A step in the right direction

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 11:31 AM ET

Dave Heinbuch won't ever forget his 1976 Olympic experience.

But he'll always fondly remember, too, an important stepping stone on the way to the Montreal Games.

"It was such a fun learning experience," Heinbuch said of the 1973 Canada Summer Games in New Westminster, B.C. "Two-thirds of the 1976 Olympic team participated in the 1973 Canada Games."

Now that attention will be focused on Regina and the 2005 Canada Summer Games over the next two weeks. The opening ceremony was held yesterday, with competition beginning in earnest today. In all, athletes will compete in 18 sports. More than 4,200 athletes from 10 provinces and three territories are entered in all.

For many competitors, it's a vital step on the road to bigger things, such as Commonwealth or Pan Am Games -- yes, even the Olympics. Steve Nash, Lennox Lewis, Catriona Le May Doan and Sidney Crosby are among a long list of Games alumni who went on to achieve so much more.

"It gives you the feel of an international games," said Heinbuch, coach of the Nepean Kanata Barracudas, who swam the 200-metre breaststroke in Montreal. "Traditionally, it's been a really, really good proving ground (for young athletes)."

Ottawa Lions Track and Field club executive director Scott MacDonald agrees, calling it a vital bridge between club and junior programs and the higher levels of his sport.

"It's a national under-23 championship," he said. "It gets them to the next level of competition, but they're not quite thrown to the wolves. It's a whole different atmosphere."

The Games have been held every two years since 1967, alternating between winter and summer (the 2007 Canada Winter Games are set for Whitehorse).

About two dozen athletes with area connections are part of Team Ontario in 2003, with several expected to join the province's expected medal haul. Three Barracudas swimmers are entered -- freestyler Emily Wong, and backstrokers Matt Hawes and Seanna Mitchell.

Heinbuch believes Wong and Hawes have a good chance to hit the podium, perhaps more than once.

Wong, a 17-year-old from Ottawa, is already having a spectacular year.

She brought home several medals from the Pan-Pacific junior meet in the spring, and has been named to the Canadian junior team headed to the high-calibre Australian Youth Festival in Melbourne in January.

She and Mitchell are being "heavily recruited by U.S. universities," said Heinbuch, adding it's possible both could still stay at home in Canada for school.

The CBC has extensive television coverage planned -- at least 18 hours in all. That is, assuming a labour strike doesn't hit midway through the Games.

Bob Ellard, president of the Regina Games organizing committee, has concerns.

"It's very difficult for us because of the uncertainty," Ellard said. "I have more than a concern because it's not just what it'll do to our Games, it'll be what it will do to the experience for these kids."

What can't be taken away, though, is the experience. For some, it'll be the Games of a lifetime.

For others ... remember you heard about them here first.

THE GAMES GANG

Ottawa-area athletes on Team Ontario at the Canada Summer Games in Regina:

Athletics -- Esther Akinsulie, Kanata; Jennie Biewald, Ottawa; Dana Buchanan, Beachburg; Brian Cummings, Ottawa; Patricia Gauthier, Ottawa; Pat Marion, Ottawa; Todd Pyper, Ottawa

Basketball (women) -- Courtnay Pilypaitis, Orleans

Canoe/kayak -- Andrew Kasza, Ottawa; Andy McMillan, Ottawa; Emily Raymond, Nepean; Evan Trafford, Carleton Place

Cycling -- Brooke Boocock, Ottawa; Sarah Coney, Orleans

Sailing -- Anne Gilbert, Ottawa

Swimming -- Matt Hawes, Stittsville; Jenna Kayakjuak, Ottawa; Meagan Michie, Metcalfe; Seanna Mitchell, Manotick; Emily Wong, Nepean

Tennis -- Laura Pola, Ottawa

Volleyball (women) -- Kristina Fabris, Ottawa

Wrestling -- Coady Yach, Arnprior

rob.brodie@ott.sunpub.com


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