Story by Jeff Gard/Total Sports Media
Cpt. Ellie Johnston has taken full advantage of the opportunities to play sports at a high level in the military.
Basketball has been a longtime favourite sport of hers and she continues to excel as a member of Canada’s CISM team. In recent years she has also played soccer, squash and hockey at a regional and national level.
“The best part about playing sports in the military community is that even when you’re playing against other bases or regions, at the end of the day we are all on the same team,” Johnston, a search and rescue navigator in the Canadian Armed Forces, says. “The sports community is an incredible place to meet new people, make new friends and build your network of fellow CAF members.”
Basketball meant a lot of Johnston in her younger years. Growing up in a military family, home was always changing. She lived in Canadian cities like Halifax, Ottawa and Winnipeg and U.S. states such as Ohio and New Mexico.
“As a young person moving around as part of a military family, basketball was great for meeting new people and finding my tribe when I arrived in a new city,” Johnston says, noting she met most of her best friends through the sport. “Basketball is a very cerebral game and requires both physical and mental abilities. I love how fast-paced it is and the requirement to constantly make decisions and react to what is going on around you.
“Basketball is a lot like life, in that there is a lot that is out of your control and it’s up to you how you react. I credit basketball with teaching me so many of the important life lessons that helped shape me into the adult I am today. Basketball teaches decision making and decisiveness, adaptability, athleticism, confidence and of course time management.”
In addition to playing basketball during the colder months and outside playing soccer during the warmer months, Johnston also started training in Shotokan karate when she was eight.
She considers karate an incredible way to learn more about the world, in this case Japanese culture and respect. At the end of each class, all students would recite the Dojo Kun, which state the five training principles of Shotokan karate: seek perfection of character; be faithful, endeavour, respect others and refrain from violent behaviour.
“I have always been up to try new things and to challenge myself in new ways. I love the process of figuring things out,” Johnston, who earned a black belt in Shotokan karate, says. “Karate taught me discipline, it taught me the importance of listening attentively and most of all it helped me learn to master my emotions. You learn to channel your energy and to react logically and not emotionally to the world as it occurs around you. I believe learning to control your body and mind and to learn self-defence are really great skills that everyone can benefit from.”
Johnston’s first military sports experience came at the university level when she was recruited to play for the Royal Military College women’s basketball team in Kingston. She hadn’t considered the military as a career option, but liked the opportunity to play sports while gaining an education that was paid followed by guaranteed employment.
Her dad was an air navigator in the CAF, a fascinating career that he loved including living and travelling around the world.
“While I hadn’t given too much thought to it, I was open to the idea that it might be something I would enjoy,” Johnston, now 28, says. “I also have an older sister, so I knew how expensive university can be and I thought it sounded like a really good deal. I had no idea the priceless lessons I would learn along the way.”
RMC was a smaller university and her team wasn’t the most competitive, but she doesn’t consider that to be a negative. She gained life skills from her time at RMC and says hard work through the ups and downs make for a positive experience in the end.
“I think I learned more from being on a losing team than I ever have from being on a winning team. RMC is consistently the underdog school for most sports, but I really enjoyed my time there and the friendships I made that will last a lifetime,” Johnston says. “Many of my RMC teammates are now my teammates on the Canadian Forces military national team. It’s pretty incredible to get to be reunited with so many of my closest friends and get to represent Canada on the world stage.”
Johnston arrived at 424 Squadron at CFB Trenton in 2016 following a stint at 442 Squadron in Comox and career course for a year in Winnipeg.
She wasn’t aware of the regional and national military programs while at RMC, although the CISM women’s basketball team didn’t yet exist when she graduated from university in 2014. She did have the opportunity to practice with men’s teams at different bases, but had no idea the opportunities that would lie ahead.
Johnston has represented Canada in basketball at the Women’s World Cup in Warendorf, Germany in 2018 and at the 7th CISM World Games in Wuhan, China in 2019. The international events for 2020 and 2021 were either postponed or cancelled, but she can’t wait to return to training and competing at the national level.
“The opportunity to wear a jersey with Canada on the front is something that will never get old for me. I am filled with so much pride and gratitude whenever I have an opportunity to represent my country,” Johnston said. “The motto of CISM is, “Friendship Through Sport” and it really is such an incredible experience to get to compete against other countries and to learn from one another. I have heard it said that the international language is math, but I would argue that it’s actually sport. It’s so fascinating how each nation learns the sport in their respective country and their respective language and we are able to come together and play against one another and how we are able to communicate with people that don’t speak the same language. You can have a game where it’s Canada against China and the referees are from France and Germany, but we are all operating with the same rules and we all can successfully communicate despite not speaking each others’ languages.”
Johnston has also enjoyed playing on base teams in Trenton, including for hockey and squash. Just like in her younger years, learning is an opportunity for growth.
“I learned to play hockey a few years ago and loved the opportunity to challenge my body in new ways and learn to really skate,” she says. “Squash has been a sport that I have always enjoyed as cross-training for basketball, it helps with hand eye coordination, footwork, and is great for cardio. I have also played slo-pitch for the Trenton base team. As an athlete and someone that loves to compete, I try to vary my experiences as much as possible and learn from everyone I meet.”
Johnston has taken her love for sports into the Quinte community, coaching with the Belleville Spirits basketball program for the past four years.
“I love being able to give back to the community and to help teach young girls some of the valuable life skills basketball taught me,” Johnston says, noting she also referees youth basketball and is even a FIBA official.
Johnston is grateful for all of these experiences in sport. Competing, especially on the national stage, but with the base teams as well and coaching the younger athletes. “How lucky am I that part of my job is travelling the world, playing the sport I love, and representing my country,” she says. “I feel so extremely honoured and so fortunate for the opportunities I have had.”