Athletes from the far north make the long trek to Tony Cote First Nation Summer Games
Fon du Lac teens began the journey with a ride on a barge
Elissa Isadore couldn't stop smiling after winning a medal in athletics at the Tony Cote First Nations Summer Games.
Isadore, 14, is one of thousands of young athletes from across Saskatchewan competing in events being held in Saskatoon and Whitecap Dakota First Nations this week.
However, her journey to the Games was like a marathon on its own.
Isadore lives in Fond du Lac, an isolated community on Lake Athabasca, about 800 kilometres as the crow flies from Saskatoon. It's closer to the border of the Northwest Territories than the town of La Ronge.
Instead of a smooth and direct highway ride, her team had to take a barge or boat to Stony Rapids before starting the long drive to Saskatoon — more than 1,000 kilometres on the road, according to Google Maps.
"It's, like, really bumpy," Isadore said. "Lots of hills and it made me feel carsick."
The young athlete, who just moved to Fond du Lac from Prince Albert this year, says she misses her family, but considers representing her community at the Games a great honour.
"It feels so awesome," she said. "I never thought I was going to be here."
Expensive trip to Saskatoon
Seeing Isadore and other athletes from Fond du Lac shine at the Games is an exciting experience for Colleen Whitedeer, Fond Du Lac Denesuline First Nation councillor.
Over the last couple of months, Whitedeer says, she has been training Isadore and other girls from the community in track and soccer, as well as pushing the kids to come out for the Games' try-out events.
"It's so heartwarming to see [them all] interact, laughing and just sharing these memories," Whitedeer said.
"I'm getting a little emotional because, you know, they came out in the opening ceremonies, and there's that rush walking out into the stadium with the athletes."
An event like the Summer Games is a great opportunity for youth from the far north of the province, Whitedeer says, especially with some of them just getting into track and field recently.
Travelling south takes not only a lot of time, but a lot of money as well.
Whitedeer says she lobbied for support to help cover the costs of getting the team to the Games.
With return tickets costing about $900 apiece, flying to Saskatoon as a team was not an option, Whitedeer says.
"I had one kid who didn't come because he didn't want to go on that ride," Whitedeer said. "The other ones — I just kept on telling them it's going to be worth it, it's going to be worth it. And I think it has been worth it."
Coaches call for updated facilities
Whitedeer and softball coach Derek Cook are both advocating for better sports facilities and equipment in their community.
The kids from Fond du Lac are competing with athletes from other communities for Team Prince Albert Grand Council. That means some of them are meeting and playing together for the first time.
"Win or lose, I think they should be proud of themselves," Cook said.
"I'm not going to give up on the sports that they love, and I will continue to push forward for our sports venues to be upgraded in the far north. These kids deserve a lot up north with their competitiveness."
Some boys coming from the far north — including Hatchet Lake and Fond du Lac — won a silver medal U13 softball on Wednesday.
Cook, who is volunteering his time to coach the young softball players, says while they have a ball diamond to train on, it's covered with sand and rocks.
"We try our best to maintain it, you know, by dragging tires on it, wetting it down as much as possible," Cook said. "Sometimes you hit a ball on that soft sand, that ball is a dead stop right there."
Cook hopes the Games will motivate the young athletes from the far north to continue in their sports.
His dream is to bring back Team Athabasca, which existed when he competed at the Summer Games.
"Going forward, I think, we need to get these kids out here more often, especially from the far north, and have more … tournaments for them as well."
Ryder Hanson, 14, is competing for the first time in softball at the Games. He competed in track and field previously.
"I come here to play and have fun," said Hanson. "It feels good [to represent my community]. I like being out here, being with other people."