The Orillia Sport Council will announce the winner of the coveted Orillia Athlete of the Year for 2023 on Feb. 15 at Rotary Place. Isabella Holmgren, Chas Sharpe and Wyatt Thompson have been nominated for the award. Starting today with Holmgren, we’ll profile the three worthy nominees for this year’s honour.
Isabella Holmgren did the improbable in 2023: she won world championships in two different cycling disciplines.
The year of unprecedented success for the 18-year-old elite cyclist began in January of 2023, when she won a bronze medal at a World Cup event in Besancon, France at the finale of the Cyclocross World Cup Series.
Then, a month later, the talented Orillia teen made history, becoming the first Canadian to win the Junior Cyclocross World Championship held in the Netherlands.
“I was overwhelmed with emotions because I had just raced as hard as I could,” Isabella said in an interview back home in Orillia after returning from the race.
Her twin sister, Ava, finished second in the race, allowing the sisters to sweep the top two podium positions.
“I saw my parents right at the finish line and my sister was right behind me. It was definitely a nice feeling,” said Isabella.
Ava says she will always remember the celebratory feeling of finishing the final stretch of the race.
“I was just really happy,” she said. “I was so proud of my sister. It was such a special moment for me.”
The sisters say they could not have made it to the big race without each other.
“During the race, we are definitely competitive with each other,” Isabella said. “We make sure to not work against each other during the race, but, especially in training and at home, we push each other.”
Isabella says it is a “special feeling” knowing she and her sister made Canadian history on the world stage.
“I hope it encourages more Canadians to get on their cross bikes,” said the 18-year-old. “We hope we can inspire a few more Canadians to help grow the sport a bit more.”
The two ÉSC Nouvelle-Alliance students have been mountain biking since the age of four and have been racing competitively since they were nine. They got their national start in cyclocross in 2022.
Isabella followed up that incredible feat in August by finishing the Cycling Super Worlds race with a time of one hour seven minutes, 37 seconds to earn the gold in the mountain biking competition — and her second world crown of the year.
Isabella’s coach and father, Rob Holmgren, says her success has been “years in the making.”
“This year we definitely had a focus on building a big engine and making her skills as good as they possibly could be,” he explained. “Some of that was done by some extra road racing and training and sacrificing Canadian Nationals to do a road project in Europe.”
Despite a pair of world titles, Isabella’s stellar year was not quite finished.
In November, the reigning junior world champion was granted permission to race up into the elite women's category at the Pan American Cyclocross Championship in Missoula, Montana.
Once again, the local athlete separated herself from the pack, finishing strong to take the gold medal.
“Isabella showed her technical abilities being able to 'bunny hop' the barriers during the race, where the other women had to dismount and run,” said Rob Holmgren.
“Her patience and tactics were outstanding, showing it takes more than skill and fitness to win cyclocross races.”
Isabella Holmgren was nominated for the Athlete of the Year award by Andrew Doble. And while her accomplishments are impressive, there’s more to the teen, he noted in his nomination letter.
“Isabella is a kind, giving teammate always willing to help,” said Doble.
“She is the first to help with cleanups, cooking, to help with teaching younger athletes skills, line selection, and share a safe, quiet spot to warm up. Reducing her teammates’ stress allows them to focus on their own performances and goals,” said Doble.
He also cited the young athlete’s strong eighth place showing at the world championship for road racing in Scotland.
“Road cycling is the ultimate team sport; certain members of the team will sacrifice their own dreams and results in order to support their teammate,” explained Doble.
“Isabella gave 110 per cent of herself on many occasions to deliver her teammates to the finale in her races in Europe last spring.”
The Orillia Athlete of the Year Award will be presented during a Feb. 15 ceremony in the main floor Orillia Room of Rotary Place in west Orillia. The presentation is slated for 7 p.m. All are welcome.
-- With files from Tyler Evans