W e were sitting around in a classroom in Elm Creek School during a snowstorm, myself and photographer David Lipnowski, with five young men and teacher Tim Brock from Duke of Marlborough School in Churchill, and I'm thinking, they're so laid-back -- do they understand just how extraordinary they are?
They were in Elm Creek to contest the provincial championship in A-level boys' volleyball, the level for the tiniest of schools, and were just chilling prior to the opening match.
It's a scene I'd seen many times; kids in a school tournament assigned a classroom as a hangout, sipping on Powerade, chowing down on bagels and fruit, but I'd never seen it before as a reporter.
The boys' team, the Storm, had flown to Winnipeg the day before at $1,300 each round trip and were chatting about how neat it was to stay in the Greenwood Inn and to scarf all-you-can-eat wings from Garbonzo's. Brock, who doesn't even need a vehicle in Churchill, was driving everyone in a Frontier School Division van.
There were only five boys there. One boy hadn't made the trip south -- we didn't press anyone for an explanation -- and two boys were in Winnipeg already for career course. When someone came in to tell Brock there was a call from Winnipeg in the office for him, the tension ratcheted up exponentially -- was it the two boys, was it the storm, would the Storm have the minimum six players to avoid a forfeit?
Fortunately, they rolled in on time.
The story was not about the provincials, however, it was about the journey the boys had made to win their zone regional playoffs in the north -- six days of travel, 1,866 kilometres by train and bus, sleeping on classroom floors, to play two days of matches.
These were kids who'd barely played a competitive match all year until those playoffs, who practised several times a week. Every juxtaposition I tried seemed ludicrously inadequate.
City kids who play volleyball, especially at the AAAA level, have a heavy varsity schedule and can play tournaments nearly every weekend, not to overlook five months of club competition with heavy practice and tournament schedules and top-end coaching.
I recall the whining, much of it my own, over driving to Killarney or Lorette, or even from Grant Park to Sisler in rush-hour traffic. I recall, to my shame, sulking over how far it is from Kildonan East Collegiate or Shaftesbury High School to the nearest fast-food joint. Oh, the humanity!
These kids had toted sleeping bags and pillows for classroom floors. They'd loaded up on groceries and snacks for the long haul, lucky to find a school canteen, staying in no hotels and rarely going to restaurants, using school showers with poor water pressure and a decided lack of hot water, killing two days in Gillam to await their train home.
They did it all just to play a high school sport and wear the uniform, an extracurricular activity most of the tens of thousands of high schoolers across Manitoba take for granted.
That other northern student athletes sleep on classroom floors, with difficult but less travel, doesn't change just how remarkable these kids were, and how heartening it was to see they'd hung in there against three teams and beaten a fourth, reaching the provincial quarter-finals.
And it was so reassuring to think they'd have a hotel bed that night and a direct flight home.