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'Tobans gung-ho for games

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Tammy MAHON has been on Canada's national women's volleyball team for 10 years but she's about to compete in the Pan American Games for the first time.

Mahon, a native of Holland, Man., is part of a 300-member contingent of Canadian athletes which will be competing in the 2011 Pan American Games which open today and run through Oct. 30 in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The Pan Am Games, held every four years in the year before the Summer Olympics, are the second largest multi-sport event behind the Olympics. The 2011 event will include about 6,000 athletes from 42 countries competing in 46 sports.

"For me and all of us on the team, it will be our first (Pan Am Games) because we (women's volleyball) didn't go in 2003 and 2007 so it's pretty exciting," said Mahon, a left-side player who is a graduate of the University of Manitoba Bisons.

"It's always powerful when a large group of athletes, no matter what sport you play, gets together. It creates a lot of energy and excitement about sport in general. For us, it's so great that we have it this year and have in now in October. If we didn't have this, we would have nothing until the (Olympic) qualifier in January.

"Having the chance to go to a multi-sport event is just a whole different experience To meet athletes from other sports, to stay at an athletes village and have so much going on around you, this is an experience we all feel so fortunate to have."

The last time a Canadian women's team competed in the Pan Am Games was in 1999 when it was held in Winnipeg and the Canadians placed fifth.

Jennifer Saunders of Thompson, Canada's No. 1 ranked women's racquetball player who is ranked No. 7 in the world, said the Pan Am Games is as big as it gets in her sport since racquetball is not an Olympic sport.

"It's a big deal for us in racquetball to be able to go to a Games with an opening ceremony, athletes village, teammates from other sports, uniforms from HBC," said Saunders, who also competed in the 2003 Pan Am Games in Santa Domingo, Dominican Republic, but not 2007 as racquetball wasn't included.

Saunders is having one of the best years of her career, winning her third straight Canadian singles title and fifth overall, as well as her seventh doubles title with partner Josée Grand'Maître.

She hopes to use that momentum to have a great run at the Pan Am Games where there will be a total of 33 players.

"Nothing short of a medal will be acceptable," said Saunders, who chose to compete in the women's singles event after qualifying in both singles and doubles. "In the international tournaments, it's a best-of-three format (in matches), instead of best-of-five on the pro tour, so the best-of-three format, I think, is better for chances of upsets. I'll have to beat someone ranked ahead of me in the quarterfinals."

The top three women's players in the world, No. 1 Rhonda Rajsich (USA), No. 2 Paola Longoria (Mexico), No. 3. Samantha Salas (Mexico) will be there as well as No. 5 Cheryl Gudinas (USA) who narrowly beat Saunders in the 2002 Racquetball World Championships gold-medal match.

"This is a definitely a really big opportunity in my career, especially since I don't know how many more I'm going to be able to play in," said Saunders, 34.

Also joining Team Canada from Manitoba is diver Kevin Geyson who is attending his first Pan Am Games, though he's still on the road to an amazing recovery from a devastating accident in the summer.

Geyson was hit by a vehicle in Shanghai, China on July 23 while he there to compete at the FINA World Aquatic championships. He suffered a concussion and needed surgery to repair his knee.

Water-skier Kole Magnowski of Russell, who works and trains in Victoria, is heading to the Games after one of his best ever competitive seasons. Magnowski is the reigning Canadian champion in the men's jump event and ranked No. 9 in the world.

Ashley Lanz of Winnipeg, a player with Smitty's, is one of just four pitchers with Canada's women's softball team.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 14, 2011 C4

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