Memories, not medals were the prized take-away items for Riley Martin in his first BC Winter Games in Mission two years ago.
Originally from Oliver and now living in Kelowna, Martin, who was 22 at the time was a member of the Zone 2 silver medal wheelchair basketball team at the Mission Games, eventually going on to play for the provincial team at the 2015 Canada Winter Games.
“I went into the Games not really knowing what to expect, but honestly, it was far more positive than I could have imagined,” recalled Martin this week. “We did bring home some hardware, but we felt much closer as a team, and made a lot of new friends in both opposing teams and other sports. I used to think that just high-performance fun while achieving success in a sport was what I found attractive, but looking back, those (friends) are why it is such a positive memory for me.
“This kind of experience isn’t something that everyone gets, and it’s a great way to get a feel for higher level competition in your sport. I think that the most obvious thing a newcomer can expect is to have fun and make friends. Opportunities for both are abundant throughout the games. I have many (friends) that I still keep in touch with and cherish more than the medals we brought home.”
Martin was riding his motorcycle from Penticton to Summerland on Aug. 1, 2009 when a vehicle pulling a trailer crossed the highway in front of him, resulting in the life-changing accident. He was just 17 at the time. Afterwards, a friend he met in school who played on the Kelowna wheelchair team suggested he come out to a practice and give it a try.
“After playing once, I knew I would continue with the sport. I loved to play as part of a team like I had done before the accident that put me in the wheelchair,” said Martin. “I gradually became more competitive after my first year.”
The fun actually began on the bus trip from Kelowna to Mission, traveling with zone athletes from other events.
“The ceremonies were when it sunk in that it was really happening,” said Martin. “You could sense everyone, spectators, volunteers, parents had that feeling of excitement too. A big opening event like that made it much more special and memorable an experience.”
Along with the fun part, the competition was also tough with all the teams closely matched.
“This feeling made me not only want to experience it again, but also at a higher level. From that point on I set my eyes on the following year’s Canada Winter Games,” said Martin.
Someone else who got her start in wheelchair basketball at the BC Games level and will be coaching the Zone 4 team from Vancouver at this year’s Games in Penticton, Feb. 25-28, is Arley Cruthers.
And although she has competed and worked at the international level, including the Paralympics — and will be doing so again this year in Rio de Janeiro — the BC Winter Games will always have a special place in her heart.
Not only were the games her real first taste of competition, they have become an opportunity for the Vancouver resident to enjoy the thrill of seeing other young people share her experiences.
“It’s not often that you are looking forward to sleeping on a gym floor but the environment is just so great,” said Cruthers who competed at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece. “I remember one team that I was coaching at the last Winter Games, one of the athletes was so psyched, so enthusiastic, he had his mom shave a basketball into the back of his head and he turned to me and said, ‘this is the best day of my life.’
“Just seeing someone like that, taking the first steps and just falling in love with the sport is one of my most favourite things about the Winter Games.”
Cruthers developed a bone disease at the age of 11, eventually winding up in a wheelchair. It was also a friend who talked her into trying wheelchair basketball.
“I kept putting it off, putting off but my friend bribed me with a chocolate bar and once I realized it was a fun sport and there was a place for me, I was off to the races,” she said.
She competed in two BC Winter Games.
While not a “natural athlete” Cruthers had to learn the necessary skills, something she now loves to help others do.
“For some of these kids, this is their first competition. I think it is a great opportunity for them to prepare for just what it takes to compete at that high level, they get a taste of competition but it is really more of a fun environment,” she said. “And that is what these games are all about.
Other athletes and coaching staff with Canada Winter Games wheelchair basketball experience expected to take part in the Penticton game include: Ben Hagkull, Ben Garrett, Tanner Scott, Ben Hamilton, Joel Ewert, Avril Harris (former athlete and now Zone 8 coach) Simon Cass, Nadine Barbisan and Steph Park (former athlete and Zone 3 coach).