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This article was published 27/7/2019 (585 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Janet Arnott took curling to new heights, coaching a team to Olympic gold and making lifelong friends from coast to coast before her death at age 63 on June 24 shocked and saddened them.
Arnott kept her stage 4 cancer diagnosis a secret from everyone except her family, husband Doug and their closest friends. She spent the time she had left focusing on the positive and what gave her joy — connecting with people close to her and playing Scrabble online with far-away friends who had no idea how ill she was.
The lifelong St. Vital resident rose to the top of the curling world with a dedication and work ethic that wasn’t always on display from the get-go, says Arnott’s younger sister, who’s also a member of Canadian curling royalty.
"She was a handful for my parents," recalls Connie Laliberte. "She tested them."
As the oldest of the four Laliberte kids, Arnott was sent to church every week with money for the collection basket. She had other plans for how she wanted to spend her Sunday mornings.
"She would go to Ann’s Bakery and spend the money there and on playing pinball," says Laliberte.
The ruse worked until their dad got his annual statement from the church and realized his donations hadn’t been received.
"She was the rebel in the family," says Laliberte.
When their mom, Jean, died of cancer, Arnott’s role in the family changed.
"She took over as the mother," her younger sister said. "She was the organizer — the glue that held us together."
Arnott organized the Laliberte family reunions, with people attending from across Canada, and "she took over hosting every Christmas Eve; she kept our relatives together," says Laliberte, who got pushed into curling and ended up a world champion.
"Janet was the reason I started curling competitively. I was playing other sports as well. I didn’t like curling; I thought it was boring."
When the provincial junior team recruited Janet and found out she was too old to play for them, their dad said, "It’s OK... Janet’s got two younger sisters," Laliberte recalls.
As adults, the curling sisters became a dynamic duo. Arnott curled lead for 20 years in Laliberte’s foursome, competing in eight national women’s championships and three world championships, winning one world and three Canadian titles.
"She was, pretty much, our coach as well as a player," says Laliberte. "She was always trying to figure out areas we needed to work on to get ahead. We’d go to her for strategy."
The highlight of their curling together was in 1984 at the World Women’s Curling Championship in Scotland, attended by friends and family, including their mother.
Laliberte’s team included her two sisters, Arnott and Corinne Peters, and third Chris More.
"That really was something special," Laliberte says.
In 2005, Arnott retired from competitive curling and dedicated herself to coaching.
"She was always looking for ways to come out on top, what other avenues to improve on," Laliberte says. "The team was prepared."
Arnott coached the Jennifer Jones team that competed in seven national competitions, winning the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and capturing the World Curling Championships crown in 2008.
At the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, the team set an Olympic record, going undefeated through the round robin, ultimately winning a gold medal.
"She enjoyed helping them out and achieving their goal," says Laliberte, whose sister decided to retire from coaching after that.
Media at the Sochi Olympics took note that Arnott was the only woman guiding a curling team there.
"Coaches were relatively new to the sport of curling," Laliberte says. "Janet really set the bar for coaches for what she did."
Arnott enlisted sports psychologists, nutritionists and trainers, worked out with the team and made a point of gathering for a post-season analysis each year. With her background in business administration, she was used to setting goals and measuring results.
"She never really saw herself as a trailblazer in any way," says Arnott’s good friend, Teresa Giesbrecht. She and Arnott met in 1987 at the Shoppers Drug Mart regional headquarters in Winnipeg, where they both worked. They vacationed together in Varadero, Cuba, with their husbands every winter for years.
"Seeing Janet, that first time just playing in the ocean, was a sight to behold," says Giesbrecht’s husband, Brian Pasieka. "She was like a kid, giggling and body surfing. It was kind of cool to see the sheer glee and joy on her face playing in the ocean for the first time."
Arnott and Giesbrecht both loved horses and took riding lessons together. For Arnott’s 50th birthday, the women went on a guided five-day trail ride in Alberta’s Tonquin Valley.
"You were in the mountains and you have to learn to trust your horse," Giesbrecht says. "We were sore when we got there and there were no showers for five days, but it was truly amazing."
Arnott could be a middle-aged first-time frolicker in the surf or an adventurer on horseback in the mountains but, most often, she was thinking of others: the curlers she coached, her beloved niece and nephews or friends across the country, Pasieka says.
"She was a great friend, no matter where her friends were. She had friends from Victoria to the East Coast and she kept in contact with everyone. That takes a lot of time and effort to maintain," he says.
"I think she cared about others," says Giesbrecht, adding a dozen of Arnott’s Grade 12 classmates were among the 300 people who attended the July 9 celebration of her life. "She definitely touched a lot of people."
Most of them had no idea she’d been ill.
"She didn’t want people to know about it," Laliberte says of the cancer that started in her sister’s kidneys and spread to her bones. She began to feel unwell in the spring.
Arnott looked after herself and was quite healthy up until then, Laliberte says. When she went to the doctor, "initially they said it was something else.... The next thing you know, it was Stage 4. It was very quick."
Even then, Arnott communicated with friends, Giesbrecht says.
"She played online Scrabble, big time.... She didn’t always want to talk to people, so it was one way she stayed connected, and she did it beautifully."
When Giesbrecht visited her friend for the last time in May, she and Arnott talked about the stuff they always talked about — the people they love.
"She and I don’t have kids, and we were extremely involved in our nieces’ and nephews’ lives and that’s what we talked about."
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.