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Athletes and coaches come to terms with 2020 Arctic Winter Games cancellation

“It’s a huge ultimatum and it just kind of crushes your soul a little bit”
Tishalyn Siosan tries to pass out of a trap from Maren Bilsky, left, and Sammy Demchuk during a junior girls basketball practice on March 5 at Vanier Catholic Secondary School in Whitehorse as part of preparations for the 2020 Arctic Winter Games. The games, scheduled for March 15 to 21 in Whitehorse, were officially cancelled March 7 on the recommendation of the Yukon’s acting chief medical officer of health. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News)

News of the cancellation of the 2020 Arctic Winter Games, which were scheduled for March 15 to 21 in Whitehorse, came as a shock to athletes and coaches.

Maren Bilsky, one of the players on the Yukon junior girls basketball team, spoke to the News during the Yukon’s senior basketball championship on March 9, two days after the cancellation was announced based on a recommendation from the Yukon’s acting chief medical officer of health.

Bilsky said she was at home making a sandwich in her living room when she realized a cancellation was looming. Her mother was involved in planning the games, so the fact there was a big weekend conference call was a bit of a tip off something was up.

“They were debating it and I was like, no — they can’t cancel Arctics. There is no way they can cancel Arctics, especially on this type of notice,” said Bilsky. “I found out there and that was devastating. It was weird because it gives you the same feelings as someone dying. First it was denial, then getting mad, then grief.”

Two days after first hearing the news, her feelings haven’t changed much.

“It’s really hard because … you prepare and you train with teammates and people you’ve always wanted to play with — because, of course, we played against each other all our lives,” said Bilsky. “It’s tough because at the same time, I want people to be safe and I know what would happen if people got sick here, especially sending kids back to remote communities where they can’t even deal with that sickness. It’s a huge ultimatum and it just kind of crushes your soul a little bit.”

She said she reached out to her coach after hearing the news to figure out how to relay the message to her teammates. She didn’t want them to read about it on social media.

“We all have this Facebook group chat to keep in touch with each other and I thought it wouldn’t be fair to them to just find out through social media because I just think that should have been executed better,” said Bilsky.

“I texted my coach individually. He sort of already knew — he knew that they were deciding on it — and then we texted our team because no one wants to get a call and burst out crying on it. … We told them and then for the rest of the day we let everyone just kind of settle.”

The Yukon’s high school girls basketball season has already been a rather strange one with the Porter Creek Rams folding early in the year, leaving the F.H. Collins Warriors — Bilsky’s team — to play the Vanier Crusaders week in and week out.

Now, Bilsky — a Grade 12 student — said she’s refocused on the ongoing championships and her final competitive basketball games of her high school career.

“My plan for Arctics was Arctics is it,” said Bilsky. “I was going to put everything I could into it. I was playing new teams — people that I’ve never played — with people I’ve never played with before, so I set that as my goal. … When that shut down, it kind of set in (for) me for real this is my Grade 12 year, I only have two games left here. What are my goals for these games? I know they’re not going to be Arctics … but how can I make the best of these ones?”

Tony Kim, a setter on the junior boys volleyball team, said he was upset with the way the cancellation was handled.

“On Saturday we had a practice and then we got our gear. Then like 20 minutes later, I got home, checked my phone, looked on social media and that was the first thing I saw — the games were cancelled,” said Kim. “Reading that, it was just really disappointing because everything felt really rushed. This decision was made really quickly and it’s just really disappointing. They’re the authority, so we’ve got to accept what they say.”

Kim added that he’d read media coverage of a March 2 press release from the host society, citing a Feb. 2 letter the society received from the chief medical officer of health at that time advising there was no reason to change plans for the event at that time.

“Four days before, I read an article saying they were talking about it and it’s not an issue and that they’re prepared for it,” said Kim. “But four days later, it changed. It’s just not clear.”

As the high school volleyball season takes place in the fall, these were to be Kim’s last competitive volleyball matches before he graduates this spring.

“It’s really sad because it’s our only chance. It’s my last competitive volleyball playing. It’s the last time I’ll ever play volleyball,” said Kim. “I might play intramurals in university, but competition-wise, it’s my last chance and it’s really cool to represent the Yukon, especially for a sport you’re passionate about. It’s really disappointing they just cancelled it.”

Bilsky’s coach, Sean McCarron, said he initially hoped news of the cancellation was a prank from his family.

“My son and I were watching Netflix and my wife came to the top of the stairs with a laptop and informed us that they had been cancelled, that the games had been cancelled, and I kind of hesitated,” said McCarron. “I looked at my daughter, waiting for her to crack a smile. Five seconds probably went by — no smile. Then I realized that it was true.”

McCarron said he’d considered cancellation as a possibility, but not a likely thing.

“I think part of me thought that it could be (cancelled) just because of what’s going on around the world, but we’re so far removed from (the outbreak) and (the games) seemed so close and around the corner,” said McCarron, whose son is a member of the juvenile boys futsal team. “Four hours earlier, I had (received) my Arctics gear and my son had (received) his gear earlier in the day. Heck, I’d already gone to a seamstress in town to have his jacket hemmed so that it would just fit him a little tighter.”

While his son will have other opportunities to compete at future Arctic Winter Games, McCarron sympathized with Grade 12 athletes like Bilsky and Kim.

“I do feel bad for the Grade 12s who are done and the culmination of their high school careers, at least, would have been the Arctic Winter Games,” said McCarron. “I know a number of the parents were looking forward to seeing their kids play on their home court, in their home gyms.”

McCarron said he’s been to previous AWGs as well as national competitions, and that the Arctics experience was something unique.

“Just the community and the excitement and having kids from different schools and different sports coming out to cheer you on and vice versa,” said McCarron. “And just living that week together — eating meals, travelling — you’re almost more excited for all that than you are for even the prospect of winning a gold ulu.”

What McCarron also pointed out, as did a number of other coaches in conversations post-cancellation, was the fact the cancellation does nothing to negate the accomplishments of the athletes to this point.

“It is very disappointing for sure. It doesn’t erase the fact that these girls improved and the process was amazing — getting to know them and push them,” said McCarron. “But you do wish that a little bit of the reward could have been realized. At the same rate, the world is kind of going through it and I totally understand. It was just a shock. It was absolutely a shock when we found out.”

Contact John Hopkins-Hill at