At last year’s Sport Yukon Awards Night, cross-country skiers blanketed the individual athlete awards. There was far more diversity this year.
A pair of cross-country skiers pocketed awards, but so did a paddler, a soccer team, a bowling coach and a well-know cyclist at the 39th annual event at the Yukon Convention Centre on Thursday.
“It’s a huge honour,” said Watson Lake’s Zach Bell. “I think it’s great to be recognized … The group of international athletes nominated this year was phenomenal, and the women were unbelievable.”
Bell, a two-time Olympic cyclist, was named International Male Athlete of the Year, beating out cross-country skier Knute Johnsgaard, pistol shooter John Simmons and soccer player Callum Ryan. Bell won the award three times
in a row between 2008 and 2010, and again in 2012.
“All the athletes nominated here couldn’t get to where they are without the phenomenal sport system we have here,” said Bell in his acceptance speech.
“I really appreciate the honour again. The competition is getting pretty stiff, so this might be the last time you see me up here, so remember my face.”
Bell produced three top-10 finishes in track cycling at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, this summer. In one race, he helped Canadian teammate Remi Pelletier-Roy win a bronze medal. Bell also placed 14th in the men’s time trial in road racing at the Games.
The 32-year-old is captain of Team SmartStop, a professional cycling team based out of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. SmartStop made the podium in every event they raced and finished first in the Union Cycliste Internationale’s Americas Tour rankings, which includes North and South America. The team also came third in the team standings in the U.S.’s National Racing Calendar.
Bell, who missed some of the season with a broken collarbone sustained in a crash at the start of May, finished ranked 28th in the UCI individual rankings with three podium finishes in UCI races.
It was three in a row for Whitehorse’s Emily Nishikawa. The 25-year-old cross-country skier, who competed for Canada at the Sochi Olympics, was named International Female Athlete of the Year for a third consecutive time, beating out fellow cross-country skier Dahria Beatty, swimmer Bronwyn Pasloski and wrestler Brittanee Laverdure, who won a silver at the Commonwealth Games.
“I am very honoured to win this award,” said Nishikawa in an email to the News. “I have such an amazing support network in the Yukon and I’d like to thank everyone for making this past season so memorable for me. It was really special to share my Olympic journey with the whole community.”
Nishikawa, who is on the national team, was the first Yukon cross-country skier to compete at the Olympics since 1992. She led the Canadian team in two races in Sochi, topping out with a 42nd place finish in the 15-kilometre skiathlon.
She finished the season with two gold and a silver at the Haywood Ski Nationals in March, placing second in aggregate open women.
Nishikawa is currently at a Team Canada training camp in Gallivare, Sweden, preparing for her first World Cup race this weekend in Kuusamo, Finland.
“Can’t wait to get the season started!” she added.
Brother Graham Nishikawa also received a special award on Thursday, honouring his work as a guide for visually impaired skier Brian McKeever at the Paralympics in Sochi. McKeever won three gold medals in Sochi with the help of Graham.
Whitehorse paddler Pelly Vincent-Braun made some waves this summer and earned the National/Territorial Male Athlete of the Year award.
The 15-year-old won five Canadian titles at the Whitewater Nationals, was selected for Canada’s junior national slalom team and will compete at the junior world championships in Brazil this April.
“I was pretty excited. I just got the letter in the mail two days ago and I never thought of winning an award,” said Vincent-Braun. “I’m very honoured to receive it. It’s so cool.”
Annah Hanthorn’s first season with the Yukon Ski Team was a profitable one. The 19-year-old cross-country skier won three medals at the Haywood Nationals.
Hanthorn, who moved to Whitehorse from Fort McPherson, N.W.T. before the start of last season, was also named to Canada’s junior team.
“I just want to thank my coaches and Cross Country Yukon,” said Hanthorn. “I just moved here and there’s a huge amount of support here that I’ve been given. And thank you to my teammates.”
“Last season, I felt like my highlight was a year of firsts,” she added. “The year of skiing on new trails, year of skiing on a ski team, the year of having really good coaching and going to the junior (world) trials – I had never been to them.
“There were just a lot of firsts and that was really exciting for me.”
Special Olympics Yukon’s soccer team scored gold over the summer and also scored Team of the Year on Thursday.
“It was a big effort,” said team member Gaetan Michaud. “Going down there, we didn’t know what to expect.
“Being named Team of the Year, you can’t ask for anything better.”
“Natalie (Taylor) is such a great coach,” he added. “When she came on board to coach us, I thought, ‘We’re in good hands.’ We’re just so grateful to have her.”
The Yukon team captured its very first soccer gold in a thrilling shootout win over New Brunswick at the 2014 Special Olympics Canada Summer Games in July.
Yukon twice fought back from a goal down to finish regulation tied 2-2 and extra time tied 3-3. The territory’s Kenny Atlin, Owen Munroe and Michael Sumner scored in the shootout to secure the win.
Also on the team were Rachel Dawson, Teddy Jackson, Christopher Lee, Duncan McRae, Steven McGundy and Marvin Hall.
“Lisa Vowk did our bootcamp all winter and got us ready and prepared,” said Michaud, who was also named Special Olympics Yukon’s Male Athlete of the Year. “Winning gold on a team was a dream for me because I haven’t done that. I’ve been playing soccer for quite a few years now and it really eluded me a lot. But when I came to the Yukon and I thought 2014 is the year we’ve got to do something and we did.”
The soccer team wasn’t the only ones from Special Olympics Yukon honoured at the awards night.
Special Olympics five-pin bowling coach Krista McKinnon was named Coach of the Year.
“I’m just very proud of this and I’m so very proud of my athletes,” said McKinnon. “Without them I certainly wouldn’t have won an award.”
McKinnon’s bowling team won silver for Yukon’s first-ever team medal at the national Games in July and three of her bowlers also won individual medals.
McKinnon, who lives on the far end of Marsh Lake from Whitehorse, would drive an hour each way four times a week to work with the bowling team. On Saturdays she worked with over 40 Special Olympians at the alleys in Whitehorse.
“Every Saturday I was head coach of the 42-member bowling team – of course I had help,” said McKinnon. “Of the 42 athletes, many were in other sports (such as) soccer, bocce.”
The Yukon Freestyle Ski Association’s team has had tremendous success over the last few seasons and Whitehorse’s Lynda Harlow has been a big part of that.
Harlow, who is starting her fourth season as president of the association, was named Administrator of the Year.
“I’ve been involved in hockey, figure skating, but this group of people, kids and parents, are so much fun,” said Harlow. “They will do anything. So it’s not just me, there are a lot of people who help. We’re just a big family.
“I just love it, I’m passionate about it. I should have thanked Dylan Reed because without him inviting (my son) Josh five or six years ago, I don’t know when we would have gotten involved in freestyle skiing. That was the start of things.”
Under Harlow’s leadership the association has made successful bids for government grants and has acquired top-notch training equipment.
In 2012 the association purchased a massive 15x15-metre airbag – much like those used by Hollywood stuntmen – for skiers to practice “big air” aerials.
More recently, the ski association received funding from Lotteries Yukon and the Yukon government’s Community Development Fund to construct a “dry slope” summer training ramp at Whitehorse’s Mount Sima.
“I can’t thank the government enough, and the support organizations,” said Harlow. “And other organizations around town, who maybe aren’t government but local businesses, are so supportive of sport. It actually blows my mind. This is a great place to have kids in athletics; they have a real advantage to have such a great community and such a great government.”
After winning its first medal at the Canadian Junior Freestyle Ski Championships in 2013, the Yukon Freestyle Ski Team collected six last season, including three gold.
Thursday’s gala wrapped up shortly after the induction of Bill and Diana Simpson into the Yukon Sports Hall of Fame.
The Simpsons were posthumously inducted in the “Builder” category for their many years of work with Yukon’s ElderActive Recreation Association.
“Both Diana and Bill Simpson were visionaries of ElderActive Recreation for more than a decade,” said ElderActive president Tom Parlee, at the ceremony. “Bill, in his wisdom, could see there were opportunities for senior and elders to have a better life by having a chance to play in an organized way through sport, whether it was running on the track, swimming, curling or playing cards.
“First it was through the biennial Canada Senior Games and then it translated into year-round activities here at home in the Yukon.
“Though the ElderActive Recreation Association was established before the Simpsons got involved, they quickly established key leadership roles.”
Contact Tom Patrick at email@example.com