In Grade 7, she and her classmates from St. Bernard's School went on an excursion to Horseshoe Valley Resort where Denena, a natural athlete, decided to give snowboarding a try. She liked it. And she discovered that she was pretty good at it.
The following year, her class again made the trip and this time, the hill and board proved to be like giant magnets pulling her toward a new pursuit.
"I had always concentrated on hockey in the winter before but when our school went in Grade 8 I just fell in love with snowboarding," says Denena. "I love how it's an individual sport and that you can just concentrate on yourself. It's a lot of fun."
For Denena, now a Grade 10 student at Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School, it's also been an incredibly fast rise up the ranks of the winter sport that has emerged from the fringes of pop culture to become a full-fledged Olympic sport.
Just a year after her first competitive event, she cleaned up at a national competition at Mont Tremblant on March 31 and has earned the right to represent Canada at the upcoming world championships in New Zealand this summer.
"It is a pretty amazing feeling -- something I didn't expect," said the lively 15-year-old, who won the junior national crown, besting more than 20 other girls in the 19 and under division at the national championships. Overall, she finished second among female competitors of all ages.
"I went there more as a learning experience; I didn't expect to do that good," said Denena. "I think it helped that I was there for a week and did really well at an international competition a few days before nationals."
Denena has worked hard over the past two winters to get to where she is today. When there's snow on the hills, she can be found at Mount St. Louis with her Simple Snowboarding teammates, learning her craft under the tutelage of coaches Sam Marcotte and Elliott Carter.
She credits them with her success.
"My mom was talking to another mom when I did my first competition -- the Roxy Girls Day Out at Mount St. Louis-- and she gave her the names of the coaches and I've been with them ever since," Denena said.
With improvement and success, the ultra-competitive Denena no longer looks at snowboarding as a winter sport -- it's now a year-round passion. During the off-season, she continues to work hard honing her skills on the trampoline at Mariposa Gymnastics and at Verticals in Barrie.
"I want to do it every day," she says of her love of snowboarding. "I wish we had snow all year."
In fact, such is her love of the sport that she gave up hockey this past winter and has given up soccer this summer. She had played both at high levels for several years. And while she admits to missing both, they pale in comparison to snowboarding.
"I love the jumps for sure, but it's like being an artist, you can create your own style," she said of her approach to the sport. "It just allows you to be so free. It's an amazing feeling."
Denena sometimes has trouble straddling the fine line between the artistry and freedom and crossing into recklessness.
"She went through five helmets this year," said her mom, Chris. "But that's Samm; she'll do whatever it takes to win. She's very competitive."
That competitive fire has served her well in competitions. She won the provincial championship in the open pro division this year and struck gold at the Ontario Winter Games in the under 19 division; it was the first time the sport was contested at the event.
But those competitive juices sometimes push her past natural limits and she has suffered lots of bumps and bruises. A year ago, she tore her ACL and her meniscus in a serious knee injury.
"I wear a bionic knee brace now," she says with a smile. "It hurts sometimes, but it's OK. It won't stop me."
She said she's looking forward to competing on the world stage in New Zealand. She will be heading there on Aug. 1 ahead of the Aug. 19 event for training with three other teammates and her coaches.
"It's really a once in a lifetime chance," said Denena. "I never expected to be here this quickly; I thought it would be a slower process."
The success has fuelled her desire to reach new heights. She admits to dreaming about the Olympics. "It's something I've thought about, but who knows?" she said. "It's exciting to be where I am right now."
While exciting, it's also expensive. Her parents estimate it will cost $10,000 to $12,000. And while sponsors such as Kahuna Surf Shop, West Beach, Signal, Drop Gloves, Nibz and Dialogue Headgear have been helpful, the costs are mounting.
If anyone is interested in helping out with the costs or in sponsoring Denena, you can email email@example.com
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