Sporting memories not all about medals
Toronto Star writers covered the Pan Am Games from start to finish. Here are some of their favourite memories from the 17-day journey: PAUL HUNTER
Archery, July 14, Varsity Stadium You have admire any athlete who takes a strong stand and then doesn’t back down from his convictions. Take Jay Lyon. In a sport few pay attention to — unless it involves Jennifer Lawrence portraying Katniss Everdeen — the soft-spoken Winnipegger stepped right into the middle of an old-fashioned archery row.
Long story short: Archery Canada tried to replace an older female competitor with a younger one after the older one had apparently qualified for the Pan Ams. It appeared to be a marketing decision as much as anything, but the governing body denied there was any ageism or discrimination involved.
That’s where Lyon got involved. He called out Archery Canada on Facebook, saying the decision was “bull----” and “political hogwash.” It was akin to publicly calling your boss a corrupt idiot — perhaps not the best career move. Lyon immediately had a target on his back and Archery Canada was set to empty its quiver. It wanted to get rid of him, too.
Lyon eventually apologized, but without backing down. He admitted he hadn’t chosen the best forum or words to make his point, but he still believed what he said.
“I still stand by my original conviction, but I probably could have been a little more respectful in how I presented it,” he said.
So with that backstory to his arrival, the distraction of a feud played out in the media, Lyon had a mediocre first day at Varsity Stadium, finishing 15th. But he shook off the heat, both on and off the Varsity field, and climbed all the way up the ranks to win an individual bronze medal.
It was the only medal Archery Canada took away from the Pan Ams. And it was earned by the guy it had threatened to toss from the team.
Sometimes a bronze can be golden. ALEX BALLINGALL Men’s baseball, July 17, Ajax My friend, the bearded wonder, whose jet-black mane of facial hair (courtesy of Just For Men) sparked a cheeky news story and waves of chants at Pan Am baseball, leapt the fence and landed amongst adoring fans.
I’d never seen him like this before. The Tim Smith I knew was a supremely relaxed video gamer who spent a few weeks living on my couch. He’d lift weights several hours a day, then challenge me to epic bouts of NBA 2K15 on the PlayStation he brought and plugged into the TV.
But here he was in his Team Canada attire, shortly after their first game against the U.S. People swarmed him for autographs and selfies, and not just little kids but adults, too, including a guy so drunk his eyes were rolling back into his head.
I watched from the cluster of Smith’s childhood friends and their parents. They were lit up with pride, and so was Tim. The Games were a platform for him to share his talent and passion with the people he loves.
Oh yeah, and then he won a gold medal. A bit of the magic of that moment, I think, will stick with all of us for a long time. CURTIS RUSH
Women’s badminton, July 16, Markham High-level badminton is played by athletes with lightning-quick reflexes. It’s a crowd-pleaser when rallies look about to end, then are extended at the last second when a player dives for the shuttle, just getting there in the nick of time.
Canadian Michelle Li won the gold medal easily over teammate Rachel Honderich, a rising star on the circuit. Her time will come. These women, partners in doubles, were very classy and poised with the media, fending off suggestions that playing against each other was an uncomfortable situation. They didn’t change any of their pre-match routines. They roomed together and even ate breakfast together on the morning of the final.
When pressed, Honderich told me that she jokingly told Li she was going to cut her racquet strings and rustle her awake in the middle of the night to get her off her game.
It’s great when two great athletes can also have fun with the moment while collecting gold and silver Pan Am medals. KEVIN McGRAN Swimming, July 14, Pan Am Aquatic Centre The first day of swimming made me smile.
First, being a lifelong and proud Scarberian and knowing how the rest of the city never lets Scarborough have nice things, I had to say how impressed I was with the aquatic centre on Morningside near Military Trail.
A damned fine facility — to be co-managed by the city and the University of Toronto — that should be a beacon for national-level swimmers and divers to train, so that in the coming years we’ll see “Scarborough” listed in the bios of future Olympic swimmers.
Now, if it was only easier to get to. (I know, a subway. No, the LRT. No, a subway. Oh, never mind.) More impressive: the crowds and the way they cheered on the Canadian swimmers.
It was a magical first night: three gold, two silver and one bronze for the Canadians. The athletes talked about how the cheering got them to dig deeper late in races, spurring them to victory. Chantal Van Landeghem won the first swimming event — the 100-metre freestyle — upsetting Natalie Coughlin, the American favourite.
“I just want to thank the crowd,” she said moments after winning that first gold. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them. Their energy was amazing.”
The place was packed every night. The low-ceiling venue made the cheers echo louder.
It was a symbiotic relationship: The more the Canadians won, the louder the crowd got. The louder the crowd got, the more the Canadians won. It was home-pool advantage. DOUG SMITH Women’s basketball, July 20, Mattamy Athletic Centre Kids in replica jerseys bearing the name of their favourite player on the back, scalpers prowling the streets outside hawking tickets to a sold-out event, a packed arena in full throat.
Three things I’d never imagined seeing at a women’s basketball game in Canada.
I’m pretty sure these will be remembered as The Games Of Our Women. From cyclists to baseball players, rowers and kayakers and equestrians to runners and gymnasts and swimmers and everywhere in between, Canada’s females shone like never before.
But the one enduring image to me was the women’s basketball final, an 81-73 victory over the United States for Canada’s first Pan Am basketball gold medal ever, a moment of unbridled passion and patriotism for the women.
To watch them belt out O Canada with gold medals around their necks was goose-bump inducing and I can just imagine how many of the young girls in the crowd will be inspired by that moment.
This version of Canada’s women’s team has already enjoyed a measure of success: top eight at the 2012 London Games, fifth place at the world championship last year and now a Pan Am gold medal. To have done it at home, in a sold-out arena and with people clamouring to know more about them, was special.
Canada’s female athletes here did themselves, their country and their sports proud. It will be the story of the Games. To see the basketball team reach the pinnacle was a special moment. BRENDAN KENNEDY
Men’s baseball, July 19, Ajax “The way it ended, I’m still kind of confused.” That was Pete Orr, just minutes after scoring the gold-medal-winning run in Canada’s extrainnings walk-off over the U.S. in the men’s baseball final. He wasn’t the only one. The game’s final moments were so calamitous and bizarre, pinning down the memory of exactly what happened is tough, even just a few days later. First of all, we were in international baseball’s tiebreak twilight zone — where each team starts the 10th inning with a pair of free baserunners — so things felt wonky from the start and they continued to unspool.
I remember only flashes: seeing the ball, after U.S. pitcher David Huff’s errant pickoff attempt, skittering up the wall towards right field and thinking to myself, “This could be trouble”; Orr scrambling to his feet and recklessly rounding second; U.S. first baseman Casey Kotchman airmailing his throw to third while U.S. officials in the pressbox screamed, helplessly: “No, no, no, no, no!”
Then there was Orr’s wild-eyed celebration at home plate and the subsequent pile-on, before the Canadian players ran to a spot in the infield and pawed at the ground where Stubby Clapp had buried a loonie a week earlier.
It was weird and wild and unforgettable. MARK ZWOLINSKI Water skiing/wakeboarding, July 22, Ontario Place We met Jaret Llewellyn on the entry dock for skiers during the competition for overall medals in water skiing. In a sport dominated by teens and 20-somethings from Canada, the U.S. and several Latin American countries, up comes the 44-year-old Llewellyn.
Right out of the box, the Canadian icon of the sport is friendly, kind and self-effacing. This guy is also the epitome of cool and all those tanned, shiny young skiers will tell you that without fail.
So why is this our coolest moment of the Games? It wasn’t so much that he won two medals, and was edged out for a third. It wasn’t just his quick smile and genuine interest in questions from a very novice water ski reporter.
It was his manner and how he quickly critiqued his effort, even after winning silver in jumping.
We’ve been in this reporting game for 32 years and we’ve met every superstar athlete there is to meet. Rarely does one break down their work so seriously after such a tremendous performance.
Llewellyn went on to tell us about his 19-year-old son Dorien, whom he hopes will overcome a serious knee injury and make the Canadian team this November for the world championships in Mexico. That way, father and son can compete on the same team for the first time.
What we took away was inspirational: This guy doesn’t tire and doesn’t make excuses, even though he doesn’t always win. What he does is show up, and that’s as cool as it gets. LAURA ARMSTRONG
Women’s soccer, July 24, Hamilton It was a hard summer for Jessie Fleming. Coming off a quarter-final loss at the Women’s World Cup — which the senior national team had hoped to win on home soil — she entered the Pan Am Games with a younger side. She lost out on hardware again, this time in the bronzemedal match. Dejected, she shuffled out after the game, a bottle of Coke in one hand and water in the other, admitting off the bat she was mentally shot after two trying tournaments.
Still, she managed a quick quip with a genuine smile when asked about her physical state: “Obviously I’m tired, but I guess I could play another game in a couple days.”
In that moment, I realized Fleming isn’t the same girl I met three months ago at the World Cup roster reveal. There were traces of it throughout the tournament: her quiet confidence growing into real leadership, her five-foot-four frame seemingly taller. She isn’t the shy, 17-year-old wunderkind who could become the next Christine Sinclair. She’s integral to Canada’s young core, which really had its coming-out party at these Pan Am Games.
That was epitomized when while called on to speak in front of a gaggle of reporters and still dealing with the disappointment, she was honest, open and even charming. It was a classy, mature move and offers a glimmer of hope for these up-andcomers, who could carry the weight of a nation as the sport grows in popularity off the field as well as on. KERRY GILLESPIE Modern pentathlon, July 18, several venues I covered dozens of spectacular Canadian medal-winning moments, including plenty of golden ones at the Pan Am Games, but the moment that stands out for me wasn’t a win at all.
It was Melanie McCann approaching reporters minutes after her event, her eyes red from crying. She was crushed. She had to be.
McCann was Canada’s highestranked modern pentathlete and went from third place to fifth in the final event of an eight-hour competition day. With that, she lost her surest chance to qualify for the Rio Olympics.
Only about 300 people in Canada, from kids to elites, even compete in the fencing, swimming, show jumping, running and shooting extravaganza that is modern pentathlon — and half that many were in the stands cheering for McCann.
Yet, on the day when it mattered most, the 25-year-old from Mount Carmel, Ont., wasn’t able to deliver her best. Another Canadian, Donna Vakalis, went from 11th to fourth in the final run-shoot event to earn the Rio berth.
McCann, looking a bit in shock, spoke afterwards. Her face quivered as she held back tears, but she held her head high and explained that while qualifying for Rio through world rankings is a more difficult route, she’d do it.
“It’s not the end of my story,” she said. “I’ll make it to Rio, one way or the other.”
Seeing the ferocity in her eyes, I couldn’t help but believe her.