By Neale McDevitt
In the end, they didn’t stand a chance against Sparkle Shark.
Sparkle Shark is the nom de guerre of Victoria Leenders-Cheng, the Faculty of Law communications officer who is participating in CBC’s Canada’s Smartest Person show. After a rousing come-from-behind win in Sunday’s episode, Leenders-Cheng qualified as one of the eight finalists vying for the title.
“[Co-worker Lysanne Larose] gave me the nickname based on a picture she took of me. It’s my LinkedIn profile photo and I am expressionless – which is how I look when I focus intensely, or am intensely bored – while the background sparkles,” said Leenders-Cheng en route to a radio interview with Sue Smith from CBC Radio’s Homerun to talk about Sunday’s big win.
Viewers saw Leenders-Cheng in full Sparkle Shark mode on Sunday, particularly in the decisive event, called the Gauntlet – an obstacle course for the brain and body that tests everything from a person’s logical, linguistic and musical intelligence to their balance and fine motor skills.
Leenders-Cheng immediately fell behind in the first obstacle, called Shapely, in which competitors have to arrange various shapes to complete a puzzle. Her biggest challenge wasn’t intellectual as much as it was physical – she wasn’t tall enough to properly see the slot in which she was trying to squeeze the last two remaining pieces. “Since it was a visual challenge, you needed good sightlines, and I was barely able to see at all,” she said. “You can see it on TV, my chin is barely over the top.”
Fortunately, an unexpected break in the action (not shown in the episode) gave Leenders-Cheng a chance to ask for a stool to stand on. Sightlines improved, she finished the challenge and, despite being two obstacles down, calmly strode to the next station, not a hint of panic in her face. “My friends in the audience said ‘As soon as we saw your game face, we knew you had this,’ said Leenders-Cheng. And had it, she did.
Roaring back, she caught up to and passed the episode’s other finalist, Mary Rose, a 39-year-old ayurvedic cleaner from Victoria, to win in a cakewalk. “I wasn’t angry after that first challenge, but I knew it didn’t represent my real ability, it was a technical issue,” said Leenders-Cheng, an ex-competitive gymnast who is used to the pressures of competition. “I just went into that place of intense focus and I knew I was going to do well the rest of the way.”
“Go Sparkle Shark,” cheered the show’s host, Jessi Cruickshank.
Surprisingly, coming from behind to win The Gauntlet wasn’t the most daunting challenge faced by Leenders-Cheng. That dubious honour belonged to the event called Step Squad, in which competitors had to learn a dance routine in a matter of moments and perform it as flawlessly as possible.
With Leenders-Cheng’s background in gymnastics and as a varsity cheerleader at Western, one would think this event was tailor made for her. Think again. “That was the worst,” she said laughing. “I was a real power gymnast – strong on the bars, strong tumbler, horrible dancer. Same deal for cheerleading. Yes, get me flying through the air and I’m in my element, but don’t ask me to follow a dance routine.
“Suddenly I had to follow choreography in front of a live studio audience, all the while knowing it was going to be broadcast across the country,” she said. “That was a severe case of anxiety.”
But Leenders-Cheng sucked it up and held her own in the choreographed section of the dance competition. When each contestant was then instructed to free form a dance solo as part of the routine, however, Leenders-Cheng, wowed the audience with a shoulder stand that would have made any hip-hop dancer proud. “I knew by the crowd’s reaction that I nailed it,” she says. “I was able to bring my strengths to offset my weaknesses.”
Sunday’s win puts the mother of two into the finals with seven other contestants. That episode was filmed in August (and Leenders-Cheng isn’t about to give the results) but television audiences will have to wait until Nov. 23 to see if, in fact, she will be crowned Canada’s Smartest Person.
It is a title that, win or lose, Leenders-Chen knows “must be taken with a large grain of salt,” and one that, in the grand scheme of things is more for fun and entertainment than anything.
“When I was in the CBC building waiting to do an interview [with Sue Smith from Homerun], I was feeling pretty good about myself,” she said. “Until I heard the interview right before mine – with Quebec’s director of public health, on how ready the province is for Ebola – and realized that there are more pressing matters to talk about besides whether I am Canada’s Smartest Person.”
To read a profile on Leenders-Cheng, go here.
To watch Leenders-Cheng qualify for the finals of Canada’s Smartest Person, go here.
The finals of Canada’s Smartest Person will be broadcast on Nov. 23. You can visit the show’s website here.