Province hits the mat

Brendan McCarthy
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Newfoundland and Labrador wrestlers not be big on experience, but have good grip on Games spirit

The flag of Newfoundland and Labrador that is part of their uniform extends down beyond their back and to the lower rear areas of their suits.

And maybe for those who don't understand what that uniform and that flag means to Newfoundland and Labrador's Canada Games women's wrestling team, that design scheme will make them - pardon the pun - the butt of some jokes.

Jessica Penney of Small Point wrestling Joisa Mayordo of the Northwest Territories in a Canada Games women's 56-kilogram-and-under wrestling match at the Montague Wellness Centre in Montague. P.E.I., on Wednesday. Penney won the match with a pin. Photo

Montague, P.E.I. -

The flag of Newfoundland and Labrador that is part of their uniform extends down beyond their back and to the lower rear areas of their suits.

And maybe for those who don't understand what that uniform and that flag means to Newfoundland and Labrador's Canada Games women's wrestling team, that design scheme will make them - pardon the pun - the butt of some jokes.

The jokers would almost certainly have their eyes opened and attitudes adjusted if they spoke to Jessica Penney of Small Point, the first Newfoundland female to compete as the Games competition opened in Montague, P.E.I., on Wednesday.

Penney's enthusiasm is genuine. Her joy is unabashed. Her pride - just like the flag on her uniform - is there for all to see.

"Oh my goodness, this is an amazing experience," said the 17-year-old Carbonear Collegiate Student, who won the women's 56-kilogram-and-under match by pinning Joisa Mayordo of the Northwest Territories.

"I feel very lucky to have been the first to compete, to represent the province and to wear this uniform, especially since we had only two matches (the Territories only have wrestlers in two weight categories).

"I hope the fact I won might help inspire my teammates."

Penney, who has been wrestling for three years, is one of four members of the provincial women's team coached by Carbonear wrestling guru Randy Ralph - Jessica Clarke, Jamie-Lynn Broaders and Emily Hurley are the others. The rest come from the west coast - Jenna Brake of Meadows, Cassaudra Park of Cox's Cove and Nicole Ivany of Irishtown come out of Games coach Derek Locke's program at Templeton Collegiate, while Monique Parsons, Maura Martina and Crystal Miesseau are from Stephenville, where coach Gerard Bennett keeps producing competitive wrestlers.

That means not a single member of the team is from the St. John's metro area and all come out of small-town wrestling programs thriving through the efforts of a small cadre of coaches.

"There is fine tradition of wrestling in our province, especially in the Canada Games," said Locke, noting the half-dozen or so Games medals Newfoundland and Labrador has achieved on wrestling mats.

"It goes all the way back to 1967 (and the first Canada Games in Quebec City) when Gus (Andy) Jones won a gold medal in wrestling and that was the only medal Newfoundland won.

"That's a tradition we'd like to keep going."

Still, he knows medals might be tough to come by at these Games, as evidenced Wednesday night, when Newfoundland lost all 10 of its individual matches to Ontario and picked up just two points in the process. But this is a young team - mostly consisting of 15- and 16-year-olds in a Games competition where most wrestlers are two or three years older. That puts them in at a decided disadvantage in a sport where strength and endurance are key.

"You just try to prepare them as best they can, first of all with their fitness, which they can do on their own, and as a coach you want to provide them with the necessary skills. With the right combination of skill and fitness, you've got to believe that anything is possible," said Locke.

He doesn't have to teach them about spirit ... or appreciation, as Penney proves in her list of things for which she is grateful.

"We get all of this free stuff and to we get to fly here and we have people rooting for us here and back home and we get to wear this uniform and get to feel part of a big team representing many sports. It makes all the practices worth it. Now, I know what it is about. Now, I really know how it feels," she said.

Locke is not surprised by this attitude, since he's experienced it before "at too many Canada Games to mention."

"This is a memory of a lifetime for them and you can see it and you can hear it when they talk," said Locke.

" To have a provincial uniform is a big deal. For many of these athletes just the fact they don't have to fund-raise to get here is a big deal.

"And speaking for all coaches in the province, I'd like to say it is a big deal for us, too, because far too much of our time - time we could and should be training athletes - is spent fundraising."

bmcc@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Canada Games, Templeton Collegiate

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Montague, P.E.I. Small Point Northwest Territories Cassaudra Park Irishtown Stephenville St. John's Quebec City Ontario

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