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Young Athletes Eye The Olympics From Sherbrooke

The timing couldn’t have been better for the 2008 Royal Canadian Legion National Youth Athletic Championships.

On the same weekend that Canada’s top junior athletes were gathering for the Legion competition in Sherbrooke, Que., Canada’s top senior athletes were joining the world’s best to gather in Beijing, China, for the 2008 Olympic Games.

And just as many of the athletes at the Aug. 7-12 Legion event were looking forward to London in 2012, many of the athletes in Beijing could no doubt look back at their own youthful trips to the Legion national track and field event.

With all this in mind, the event officially got underway Friday evening with a ceremony, held indoors due to rain, that saw the teams parade around a track before coming to a rest beneath the stands, in front of the podium.

“We are here because of the veterans, and to represent the veterans,” Dominion President Wilf Edmond told the crowd. “I do not glorify war when I speak of these people in whose memory we meet. But we will all glorify their memories in our efforts to go faster, higher and further. To you, good luck, et bonne chance.”

This was no ordinary Legion national championships because this year, for the first time, the event was opened up to allow athletes from outside the Legion system to pay their own way into the competition (Athletics Canada Teams Up With Legion Track Program, May/June).

What this meant was that in addition to the 304 athletes who qualified through the Legion meets, there were an additional 248 athletes competing who, having met the minimum stand­ard, were also competing. The majority of these athletes came from large track and field clubs like the Ottawa Lions, but they also came from smaller clubs and from Legion branches.

Hugh Conlin, Athletics Canada’s director of development programs, was at the track meet as the senior repre­sentative for the governing body of Canadian track and field. He is a big supporter of the new open format because, as he says, it makes the Legion national meet into a true national event, open to the best in Canada.

“Overall this is being done with the full blessing of the Legion and while there could be a risk that the strong provinces may dominate some of the events, it’s just one of those things that we will have to wait and see what the impact is,” said Conlin. “But while the open athletes have to pay their way here, the great thing the Legion offers is they fund opportunities for athletes who may never get those opportunities, so I think there will always be a need for that.

“This is an extremely important event in our country,” said Conlin. “The Legion has been putting this on for years but this is the first year that we have been involved in partnering with the Legion. It’s now an open youth championship as well as the national Legion championship, so it’s really a national championship for athletes 17-and-under, so we’re happy to be here and to be part of it.

“We can’t overemphasize the important role the Legion has played in promoting athletics in Canada. There’s no other service club in Canada that’s done more for the sport of track and field, and it goes right down to every Legion branch in every province. It’s amazing.”

Bright and early on Saturday morning the meet itself got underway. Over the course of the next two days, there would be many great performances and many records would fall.

In what was surely one of the most exciting events, Ontario’s Oluwasegun Makinde and Philip Hayle pushed each other to the limit in the 17-and-under 200-metre dash. While Makinde won in a new national youth record time of 21.43, the race was about as close as they come—a photo finish. Hayle finished in 21.44, tying the previous Canadian youth record.

After the race, both athletes celebrated their record-breaking run on the track in front of a wildly cheering crowd. Just after the race, Makinde explained how it all happened. “My personal best before, last week, I ran 21.48 and then I just came here, and Philip was running, and we always race each other and he’s running really fast. I knew that if he was in the race the time would be fast and it just happened to be the new record so I’m just fortunate.”

While this is not Makinde’s first Legion event, it will be his last. But you can expect to see this young man again, at the Olympics “in 2012 hopefully. If I can make that. That’s my dream,” said Makinde.

On Sunday morning, New Brunswick’s Geneviève Lalonde broke the youth record in the 3,000-metre run with a time of 9:36.77, smashing the old record of 9:37.35, to the wild cheers of the New Brunswick contingent in the crowd.

But nothing energized the crowd quite like the relay events, held late on Saturday afternoon. It seemed like everybody in the stands roared as the athletes raced in the 4×100-metre and 4×400-metre events. In the end, British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia ended up taking home gold medals.

Over on the field side of the event, records were also being smashed. Christabel Nettey broke the Canadian youth record in the 17-and-under long jump with a leap of 6.21 metres, while British Columbia’s Alyxandria Treasure won the 17-and-under high jump with a towering 1.81-metre jump, good enough to smash the Legion and national records.

Meanwhile, Ontario’s Karleigh Parker won the 17-and-under pole vault with a daring vault of 3.38 metres. Ranked first coming into the event, Parker, 16, knew she had a good chance but had never jumped that high in competition before. “I was hoping the adrenaline of just being here would get me to go that much higher,” said Parker, “and so I wasn’t expecting to go that high, maybe 3.31 but.…”

With her victory behind her, Parker, like many of the athletes, was now looking forward to some of the other events put on at the Legion meet, like dances and tours and other social events. Having been to Legion meets in the past, Parker said the entire event was nothing if not a good time.

“It’s a lot of fun. It’s a blast,” she said, before adding, with a smile, “We have a dance tonight…”

Indeed, the Legion event is about more than simply the track meet. The athletes arrive several days before the event begins in order to allow time to participate in seminars and clinics and receive coaching from Canada’s top experts.

“It’s very important to give kids information on things they need to know, to assist them in their training,” said Conlin, describing what the first few days of the event were all about. “We had a lecture on drugs and sports, on nutrition and recovery, sports psychology and goal setting, and then we had a technical analysis and evaluation of different things. All these things are important for kids to know and it will assist them in their preparation. We always want to keep this concept as part of this meet.

“These people are here because they are the best in their age class in the country. And they are the future of the sport, no question about it,” said Conlin. “A fairly large percentage of our national team started here, came through this national championship; and I would suspect at the Olympics right now that a large percentage of those people had been at the Legion event at one time or another.

“From the Athletics Canada point of view we are really pleased that the Legion for 40 years has been such a leader in providing young athletes with training opportunities and this competition itself, which has all kinds of travel and cultural offshoots benefits the athletes.”

Teams and athletes sponsored by the Legion were also awarded points with a first-place win being worth 10 points down to an eighth-place finish worth one point. In the end, the final team standings showed that Ontario Command was the strongest, with 641 points, while British Columbia/Yukon Command was second with 566 and Alberta–Northwest Territories Command was third with 420.

With the event done, there were many, many outstanding performers from which the organizers had to choose their two athletes of the year, but, in the end, there could be no doubt. For the boys, it was Gregory MacNeill of London, Ont., who placed first in no less than four events: the 110-metre hurdles, the 400-metre hurdles, and the 4×100-metre and 4×400-metre relays. For the girls, it was British Columbia’s Christabel Nettey, who placed third in the 100-metre, third in the 4×400-metre relay, set a new Legion meet record with her golden performance in the 100-metre hurdles and set a new Canadian record with her gold in the long jump.

“I’m really happy because I did have a hard season,” said Nettey, who tweaked her hamstring at a meet in April and then again in June. “I was injured, so to show that I could come back and work hard was a major accomplishment for me.”

This is Nettey’s third and final trip to the Legion nationals—and second time winning athlete of the year—and while she’s chasing bigger dreams of international racing glory at the Olympics in 2012, she says she’ll miss the Legion event for all the fun and camaraderie it had to offer.

“It’s so much fun because you get to stay with the team,” said the 17-year-old British Columbian, “but at this event it’s like everyone’s united and you get to interact with everyone.”

On Monday night, the athletes all gathered in one of the University of Sherbrooke’s cafeterias, dressed up in their finest, for the awards and closing ceremonies.

Near the beginning of the proceedings, former dominion vice-president John Alger, the chairman of the Dominion Command Sports Committee for 2006-2008, gave a short but stirring speech to the athletes.

“For the veterans, it was and remains their wish that we make this event happen. And you people are helping us to keep the promise we made so long ago,” said Alger. “We have to maintain and expand our public profile to keep this event going, so that means you all will have to tell anyone who will listen that this event is the finest of its type in the country. And tell them that we in the Legion not only prepare our young people for the future and that we truly believe in what we are doing to make our communities a better place to live in.”

This year also marked a departure of a different sort as Henderson and Carol Paris stepped down after many years of serving as head chap­erones at the event.

“Everything in life is not perfect,” said Paris. “But you have to work at it you have to make changes. And in this program we’ve seen lots of good changes over the years, like diversity and openness and inclusiveness.”

“We hope and wish that you go for your goals, set the bar high in life, and always be kind to one another,” he concluded.

Many thanks were also given to the Local Arrangements Committee, headed by Gilles Lussier, who did a fine job with a huge task. “We worked all year to get ready,” said Lussier, “and it’s just a pleasure to finally see (them) all here, competing.”

As the ceremony wound down, athletes from every province came up to the microphone and thanked the Legion. Many of the youth were funny and irreverent—the biggest laugh of the evening went to a young man from Ontario, who told the crowd to “party hard.”

Some of the athletes definitely hit a more serious note. Like Mike Jacobs, from New Brunswick, who said “we may complain and disagree about certain things, but when all is said and done, I know we are all fiercely proud to represent our provinces at this event. That being said, with the competition now over, I no longer see athletes from different provinces. I see athletes from Canada.”

Edmond was also on hand at the closing ceremony. As the night’s final speaker, he told the young athletes the story of Private Mark Graham, a sprinter who competed in the Legion national championships, went on to run for the Canadian Olympic team, and was killed in September 2006, fighting for his country in Afghanistan. The athletes, almost universally boisterous before the speech, listened intently, respectful of what Edmond was saying, and seemingly awed by the story of Graham’s sacrifice.

“It’s been a great week but now is the time to say goodbye,” Edmond concluded, perhaps on a less sombre note. “You had to live with the joys and disappointments of winning and not winning. You can’t win them all, that’s for sure. But one thing you can do is give it your best shot and I’m pretty sure everyone here tonight did that.

“My final words are to face life itself with the same sense of determination that you showed on the track and on the field; and if you do that then all of you athletes, ladies and gentlemen, will be winners.”


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