of nice that we all know what’s going on with each other with the sport, because Sean was also on national teams. We all kind of get it.”
Jim, too, shrugs off talk of sibling rivalry and adds that it will “kind of cool” to have his sister in the Athletes’ Village in London.
Both surpassed the Olympic qualifying standard weeks ago and they sealed their places on the Canadian team by winning their events easily at the recent track and field trials in Calgary. They won’t be the only brother-sister pairing at the Olympics, but they will be among a small handful in the same event (Canadian swimmers Sinead and Colin Russell are also going but for different events).
Jim was the first to take up the hammer. He’d been competing in basketball, volleyball and rugby in high school when he caught the eye of local track coach Larry Steinke, who specializes in throwing events. Steinke suggested Jim try the hammer. “I said, ‘Oh sure, what’s that?’” Jim recalled. “I tried it and I just got hooked.”
He soon became Canada’s top hammer thrower and in 2008 he went to the Olympics in Beijing, the first Canadian to compete in the hammer since 1924. He made the final and placed 12th. “Our whole plan with that was to build experience toward [the London Olympics],” he said. “So to actually make the final was kind of beyond what we were expecting.”
Despite the success, Jim was never tempted to leave home. He turned down scholarship offers from U.S. colleges and attended the University of Lethbridge, earning a degree in kinesiology. He also stuck with Steinke and the Chinook Track and Field Club.
Jim’s decision to stay put helped bring Sean and Heather into the sport. Sean came first, giving up pole vault for hammer and making several national teams before a car accident in 2004 hampered his throwing. Then came Heather.
An awkward kid who still enjoys playing the clarinet more than any sport, Heather comes across as an unlikely Olympian. She tried figure skating, soccer and swimming as a kid but her passion was music and no one figured her for the hammer. Except Steinke. He kept pushing her to try and finally she relented. “I was awful,” recalled Heather, who is working on a music degree at Lethbridge.
But something kicked in: the challenge of mastering this strange event which looks so simple but takes years to perfect. “You have to do thousands and thousands and thousands of throws before one sort of looks right. You learn to be patient with it and kind of live with frustration,” she said.
Success came slowly. Then last year she threw more than 70 metres, qualifying for the world championship. She has kept improving and this spring threw 72.16 metres, good enough for London (the women’s hammer weighs four kilograms and the men’s 7.26). Jim qualified early for London as well, tossing 75 metres this spring. He is off his best of 79.13 metres because of a string of injuries.
The Steacys are part of a wave of North Americans who have begun to break down the stranglehold Eastern Europeans have had on the event. Three Canadians will be competing in hammer in London: Jim, Heather and Sultana Frizell of Perth, Ont., who has thrown 75.04 metres and is ranked in the top 20 in the world. Three U.S. men have also thrown more than 75 metres this season.
For Jim and Heather’s parents, Graham and Debbie, just heading to London to watch their children is enough. “To have two of them go is pretty special,” Graham said. “It will be a riot.”