Dawson City is still producing gold. And sometimes it is doing so in unusual places.
Wheelchair athlete Laurie Sokolowski, who moved to Dawson from Ontario in 2007, just won her second national level gold medal in as many years.
Competing at the 2010 Para National Championships last week in Ottawa, Sokolowski took first in the team event with Ontario’s Bobby Clouthier and Barry Butler, a longtime friend who first encouraged Sokolowski to take up the sport in 2000.
“Barry has been my mentor and coach for a long, long time, so it’s a natural pairing,” said Sokolowski. “It was just going to be Barry and I, and this young guy came down and we adopted him on our team.”
In the team event, squads competed in a best-of-five system, with the winning team being the first to win three matches in the order of two singles and one doubles match, followed by two more singles if required.
Sokolowski’s team defeated three others without dropping a match, winning nine straight.
Sokolowski, the only Yukoner to compete nationally in para table tennis, also competed in open singles, finishing fourth in the seven-person field. The Dawsonite was definitely a contender for a medal, having beaten the bronze winner during the team event.
“The first game against him in the singles, I was losing 8-1 or something like that, and I ended up beating him,” said Sokolowski. “Then I think I just got excited. I lost focus and didn’t play smart for the next three. I think I looked ahead to the medal I was going to bring home to the Yukon.”
At last year’s Canadian Table Tennis Championships in Trois Riviers, Quebec, Sokolowski won gold in the open wheelchair doubles division with Butler without dropping a single set in the championships. She also won bronze in the open wheelchair singles and another bronze in the open women’s 50 plus, which includes both able-bodied and disabled participants.
Sokolowski, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1990, has competed nationally on the Ontario team and internationally on the Canadian team numerous times.
She had her best international results at the Mexico Open in 2005, winning silver in the team event, bronze in her wheelchair singles class and bronze in doubles. Her last international event was the Pan-American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2007.
While this year’s singles event was mixed, Sokolowski is optimistic a women’s field will emerge at next year’s championships.
“That’s really exciting because for a number of years we’ve been looking for women and have had much luck on that score,” said Sokolowski. “It’s started to expand and we came close to having a women’s event this year, but because of some health and other issues, some people had to drop out. You need a minimum of three women to have a division and we had two this time. But there’s five or six available now, so I’m really looking forward to the next nationals because I’m sure there’ll be a women’s event in it.”
Giving Sokolowski a boost for the nationals was support from the Dawson community that rallied around her, with people silk-screening “Dawson City” on her athletic shirts, modifying her wheelchair for performance and building her a new pillow for her chair that raises her up to table level.
“The community support was amazing,” she said.
“And I have a really thriving club here now,” she added. “We practice four times a week at the curling club. I have 16 members that come out regularly and five or six that come out occasionally, so we have more than 20 people at the Dawson Table Tennis Club.”
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