Local athletes off to International Children’s Games

Waterloo Region Record

A group of 13 local young athletes have travelled to Innsbruck, Austria to represent their nation and their city in a unique international sporting event.

Eight local speed skaters and five local figure skaters — along with two coaches and a head of delegation — make up the Waterloo delegation that comprises part of Team Canada at the 2016 International Children’s Games taking place in Innsbruck Jan. 12-15.

First run in Celje, Slovenia in 1968, the International Children’s Games features young athletes between the ages of 12 and 15 competing in an Olympic-style multi-sport event — complete with opening and closing ceremonies.

“The Games bring together young people from all over the world and use sport, which is basically a universal language that young people connect through, to encourage getting to know other cultures and other countries,” says Kevin De Spiegelaere, head of the Waterloo delegation.

Innsbruck 2016 will mark the seventh winter edition of the International Children’s Games, going along with 49 summer iterations, which have been held nearly annually since 1968, sometimes with two summer games occurring in the same year. The young athletes competing in Austria hail from 22 countries and will be taking part in classic winter sports like ice hockey; snowboarding; alpine, freestyle and cross-country skiing; speed skating; biathlon; and figure skating.

One of the Games’ wrinkles is that delegations from cities around the world make up the national teams that compete. The local delegation will be representing Waterloo as all 15 athletes and coaches compete with either the K-W Skating Club and the K-W Sertoma Speed Skating Club, both of which are affiliated with the City of Waterloo.

“Sometimes we have enough for two delegations and we send one from each city,” explains De Spiegelaere, who sits on the board of the Kitchener-Waterloo International Children’s Games (KWICG), an organization affiliated with both Kitchener and Waterloo that oversees the local delegations to International Children’s Games.

“We also have to look at the sports organizations that are involved, if they’re affiliated with only one of the two cities or if they’re affiliated with both.”

The figure skaters of the Waterloo delegation — Liam McKenzie, Natalie Mallett, Paige Nobbs and ice dance pair Bridge Le Donne and Jakub Smal, joined by coach Susan Ritchie — will each have the chance to skate two programs. The local speed skaters — Andrew Florio, Davis Pursel, Dylan Leidl, Jolene Horn, Kristen Adourian, Rachel Thurston, Sara Simon and William Stuart, joined by coach Doug Gibbons — will compete in 500-metre, 1,000-metre and mass-start races, as well as a unique team-sprint race very much in the spirit of the Games.

“It’s a mixed-delegation race,” says De Spiegelaere. “Based on the times the athletes achieve in the 500-metre race, (organizers) mix up the groups and try and make even teams and do a race based on that. So our athletes will be paired up with athletes from other countries. They may not even be able to speak the same language. I love that idea.”

The local athletes chosen to attend the Games took part in an application process that included an interview with the KWICG — a first for many, considering the entire team is under 16 — and according to De Spiegelaere, athletic performance was only a small piece of what they were looking for.

“We look at who’s going to be the best ambassador for Waterloo Region and who’s going to get the most of the experience,” he says. “We look for young people who have volunteered in the past and helped their community and typically who perform well at school. You look at each individual and it’s really amazing what they’ve accomplished at such a young age.”

Once the team was picked, the athletes and their parents spent 10 months running an ambitious fundraising campaign that saw them, among other things, selling pies and pepperettes, hosting barbecues and collecting bottles. The efforts of the athletes and parent combined with sponsors coming forward, including the K-W Skating Club and K-W Sertoma, made for one of the most successful fundraising efforts De Spiegelaere’s seen in his time with KWICG.

The opening ceremonies took place Jan. 12 but the Waterloo delegation arrived a few days early to take in some local sights including a gondola ride up the Alps and Innsbruck’s Alpenzoo, one of Europe’s highest-elevated zoos, located halfway up a mountain.

Both the speed skating and figure skating competitions kick off Wednesday. The other delegations making up Team Canada are from Hamilton, Kelowna and Windsor. Windsor and Hamilton are the only two Canadian cities that have hosted the International Children’s Games, with Hamilton hosting in both 1994 and 2000 and Windsor in 2013; all three were summer events.

Justin Fauteux’s column appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached at fauteux.j@gmail.com , Twitter: @JustinFauteux