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Game on in Morden-Winkler area

Young athletes come flooding in to strut stuff

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WINKLER -- Volunteers stood ready as the buses rolled into Winkler on Sunday, while the Day 1 buzz swelled up through the 2014 Power Smart Manitoba Games.

It was a real buzz, an audible one, built from a steady hum of grown-up voices interwoven with gleeful crowds of the young. In the Winkler Arena and Co-op Arena in Morden just down the road, the buzz grew into a friendly din as dozens turned out to catch the opening tilts of the boys hockey tournament. At Garden Valley Collegiate on Winkler's main drag, the buzz surged as blue-shirted volunteers rushed to greet some of the hundreds of girls arriving to compete this week.

Over in the airy commons of Winkler's sparkling new $32-million Northlands Parkway Collegiate, which is serving this week as cafeteria and boys' athletes' village, this busy buzz formed the soundtrack as Brandon gymnast Nicole Russel and her teammates checked out the games room, the ad hoc movie theatre, the dinner spread of roast beef and potatoes. She was pumped up too, hours before she carried the Westman team's flag into the opening ceremonies at Morden's Access Event Centre.

"It means a lot," said Russel, 13, of being chosen as the team's flag-bearer. She will stay the week here, competing in badminton in the second phase of the Games. And though she admitted being nervous for the gymnastics competition, which kicks off on Tuesday, the buzz of the athletes' village and the company of her teammates were helping buoy her spirits. "It's really, really fun. I'm super excited."

And there is a lot more excitement in store, as the Games rev up to speed. While the hockey tournament is already underway, the rest of the first phase of competition begins today with the first round-robin games in curling and ringette. Meanwhile, the cross-country classic ski race is set to begin at 10 a.m., and the winners will take home the first medals of the week.

So let the Games begin. The communities of Morden, Winkler and the RM of Stanley have been waiting three years for this, ever since they made their bid. It's the biggest sporting event the area has ever hosted. Usually, these are quiet towns, prairie field and farmland cities, built on familiar bulwarks of faith and hockey. In this, Morden and Winkler are far more similar than different, really, which generally makes for a ferocious athletic rivalry.

This time, they're on the same side, with the competitions split between the towns.

"This is one sporting event where we decided we wanted to do it together," said Games manager Jordan Driedger, with a grin. He grew up a Winkler kid. "It's been awesome. It's so much better that we could combine it than if we tried to do it on our own. We have one ice surface there, they have two in Morden... We wouldn't have been able to do it without combining."

It's a big thing, after all, to organize a competition of this size, with 1,100 athletes -- plus their coaches, organizers and chaperones -- from seven regional teams flooding in to compete in 10 sports throughout the week. To put it all together, the host crew needed 32 different committees, trying to lock down everything from medal ceremonies to transportation. The community turned out to support: The host committee set a goal for 800 volunteers; they got over 1,000.

Still, there's that old wisdom about what happens to the best-laid plans, so naturally Sunday threw a few curveballs organizers' way: a transportation change sent volunteer community ambassadors racing to accommodate every group of incoming athletes, for instance. At Garden Valley Collegiate, a fire alarm sent girls and coaches scuttling out into the cold. But the fire department arrived quickly, and gave the all-clear. Other than that, it was Games on.

"There was excitement yesterday, with a little bit of fear," Driedger said. "Today... we're just excited'

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 3, 2014 C5

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