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Northern athletes undaunted by their challenges at Canada Games

YELLOWKNIFE — Athletes from across Canada's North will be among those competing at this month's Canada Summer Games, including some in sports rarely seen in their home territories.
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Mali Straker, the flag-bearer for Team Northwest Territories at the opening ceremonies for the 2022 Canada Summer Games in Niagara Region of Ontario from August 6 to 21, and a member on the N.W.T.'s women's basketball team, poses for a photo at Sir John Franklin High School in Yellowknife, N.W.T., on Tuesday, July 26, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Emily Blake

YELLOWKNIFE — Athletes from across Canada's North will be among those competing at this month's Canada Summer Games, including some in sports rarely seen in their home territories. 

Nunavut is sending its first beach volleyball team to compete at the amateur multi-sport festival that opened Saturday in Ontario's Niagara Region and concludes Aug. 21.

“We don’t play beach volleyball very often in Nunavut," beach player Talia Grant said. "We don’t have the facilities for it.

“I’m incredibly excited but also quite nervous because this is still a new sport to us. I’m excited to see how things go.”

Nunavut's beach volleyball team, which typically trains indoors there, headed to both Halifax and Kelowna, B.C., in the weeks leading up to the Canada Games to acclimatize to playing in sand in hot temperatures.

Creative workarounds are not uncommon for northern athletes, who are often underdogs at the summer games. 

Competitors from Canada's three territories often face challenges not seen by their provincial counterparts, such as limited recreational facilities, shorter summers and smaller team numbers. 

Despite those hurdles, members of Nunavut’s beach volleyball team are undaunted.

“We face a lot of challenges and obstacles, but for us to overcome them and come here to play beach volleyball, it just shows we play hard,” said team member Ian McDonald. 

Team Nunavut, usually the smallest one at the Canada Games, has won one bronze medal since it began participating in 2001. 

It came in judo, which is part of the Winter Games program, in 2007 in Whitehorse.

The territory's 2022 summer team, which is made up of 58 athletes, coaches, managers, youth ambassadors and mission staff, will also compete in indoor volleyball and wrestling.

Athletes from the other northern territories also geared up for this month's Canada Games.

Northwest Territories flag-bearer and basketball player Mali Straker hopes her hoops team can upset a provincial squad.

“We’re just resilient,” she said of N.W.T. athletes. “We work just as hard as other teams, if not more. We fight really hard."

The 100-member N.W.T. team includes 68 athletes in basketball, soccer, tennis, swimming, track and field, and and indoor and beach volleyball.

"Our athletes are unique," said their chef de mission Rita Mercredi. 

"They're able to look beyond what other people might see as challenges and grab them as opportunities and make it work for them."

Mercredi hopes the athletes will have a memorable experience in Ontario because COVID-19 prevented some from competing over the past two years. 

Niagara's Canada Games were postponed from 2021 to 2022 because of the pandemic.

N.W.T. athletes have claimed a combined 22 medals in the Winter Games.

Yukon flag-bearer and cyclist Mara Roldan, 18, is ready to race against older, more experience athletes.

"I'm not putting a lot of pressure on myself through specific results," Roldan said.

"I think really it'll be just a good learning environment, learning experience overall."

Yukon athletes are disadvantaged in summer sport because of the territory's short season, but Roldan believes they can still compete at a high level.

"There's no limit to what we can do," she said. 

"I know I've done a lot more than expected in this past year just kind of pushing myself with the resources that I have here in the Yukon and the help, and the people and the support of the community." 

Roldan recently won gold at the 2022 Canadian road championships in the junior criterium. 

She will also represent Canada at the 2022 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Les Gets, France, later this month.

Since Yukon began competing in Canada Games in 1987, its athletes have won six medals at summer games and 46 in winter games.

Yukon athletes will compete in cycling, basketball, canoe, kayak, golf, soccer, swimming, volleyball and wrestling in the Niagara region,

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 6, 2022. 

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Emily Blake, The Canadian Press