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Young Athletes Step Up To The Challenge

It’s a pretty sight in the crisp early morning—teens exuding health, purpose and occasionally, nerves—practising for the early morning competitions at Canada Games Stadium at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown, site of the 2012 Legion Canadian Youth Track and Field Championships. They make it look easy as they warm up.

2012 Legion Canadian Youth Track and Field Championships

It’s a pretty sight in the crisp early morning—teens exuding health, purpose and occasionally, nerves—practising for the early morning competitions at Canada Games Stadium at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown, site of the 2012 Legion Canadian Youth Track and Field Championships. They make it look easy as they warm up.

Later in the day, under a torrid sun, the gritty reality of competition is more apparent. Runners cross the finish line spent, gulping for air and drenched with sweat. Some collapse and are helped to the side to clear the way for those behind; others cross the line sobbing from the physical effort. It’s no picnic for field athletes, either: as the meet lengthens, they compete sporting bandages and are seen walking around with ice bags taped to joints. By the third day of competition, it’s no rare sight to see athletes limping or being helped along to have injuries tended.

The 820 athletes from across the country competing Aug. 16-20 are under no illusions about the hard work and physical toll; it is a price champions are willing to pay. And it resulted in the smashing of two Canadian Youth and 21 Legion records, 15 in individual and six in team competitions.

“I train really hard,” says medallist Miriam Abdul-Rashid, who won the Leroy Washburn Award for top female Legion athlete. The 14-year-old phenomenon from Oshawa, Ont., won gold in all six events she entered, including the under-16 100-, 200- and 300-metre sprint events and three team events, the 4×100-metre relay, medley relay and 4×400-metre under-18 relay. “I go to every practice and I work hard.”

Interviewed after her 300-metre win, she said her strategy was “to go out hard and finish hard. There was not a chance to relax through the whole race. It was tough.”

Davis Edward, 15, of London, Ont., credits his breaking a Legion record to “hard work and incredible coaching.” On Friday he beat the Legion record in boys under-16 100-metre hurdles. However, judges ruled that the wind was high enough to give him an assist—robbing him of setting a new record. But Saturday he knocked nearly a second off the 2008 Legion record of 25.11 seconds in the 200-metre hurdles, coming in at 24.27 seconds, ahead of Jake Hanna, 15, of South Surrey, B.C., with his record-breaking 24.40. Edward, winner of the Jack Stenhouse Award for the top Legion male athlete, left with his eyes firmly set on the future. “It’s my goal to come in with a national record.”

Royal Canadian Legion Dominion President Gordon Moore told athletes at the opening ceremonies on Friday, “Whether you are in the hunt for a medal, a national championship or a personal best, I hope you achieve all of it. Veterans want you to excel in physical fitness because they believe a fit body makes for a fit mind.” That’s why the Legion sponsored youth and coach clinics in the 1950s, he said, has funded the championships since 1977 and is proud that with Athletics Canada’s sanction, in 2008 the Legion Nationals became the official Canadian championships for youth aged 12 through 17, attracting open athletes from across the country.

The 2012 championships, held during the 70th anniversary of the Dieppe raid, offered athletes, parents, chaperones and officials several opportunities to commemorate those who gave their lives in the service of Canada. The raid was discussed at the opening and closing ceremonies. Activities at the stadium stopped while athletes, parents, chaperones and officials observed two minutes of silence on the anniversary Aug. 19, when in 1942 more than 5,000 men, mostly from the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, attacked Dieppe. There were more than 3,350 casualties, including 913 who died and approximately 1,950 taken prisoners of war. Lessons learned from this disaster helped pave the way for the successful invasion less than two years later that began the liberation of Europe. Legion athletes attended a Dieppe memorial service at the beach near Cavendish, Aug. 20.

P.E.I. Lieutenant-Governor H. Frank Lewis officially opened the event after the first day’s competition Friday, promising to “save my program (to look) for your names among the athletes in Rio de Janeiro” at the 2016 Olympic Games.

The Olympics are definitely in the sights of field triple threat Chanell Botsis, 14, of Coquitlam, B.C., beginning with the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in China. She won bronze in girls under-16 one-kilogram discus, silver in 500-gram javelin and gold with a mighty 50.70-metre hammer throw, breaking the Legion record of 45.94, set in 2011, by nearly five metres.

Other Legion record breakers in field events included Alexzandra Smith-Vandyke in girls under-16 pole vault, Victoria Smith in girls under-18 javelin, Joseph Maxwell, boys under-16 four-kilogram shot put and Drew Erskine, boys under-16 four-kilogram hammer. “When I heard my coach say ‘That’s it, Vic,’ I knew it would be a record,” says Victoria Smith, 17, of Windsor, Ont., who threw 49.77 metres in girls under-18 500-gram javelin, breaking the Legion record of 45.89 set in 2005. Her brother Fletcher was also on the podium, winning bronze in the boys under-16 600-gram javelin throw in his first year at Legion Nationals. “I was happy to be in the top 10, but bronze…it’s just a great feeling.”

All three medallists in the girls under-18 three-kilogram shot put broke the Canadian youth record of 14.75 metres. Gold medallist Agnes Esser of Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island finished first at 15.09 metres; silver medallist Obeng Marfo of Etobicoke, Ont., threw 14.78; and bronze medallist Taylor Stutley of Lower Sackville, N.S., threw 14.77.

Setting a new Canadian youth record in track was Nicole Setterington of London, Ont. with a finish of 13.38 seconds in girls under-18 100-metre hurdles.

As well, all three medallists in the girls under-16 200-metre hurdles beat the Legion record of 27.88 seconds set in 2010. Nicole Skimming of Bolton, Ont., ran 27.83 seconds, Stephanie Cho of Vancouver ran 27.51 and Lexi Aitken of Clinton, Ont., won gold with a run of 27.30. “It feels really good to win today,” said Aitken, who says her goal is “to go as high as you can accomplish…there are more national and international meets.”

Other individual track athletes breaking Legion records included Kailee Sawyer in girls under-16 1,200-metre run, Davis Edward in boys under-16 200-metre hurdles, Jake Hanna in boys under-16 300-metre run, Kieran Johnston in boys under-18 300-metre hurdles, Tobias Wolter in boys under-16 1,500-metre steeplechase, Sophie Pauls in girls under-16 pentathlon and Zack Lakeit in boys under-16 pentathlon.

But athletes don’t have to break records—or even finish first—to come away with a feeling of accomplishment. “There is no such thing as failure, there is only learning,” retired major Dee Brasseur, one of Canada’s first female jet fighter pilots, said at the closing banquet. “If you learn from your efforts when you fall short, you are actually a winner. You are only a loser if you fail to get the lesson.”

Some competitors had already learned that lesson. High jumper Mikella Lefebvre-Oatis of Montreal, who had jumped 1.73 metres just a couple of weeks before, promised herself “when I come to the Legions I’m going to jump 1.75.” And she did, for gold; but a record breaking 1.77 was beyond her reach. “I made my goal,” she said, and now has a new one.

Eli Pawliw, who placed first in boys under-18 five-kilogram shot put with a throw of 16.99 metres, didn’t make Team Ontario last year. The next season “I put in a lot of hard work and fortunately it paid off for me. I felt good throughout the entire competition. I was able to come out and give six of my best throws.”

And for the hundreds of young athletes who did not make it to the podium, Brasseur had encouraging words. “You don’t jump from beginner to gold medal. It’s every step that you take along the way, every day, towards that final goal.”

Mike Tate of Heatherton, N.S., describes how he learned from losing. “Even if you have a bad season, just work that much harder to make the next season better.” After 11th- and 12th-place finishes in 2011, “I worked hard over the winter and it paid off here.” He won gold in the under-18 1,500-metre and 3,000-metre races in his fourth and final year at Legion Nationals. His next goal is making the Nova Scotia team for the Canada Games.

Jamie Phelan of the Laurel Creek Track Club in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., set the Legion record in girls under-16 2,000-metre race in 2010 and made bronze in the 3,000-metre in 2011. Her strategy for the girls under-18 3,000-metre race this year paid off in gold. She intends to keep on running for as long as she can, but also realizes at some point her competitive career will end.  “My outlook is to keep running, have fun, enjoy it. It’s not the end of the world. It’s a race and afterwards, life goes on.”

Jared Connaughton, P.E.I. Olympian and graduate of the Legion Nationals program, was on hand several times during the weekend, setting a larger than life example of grace under pressure. Fresh from the Summer Olympics in London, where he stepped on a line causing the Canadian relay team to be disqualified after placing third, he told athletes “you can do two things—you can run from this, or own up to it and say ‘sports happens like this sometimes.’ You can be ashamed of it or you can be proud you gave everything you could possibly give. In the end I don’t have a bronze medal…but I have my pride.”

Many speakers made the point that such large events don’t happen without the efforts of hundreds of people behind the scenes: volunteers, represented at the opening ceremonies and throughout the week by Local Arrangements Committee Chairman Cletis Dunn; chaperones, represented by head chaperones Helen and John Ladouceur; and dozens of officials and organizers, represented at the opening ceremonies by Rob Guy, chief executive officer of Athletics Canada.

The 2013 Legion Nationals will be held in Langley, B.C., sponsored by B.C./Yukon Command and ladies auxiliaries.


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