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Their moment has come

Young athletes in spotlight at Manitoba Winter Games

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Teen gymnast Nicole Main will be the flag-bearer for the Winnipeg Gold team at the 2014 Manitoba Games. The opening ceremony is Sunday night.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Teen gymnast Nicole Main will be the flag-bearer for the Winnipeg Gold team at the 2014 Manitoba Games. The opening ceremony is Sunday night. Photo Store

There will be a parade of flags to open the Manitoba Games on Sunday night, banners of seven regional teams waved by athletes waiting for their moment to arrive.

Those moments are coming, as the seven days of these Manitoba Games play out in Winkler, Morden and the rural municipality of Stanley. There will be medals and there will be heartbreaks, as 1,200 young athletes get ready to compete in any of 10 different sports throughout the week. There will be spotlights. And for some, such as Winnipeg Gold flag-bearer Nicole Main, those moments begin at the opening ceremonies at Morden's Access Event Centre Sunday night.

The gymnast learned she would carry the flag for one of two city teams earlier this week.

"I was really excited when I found out," she said, beaming, as she posed for photos at the Winnipeg Gymnastics Centre where she trains. "It felt really special that they chose me out of everyone else. They could have chose anyone, out of all the sports. It's really special to me."

Main is no stranger to these pages. Four years ago, a photo of her graced the Free Press sports section, a snapshot of the then-11-year-old girl flowing through her floor routine at the Manitoba Games in Portage la Prairie. She's taken the bumps of her sport in stride since then, including a broken foot that just recently healed enough for her to train. She battled through those for love of the sport, and for a chance to compete in the Manitoba Games again.

"I can't really see myself doing any other sport," Main said. "I don't want to think about quitting, ever. I just love it too much. I get to try new things, and it's a ton of fun... I just want to go out there, and do my best. That's all I can do."

That enthusiasm will be music to organizers' ears, as the Manitoba Games get set to field a flurry of competition. Curling, hockey, figure skating and wrestling will all be in play. There's a table-tennis tournament -- more on that later -- and cross-country skiing races. Ringette will rock the ice, and badminton on the floor. There is a Special Olympics curling competition, and gymnastics of course.

The individual moments will add up, across those sports. But these days, the Manitoba Games isn't just about moments, it's about building up an entire generation.

"It's kind of the first step in our athlete development model," said Jeff Hnatiuk, the president and CEO of Sport Manitoba. "We use the Games as a means to identify athletes for potential team involvement, which tends to lead to interprovincial tournaments. It's that stepping stone."

In this, the Games have changed since their inception, which Hnatiuk would know: In 1978, he played hockey for the Selkirk junior team that represented the Interlake at the Manitoba Games in Dauphin. Back then, the Games were a little looser, for some rather fraternal: "It was mostly a chance to party with our friends," another veteran of those Games recalled, with a sheepish grin. Indeed, the Games took an eight-year hiatus after 1978, returning with a winter event in Flin Flon.

After that, the Games settled in and continued every two years since, following the Olympic rhythm. Winter, summer. Winter, summer.

Those tournaments have changed, since the early days. The competitors have gotten younger: In 1978, Hnatiuk recalled, the hockey players were in the junior B range, 18 to 20 years old. Now, competitors are all under age 18. Now, many of the events are centred around identifying the best players for provincial teams, and individual sport associations have been given leave to work the Manitoba Games events into their wider competition needs.

These changes took time. In 2002, after the Winter Games in The Pas and Opaskwayak Cree Nation, stakeholders took the Games to the table. It wasn't anything specific about that year that triggered a change, Hnatiuk said, just a sense that there was a better way to bring them into Sport Manitoba's development model.

"We talked about, OK, the Games and the sports that have been involved: What is it that they can be? What can they make the Games strive towards being?" Hnatiuk recalled.

After a couple of years of consultation, organizers came up with a fresh mandate, one that hinged on using the Manitoba Games to integrate young athletes into development streams. Instead of having communities inside a region compete to send athletes, for instance, organizers would identify the best players in the age-group across a whole region. In 2006 and 2008, Sport Manitoba started making those changes. At the 2010 Winter Games in Portage la Prairie, they made the shift official.

"One of the programs that we always try to relate, is long-term athlete development model that's Canada-wide," Hnatiuk said. "What we said as Sport Manitoba overall, is that we see the Games becoming much more of a part of developmental continuum."

In short? "I think we've evolved," he said.

Organizers already had an example of how important a more integrated Games model could be, an example that helped kick-start Manitoba's story of female hockey.

In 1990, there were just a handful of girls teams scattered throughout the province, and especially outside Winnipeg's city limits most young women had to battle onto boys teams if they wanted to shoot puck. But female hockey was about to make its debut at the Canada Games, and Olympic status was sparkling in the distance -- women's teams made their debut in Nagano in 1998 -- and provincial organizers read the tea leaves. They needed to get these girls ready to play.

So that year, Hockey Manitoba -- then called the Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association -- scouted up the most promising young teens, organized them onto regional teams, and pitted them against each other at the 1990 Manitoba Games. It was, if not the first girls hockey tournament in Manitoba, the largest of the time. "They were so excited to be playing," recalled Patrick Kirby, then the recreation director in Carman and now the Manitoba Games manager for Sport Manitoba.

"The smiles on their faces were amazing. And everyone was going and watching them. It was just amazing, to see all of them there: they were more of a regional team, and the boys were club teams. So these girls had to meet each other, and some probably knew each other just from playing against each other. It was a totally different concept, in terms of where Hockey Manitoba took their Program of Excellence."

 

Today, the names of those first Manitoba Games girls hockey players have slipped from easy recall. But the effect of the tournament persisted: After the 1990 Manitoba Games in Carman, Kirby and other Hockey Manitoba veterans said, the female game exploded. Regional minor hockey associations had been gung-ho in promoting the Manitoba Games opportunity, and that helped solidify the female game community, and a certain approach to bringing up the most talented athletes.

"It just really took off," said Kirby, who joined Hockey Manitoba as technical director shortly after those Games. "Registration for the girls just skyrocketed."

As the years passed, the lessons learned from that tournament would help shape Sport Manitoba's evolving approach to the Manitoba Games: Don't just rustle up teams to come and play. Find, and develop, the best.

Of course, not all sports are supported equal, not all sports have the same infrastructure as the rest. Hockey is a powerhouse, and most every curling club has a junior league. But things are different for table tennis: in that sport's two previous entries at the Manitoba Games, the regional teams each sent two boys and two girls to compete. But it was hard to scrounge up rural volunteers that understood table tennis, and could run regional leagues to identify potential athletes.

After the 2008 Games in Carman, table tennis withdrew. "We promoted and marketed the sport out the yingyang, but there wasn't the depth," said Manitoba Table Tennis Association director Ron Edwards, of those Games. "Table tennis is a sport that can be played anywhere. We've got tables everywhere giving kids a chance to do something. But it's really hard rurally to take it to that next level. Can a small team from rural Manitoba really compete?"

So when Sport Manitoba shifted to the development model, that changed things. That change handed the MTTA a fresh mandate to fit the competition to its needs; and with that, table tennis is now back in the Games. This time around, instead of rustling up players to compete for each region, the MTTA invited nine boys and eight girls to compete. All of them are from Winnipeg, and all will attend a pre-Games training camp and work with a coach through the MTTA.

"For us, it's really, really good," Edwards said. "We had to have the change to get involved. We're going to have the first of our Canada Winter Games trials as part of the Manitoba Games. At the same time, it gives us a chance to showcase the sport, and once people see it, it's like, 'Holy smokes!' It works."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2014 C4

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