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The North American Indigenous Games end Saturday but will leave behind a reservoir of memories for everyone touched by this event.
This 10-day festival will undoubtedly leave an indelible mark not just on the athletes who participated, but on those who helped them reach their goals.
On the field, court, pitch or pool, there’s been no shortage of athletic triumphs as competitors from 22 teams battled for medals in 14 sports.
A historic women’s lacrosse game resulted in a close victory for Ontario’s under-19 team, which beat British Columbia 8-7. The inaugural women’s match marked the first time that females have been allowed to play lacrosse in the Games’ 25-year history.
“Our team played exactly how we wanted to and we came out with the win,” said an ecstatic Taylor-Rain Tabobandung, 19, who wrote a Player’s Own Voice piece for CBC Sports.
Team NWT Deanne Whenham’s gold medal in golf was one of the Games’ more remarkable moments. Consider this: in the 17-year-old’s hometown of Yellowknife, the only golf course is all sand, and golfers hit off a piece of turf they carry around in their bags.
“It’s pretty crazy, it hasn’t even clicked yet,” Whenham told CBC Sports after her medal-winning round. “I surprised myself. I didn’t really have a good practice run. I scored a nine on the first hole, but after that everything started clicking.”
Whenham’s coach Brandon Waterhouse was impressed with his golfer’s poise.
“She played great and she stayed calm. She really pulled herself together when she had to play tough shots,” he said.
That wasn’t the only great story from the NWT delegation. The team’s first gold medal of the Games seemed improbable and captured the spirit of this competition.
Davina McLeod’s start to her first day of paddling competition wasn’t ideal. She was well in front before she missed a turn and had to go back, eventually finishing well off the podium. She was obviously devastated but still had the tandem race later in the day.
Kaiden McDonald was slated to be her partner but had been sick all day, even pulling out of his own solo race. McDonald, knowing the heartaches McLeod had experienced earlier in the day, managed to get in the boat and the two captured gold.
“Davina had a tough race this morning and I told her I was going to lay it all out there for her and it paid off,” McDonald told CBC’s Garret Hinchey. “I just kept encouraging her and when we got [to] the end it was crazy, we are actually getting a gold medal.”
For many athletes at the Games, it wasn’t about medals but simply about putting themselves in a position to compete.
Take Yukon’s Teryn Kassi. The teenager from Old Crow competed here in a variety of track and field events including the javelin. But his very remote community doesn’t have any track and field equipment. So he used what was available to him for practice. For javelin, he had a snow snake, which is used in traditional Dene winter sports.
“The snow snake [a long piece of bamboo] works pretty well, I have been throwing well. I am confident in my throw,” Kassi told CBC. “I got contacted by the coach to come out for tryouts and I just came out and tried out for everything, and I did good in javelin.”
During the Games, there have also been inspirational stories from the sidelines — stories of coaches who have truly inspired and uplifted their teams.
Days before leaving for Toronto, Saskatchewan archery coach Ivy Delorme learned her sister had died. Some of her family encouraged her to stay home and help prepare for the funeral, but Delorme decided she couldn’t let her team down.
“I know in my heart I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” Delorme told CBC’s Creeden Martell. “I’m going to enjoy the game with my athletes — the young athletes — and I’m dedicating this time to her, and I know in my heart I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Delorme said she couldn’t disappoint her eight-member team, all first-time competitors in the Games.
“I don’t want my team to forfeit because they worked so hard for this — they worked so hard for this, and I don’t want to let them down.”
Delorme wasn’t the only coach offering inspiration. Alex Nelson is the coach of B.C.’s U16 boys soccer team. The 70-year-old is a residential school survivor who told his team about how soccer was a bright light during that bleak period of his life. Nelson’s story inspired his team so much, they renamed their team “94 Calls,” referencing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action.
“The intent was to create curiosity amongst the soccer community, and sure enough it started to emerge that way,” Nelson told CBC’s Devin Heroux. “It’s served its purpose of everyone being mindful that these schools did exist and what we’re doing right now is responding to it in a powerful, healthy way.”
The move by Nelson’s team wasn’t the only nod to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at these Games. The team 88 logo and patch were prominently displayed throughout the Games. The number represents the 88th call to action made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, demanding all levels of government take action to ensure long-term Indigenous athlete development and growth, including continued support for the Indigenous Games.
“It’s been a great unifying initiative for all of the teams. It’s on their team gear in addition to their logos of their province or hometown, so I think it’s really taken off with the youth,” said Games CEO Marcia Trudeau-Bomberry. “The 88 is about recognizing the place these Games play in long-term Indigenous youth athlete development, so it’s definitely an initiative we can all rally around.”
Many of the athletes competing at these Games spoke about the pride of competing with and against their peers.
“Being involved in this, in an all-Native team, is a really cool thing. It’s a very unique experience,” said Wesley Marsden, who helped coach Team Ontario’s baseball team. “When you are in a dugout like this, among peers and they look to you as a mentor, it’s a pretty special feeling.”
For many athletes, coaches and families who came to Toronto for these Games, it’s a feeling that will last a lifetime.