One of the best things about being an athlete is the amazing people that you get to meet along the way. When I ran for the city club, I was meeting people from all over the city, and when you are in high school, you generally get stuck being friends with only the people in your neighbourhood. Being from the western part of the city and not yet old enough to drive, my school friends used to think it strange that I had some other friends that lived all the way "in the east end!" We generally didn't make it past downtown! And then, when I went to university, I was usually only around the people in my department, or in arts programs. However, being a member of the track team meant that I got to hang with engineers, nursing students, biologists, grad students, and some in teachers college. It gave me diversity and, of course, perspective.
But then, there are those opportunities when you get to take it one step further and meet other athletes in other sports. And this is what I got to do last week. Daniel Alfredsson, Zdeno Chara and all NHL all-star crew may have stolen the spotlight this week in Ottawa, but I was lucky enough to go to the 59th annual Ottawa Sports Awards at Algonquin College. There I got to see athletes from so many different sports and disciplines. It was amazing to see so many people achieving high levels in their respective sport. And even though I am familiar with my sport, I was glad that my eyes were opened to all the great athletes around me. More than 100 athletes, coaches, administrators, officials and volunteers were recognized Wednesday night, either for performances or for contributions to sport in Ottawa.
John Leroux was given the award for volunteering. Apparently, he is the most recognizable person at any ball field or rink in Stittsville and Goulbourn. The Stittsville Community Centre was even renamed the Johnny Leroux Community Centre. John started coaching ball in 1970 and was active in the formation of the local men's recreational fastball league. But old-timers' hockey is really where John Leroux made his mark. He founded the Stittsville Merchant Selects, and he began old-timer hockey for those over 35, and then 40, and then over 50. And I have only named of few of the things he does for sports in Ottawa.
I was also lucky enough to sit beside Aaron Wong-Sing who turned out to be a super nice guy and an award winner for sailing in able sail. Aaron faces a challenge of what seemed to be cerebral palsy, but that didn't seem to stop his endeavours and accomplishments. Aaron won a bronze medal podium finish at the North American Challenge Cup held in Chicago. He also had an 8th place finish at the North American 2.4mR Class Championships and a 6th place at the Thomas Clagett Memorial Regatta held in Newport, Rhode Island.
But the most touching and inspiring story of all, just happens to be in my sport. Yves Sikubawabo. You honestly can't be a runner in Ottawa and not know Yves, or have heard of him. I know Yves, and I also know of his accomplishments. But I didn't learn them from him. He is so unassuming and genuine and with his pearly white smile and cool-as-a-cucumber persona, you love him right away. I remember a few months ago after he went to the National Cross Country Championships, I asked him how he did. "I won bronze!" he told me. I congratulated him, and then another team mate walked over to us. "Yves, I thought you came second?" he said. Yves nodded his head. "I did… oh wait… what is the order of medals again?" The type of medal was not important to him. It didn't matter that the order was gold, silver, bronze, that's not why Yves runs. He owes his life to running.
"Everything I have now, I owe to running," he says, "and to the people I've met through running."
Yves Sikubwabo grew up in Rwanda's capital, Kigali and started running earnestly when he was nine, to improve his fitness for soccer. He later joined a running club and was training twice a day, including running 11K to and from school. A few weeks before the 2010 world junior championships held in Moncton, New Brunswick, he was told he would be Rwanda's sole representative at the meet.
Once in Canada, he phoned his aunt back home to tell her his race results, she insisted he stay in Canada. She had raised him after his Hutu father and Tutsi mother were killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. She told him that the people responsible for murdering his parents were back, and asking about him.
So, Yves took his cash allowance to buy a bus ticket to Ottawa and spent the rest of his money staying one night in a hotel. He claimed refugee status and ended up at a youth shelter downtown. "I didn't care that I had no money and was hungry," Sikubwabo says. "I was just happy to be safe."
Things started to fall into place when Mike Woods, who holds three national records on the track, saw Yves run. He could hardly believe what he saw. "Great runners have a certain look, and even from far away, I could tell Yves was one of them. Then as I got to know him, I saw how he was helping other kids and the staff at the shelter, and how his running talent was just part of the story." A friendship was formed (including daily phone calls) and running began to introduce a sense of normalcy for Yves.
Once the world saw Yves run, the attention started coming. Nicole Le Saux, a local physician, heard about Yves's struggles and the help he was getting from Mike and his team of support. She invited Yves over for dinner. "When you meet Yves, you can tell immediately he is a wonderful person, intelligent and kind, so between dinner and dessert, my husband and I conferred in the kitchen and then went out and asked him to come live with us."And now, Yves obviously misses his aunt and his life in Rwanda, but now refers to Le Saux as his mom.
Since then, Yves has gone on to win countless awards and recognition. He remains humble and kind, just like the first time I met him. Yves has incorporated so well into so many people's lives and it honestly is a true testament to a great character.
Its stories like Yves that prove why it's important that we branch out from our own sport and realize the universality of sport and its ability to help people overcome challenges and helps build relationships. So many of my friendships were made in sports, and I hope to make many more.
And, as I learned on Wednesday night, whether it be a volunteer, a coach, or an athlete, a job well done always deserves a pat on the back.