Ahousaht’s Janae Sam, right, is one of seven Maaqtusiis students heading to the NAIG.

Ahousaht student athletes headed to North American Indigenous Games

“These kids can play.”

Maaqtusiis’ athletics program is hitting its stride full on.

Ahousaht’s school is celebrating a banner sports years with seven students recently selected to represent B.C. at the North American Indigenous Games.

Shandon Thomas, Sereana Kaloucokovale, Marieta Kaloucokovale, Janae Sam, Keitha-lyn Atleo, Samara Swan and Jaylynn Keitlah will all head to Toronto in July to compete in the games’ basketball and track and field events.

Launched in 1971, the NAIG has become the largest sporting event for Indigenous Peoples across North America with over 5,000 competitors and 2,000 volunteers, according to its website.

Maaqtusiis’ athletic director Cedar Wechlin told the Westerly News sending seven student athletes to compete is a huge win for the young school.

“It puts Maaqtusiis on the map. People kind of, around the Island, know about Ahousaht but no one really knows about our school yet,” he said. “It’s a new school, new program…and we are building relationships with other communities and other schools and other players. It brings opportunity and these kids need opportunity.”

He added the athletes selected for the games showcase their talents with eyes on potential scholarship opportunities.

“There is going to be other coaches out there and I’m sure there is gonna be scouts, these kids might be asked to play college ball or college track,” he said.

“You never know who is going to be out there and the opportunity always comes as long as you’re working hard and these kids have been working…They run on the beaches, they train real hard on the ocean. I knew we had some runners here that could really represent BC well.”

He added local families have been solid sources of support and organize fundraisers to help the students in the isolated community travel to games and try-outs.

“It costs us $300-$600 just to take teams out, just for the water taxi. We always have to get accommodations, we have to travel anywhere we have to play,” he said adding he’s worked to develop relationships with other schools to keep his athletes competing.

“That’s really good for the kids. It’s exposure. It gives them equal opportunity. Lots of kids in public school get lots of game time, lots of playing time but our kids don’t. I’ve really worked hard this year to really open us up to build relationships with other schools.”

He said a strong athletics program is important for developing pride in place and building self-esteem.

“It gives us pride in our school and our athletic program. There is so much pride that comes from athletics,” he said. “It comes down to having pride and honour in yourself and that carries on to who these kids are in the future.”

Another source of the school’s swelling pride is Grade 12 student and basketball star Nigel Charlie who, Wechlin said, scored a spot on the B.C. High School Single-A All-Star team.

“It’s really big for Maaqtusiis because, when they take those team pictures and all those guys have different jerseys and he’s standing there with Maaqtusiis on, people are gonna say, ‘Hey, where is that?’ and then they look us up,” he said. “I really pushed for Nigel because he really works hard at school and that’s tough here in Ahousaht because it just seems to be cool to not do good in school…He’s a great student at school and I think that will carry through with his future.”

Wechlin is in his third year as the school’s athletics director and was instantly impressed with the talent he saw when he arrived and he has been thrilled to watch skills develop.

“I want opportunities for these kids. There is no reason why we can’t have more First Nations people playing in the Olympics,” he said. “These kids can play.”

He added his athletes all sign a school contract that includes maintaining at least a 65 per cent academic average and being a solid role model for other students.

“You have to have good behaviour on and off the court,” he said. “The first year doing it, we had something like 17 of my basketball players on the honour roll because they wanted to be on that team and they wanted to do well. I think it’s changed things…We’ve really started a program here. It’s really good.”

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