Story by Jeff Gard/Total Sports Media
Maj. Amanda Whalen was interested in joining the military when she was 16, but the process seemed long and frustrating at that time.
Royal Military College wasn’t considered an option because she wanted to play university hockey and there was no women’s team at the Kingston-based school.
Whalen grew up in Sarnia and played hockey, softball, volleyball, basketball and soccer, although the latter wasn’t her favourite. She was fortunate to have supportive parents who encouraged to pursue any sport that interested her.
“Eventually as I got older and into high school I had to focus a little bit more and I just ended up playing a lot more hockey and softball in the summer,” Whalen says.
Whalen, a goaltender, went on to play four years of varsity hockey at Carleton University in Ottawa as she studied aerospace engineering.
She didn’t give up on her aspirations of joining the military, though, and during her second year Carleton made her way into the recruiting office in Ottawa and completed the process.
Whalen was able to get into the Regular Office Training Program (ROTP), which gives young Canadians an opportunity to obtain both an officer’s commission in the Canadian Armed Forces and an undergraduate degree.
That enabled her to complete her education at Carleton and have it paid for.
“I was just like any other student. It was awesome,” Whalen says. “The commitment came mainly in the summers and there would be the odd meeting you had to go to through the year, but for the most part I was just any other student until summer came and then you went and did training or any other courses that you had to take.”
Whalen was able to complete her pilot training after university. She had on the job training in Cold Lake, Alberta and then spent time in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan before getting posted to Trenton in 2015.
It was in Cold Lake where she realized the sports opportunities available in the military and took full advantage of the opportunity to compete.
There wasn’t a women’s hockey team in Moose Jaw, but Whalen did get to practice with the men’s team and also compete at small-base tournaments. Opponents were from smaller bases like Shilo, Manitoba or NORAD from Colorado Springs.
“We were fortunate enough to win it one year out there and I got to play in net and play against the men, which I think was pretty good for my game,” she says. “I definitely had to pick up the speed a little bit, which I thought was a nice challenge and a lot of fun.”
While the speed of shots was challenging, the biggest test were the releases.
“Some of the girls can shoot just as hard, but the release isn’t as fast so you have more time to prepare whereas the men I find they can get such a hard shot off so quickly,” Whalen says.
Whalen, who also plays recreational intersection hockey, has found success with the Trenton base women’s hockey team. The group has won a number of regional tournaments and was the runner-up at the national championships in 2017 and 2019.
“When I started in the military, specifically the women’s game was not very challenging having come from university (hockey). It just wasn’t there yet,” Whalen says. “To watch how quickly it’s grown and I think it’s reflective of the women’s game in general just getting better. The competition has just gotten so much better.”
Whalen has also had success in sports outside of the hockey rink, racking up accomplishments in running. That was surprising to her considering she had never previously competed in track and field or cross-country in school.
“I didn’t pick up running until much later in life,” she says. “I never ran in high school other than if I was training to stay in shape for another sport.”
Running was something she did more often following graduation from university. Hockey was done and that left a void in her schedule.
“I was so used to being on the ice every day and training every day for hockey and then it ends. You’re not training at that level anymore,” Whalen says.
Even with ice time available at military bases, it wasn’t the same as training every day as part of a competitive team.
“I was just looking for a way to stay in shape so I started running and got really into it.” she says.
That was around 2011.
There was similar motivation when Whalen took big strides in her running in 2016, following a specific training plan. She had given birth to her first daughter and decided on training for a half-marathon with the goal of getting back into shape.
There was no expectation of qualifying for the CAF National Running Championship, but that’s exactly what happened. She needed a qualifying time of 1:40:00 and squeaked in with about a 1:39:00.
Whalen figured if she qualified, she might as well go. The military national championship results are taken from participation in the Ottawa Race Weekend. She placed second in her division to claim the silver medal.
“It was totally unexpected. I trained hard, but I think there was a lot in my favour that day,” Whalen says. “It was really hot and humid and I had been training in Ontario where it is hot and humid and I think some of the other runners weren’t as prepared for that. Just one of those days where things fall into place for you a little bit.”
Meanwhile, she improved on that result in 2019, winning a gold medal in the half-marathon for CAF running nationals. She had her second daughter the previous year. It was another great day, but Whalen says running is a sport where even if you have a bad day, the work you put into training can make up for it.
That wasn’t always the case in hockey, she says, adding you can prepare and train but sometimes the team just isn’t good enough.
“With running, if you train and train and train and you’re smart about what you eat and you’re healthy, even if you don’t have your best day you’re probably still going to have a pretty good day,” Whalen says. “I like that it’s so much on you and what you put into it so it’s rewarding when you see it pay off.”
Whalen does consider the half-marathon “the most useless distance to run I think in the military because from nationals if you’re good enough you can make one of the CISM teams like the 5K team or the full marathon team, but there’s no half marathon team or 10K.”
While she hasn’t been able to compete in the past couple of years, Whalen continues to train and has her goal set to run a full marathon.
“That’s what I’m training for right now,” she says. “It’s just getting the distance up, but the last half I ran was in 2019 in the fall and I ran one of my better times and I felt really strong. I felt like I could’ve gone further, but the race was over.”
Until then, she’ll keep training and cheering on her daughters who are now in soccer and skating.