The Unlikely But Possible Success of Maritime Athletes

And the hungry, yet humble, quest of Maritime sports stars
Pamela LeJean, photos courtesy Formac Publishing

Despite a national identity built around an inborn sense of humility, Canadians really do enjoy seeing their athletes kick ass. Sorry! But also: it’s true.

This is why we’re drawn to hockey, where the majority of NHL players hail from the great white north; or why we go nuts whenever baseball superhero Joey Votto jacks another homer; and it is definitely why we still know, word for word, what sprinter Donovan Bailey thinks of Michael Johnson: “he’s a chicken.”

Yes, while we may be too gracious to admit it, Canadians often live for these moments of unabashed glory.

But this secret emotion runs counter to the established national sentiment. We’re supposed to be the winsome underdogs, easily dismissed or gracious in defeat—a country just happy to be there.

It’s the twinning of these two feelings—hunger and humility—that makes Winners: A New Generation of Maritime Sports Stars by Philip Croucher so timely.

The book doesn’t celebrate this country’s biggest sports stars, the ones we already know, the ones we cling to in our day-to-day as proof that Canada can in fact win. Instead, Winners wakes us to a different, more powerful reality: Canadian athletes are kicking ass all the time—you just need to know where to look.

Croucher profiles 12 athletes from the Maritimes, from capital cities and small towns where everyone knows your name. Some of these athletes are familiar—St. Stephen’s Jake Allen is currently starting in goal for the St. Louis Blues, for example—but many are not. They are runners, gymnasts and boxers; they are team players and soloists.

They are also neighbours, teachers, leaders and representatives of their communities. The stories differ but similar themes pop up again and again: the life of an athlete is difficult and it gets harder with the passage of time.

Canadian kids pick up a love of sports for the usual reasons—socialization, fun, an abundance of physical energy—but to compete at the highest levels requires a special level of dedication. There’s a necessary winnowing of life, a narrowing of focus, a drive that comes from within.

Custio Clayton, left

For a sprinter like Jared Connaughton, the choice to complete has meant pursuing success in a lane dominated by other countries; for shot putter Pamela LeJean it has been about adjusting to a new life in a wheelchair; for gymnast Ellie Black it involves landing literally face first onto failure, getting up and trying again. These are just a few examples, but the perseverance on display is impossible to ignore. It’s something they can each take pride in.

With that pride though comes the personal desire to give back to one’s community. Even in defeat, these individuals serve as an inspiration to those around them, those same children they once were. In a sense, this cyclical concept is even more significant than the competition itself, bigger than any potential triumph at its end. We need to value these athletes, even if—perhaps especially if—their biggest victories come off the field of play.

The athletes themselves all seem to innately understand this. Their example provides the template from which more young, talented Canadians can develop. They all need that vote of confidence, that profile of courage, a voice to tell them: you can do this too.

The modern-day Canadian athlete, that young boy or girl inspired by the generation before and now staring down a life filled with training and hard work, must make a choice. They must prepare themselves to take their steps in a sort of isolation.

Yes, there’s family support, a coach’s presence, some sense of community, big or small, throughout the stories in Coucher’s book. But in the Maritimes and across the country, these athletes walk a lonely road for a diverse set of reasons. There’s the runner with cerebral palsy; the boxer from a “bad neighbourhood;” the hockey defenceman from Eskasoni who became the first Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq to play in the Quebec Major-Junior Hockey League.

There’s no promise of that arms-raised moment of victory, no guarantee that the national or worldwide pat on the back is coming. It becomes you against you, right to the end.

And yet, these athletes commit anyway. They strive in obscurity, adhere to an ideal and gradually work towards a goal—even in the face of such obstacles and indifference.

Theirs is a quest that is both hungry and humble. That’s why it’s important to celebrate these kickass accomplishments when given the chance.

When taken all together, what could be more Canadian than that?

Justine Colley, right
Written By

Daniel Reynolds is a Toronto-based writer who spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about movies, basketball, comics and municipal politics.

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The Unlikely But Possible Success of Maritime Athletes

And the hungry, yet humble, quest of Maritime sports stars
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