Alexander Smith is bringing gold home to the South Cariboo from the North American Indigenous Games.
The Tsq’escen’ First Nation athlete came in first place in the 3,000-metre canoe event at the games, which were held last week in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Going in, Smith said he was confident he’d win a medal, and was gratified his hard work paid off.
“We were going strong and hard in the beginning and we got pretty ahead of all the other competitors so we started to go a little faster and stronger. Around the second lap we decided to calm down because we were ahead of the pack,” Smith said. “We powered through the whole thing. It felt amazing to cross the finish line. I was so tired.”
Smith shared his gold medal victory with Chilliwack’s Mason Point, who was paired with him for the event. Smith said that the win fulfilled a dream for him and that the medal is now “very precious to him.”
The win filled Smith’s kayaking coach Stephen Rowell with pride and happiness. Rowell is a retired PE teacher of 35 years who lives in Kamloops but keeps a recreational property on Deka Lake.
He became involved with the NAIG team when Tish Diamond, the Tsq’escen’ First Nation’s recreation manager, approached him and asked if he knew anything about canoeing. Back when Camp Deka still existed Rowell was a canoe instructor, and readily agreed to help out.
“I love the sport and said I’d be interested and it’s been great,” Rowell said. “You want to give them the best experience with the kind of equipment they’re going to use.”
Rowell said initially he coached four athletes, but only Smith qualified at Nanaiamo for the national tournament. Over the last few weeks, he’s worked closely with Smith to get him ready for last week.
“At Deka Lake, I made a 500-metre course (for him) because we have a cabin in a very remote part of the lake. We also reached out to the Kamloops Canoe & Kayak Club who were very generous in their support. We went and trained there twice in June before we left,” Rowell said. “That was very valuable training time for him.”
Rowell said their training paid off in the long-distance race. Once he was able to get near him after his win, Rowell described how Smith gave him a big hug and told him “he could do it again.”
“They led from start to finish. It was a brilliant race and they worked so well together, so it was very satisfying that the last year-and-a-half of work came to fruition in that moment,” Rowell said. “He was over the moon and so happy with his performance.”
Smith said the last week has been “really exciting.” Despite some initial nerves, after his first race he was focused on competing. While the first couple of solo races didn’t quite go as planned, he said his gold medal pairs finish made the experience all worth it.
In three years Smith hopes to compete in NAIG again when he’s 19. He added that he encourages any athlete able to take part to join the team for their chance to compete on a national scale.
“If it’s possible, just join NAIG. You can compete in baseball, soccer, canoe, kayak and all sorts of other athletic activities. It’s so much fun and such an amazing feeling whether you win a medal or not.”