MORDEN -- It took 10 hours to drive from the province's northern reaches down to these Manitoba Games, and Eve Cooper's excitement grew along the way.
Cooper is a gymnast, a Flin Flon kid. She is just 12 years old. She was the only competitor for the Norman team in her age group, and one of just a handful of gymnasts from the north that qualified to make these Games.
She trained so hard to make these Games, practising bars and vault at the school gymnasium in Flin Flon where coach Sheena Reed shares space with a basketball team and a dodgeball league.
So when Cooper tripped and jammed her finger before the Manitoba Games competition even started, that was a tough break. A nurse suggested she withdraw, but the gymnast wasn't about to sit out.
'It's a once in a lifetime chance. I didn't want to come down here and not do anything, because I've worked really, really hard for this'
So on Tuesday afternoon, she taped her finger and pushed through the pain to compete with all the other 12-year-old girls at Morden's Access Event Centre. She tried every apparatus, and after she danced and tumbled across the floor, her score came back a personal best.
So just being there, that was its own success.
"It's a once in a lifetime chance," Cooper said. "I didn't want to come down here and not do anything, because I've worked really, really hard for this. I didn't want to say, 'No, I'm not competing today.' "
Her coaches were so proud of her. It's no small thing to bring a gymnast up in northern Manitoba and get them ready for the Manitoba Games. The Thompson Tumblers recently moved into their first dedicated gymnastics space. Flin Flon is too small for that, so Reed makes do in âcole McIsaac gym.
Her program has one set of bars, one beam. So while Winnipeg gymnasts may get an hour on an apparatus every week, gymnasts in Flin Flon's program might get 10 minutes.
But guided by a volunteer coaching team -- it helps keep the program affordable -- kids in Flin Flon have embraced the sport. There's a wait list, even. And those who go through the program often come back: Reed has kept gymnastics running in the community for 27 years, and many of her assistant coaches were once just kids tumbling under her watch. All that grassroots effort is not lost on the Norman team's youngest Manitoba Games competitor this year.
"The fact that out of all the troubles we've had, that we still keep going, it's amazing," Cooper said of the program that helped her fall in love with the sport. "All of my coaches work so hard, and I'm so grateful for that. I'm so glad they keep working so hard for us. It's awesome."
-- -- --
The Winkler Arena buzzed through the first three days of the Manitoba Games as 180 boys from across the province battled to ping Hockey Manitoba's radar.
For some, the future is on the line. Not only is Hockey Manitoba using the Manitoba Games to evaluate for its 2015 Canada Games team, but a small army of scouts also turned out to Winkler this week.
That includes delegations from all 22 Western Hockey League teams, which are preparing to draft kids born in 1999, as well as the Manitoba Junior Hockey League clubs and other programs in Canada and the United States.
Manitoba's class of '99 is robust, one scout said, especially on the blueline.
"It's just a real good crop of high-end kids here," said Kyle Kosior, a Grand Forks scout who is out scouting the Games for St. Paul, Minn.-based Veritas Hockey.
"With the defencemen... there are a lot of good puck-moving kids, guys that show a maturity beyond their years. When you see them off the ice, you're reminded that they're 14, but on the ice they look pretty poised."
Still, though the big scouting presence surely raises the excitement for kids and parents, Hockey Manitoba's development director, Bernie Reichardt, hoped players wouldn't get caught up by who could be taking notes.
"You really gotta put things in perspective," Reichardt said. "Just play the game. Everything else will work itself out... if this is an avenue for them to have some success, then we're doing our job."