Sports Wall of Fame adds new inductees

The North Cowichan-Duncan Sports Wall of Fame ceremony is always inspirational and usually emotional.

Cheers and tears greeted the newest five Wall inductees during a ceremony Saturday night at the Cowichan Golf and Country Club. Joining the previous 25 inductees and bringing the total number to 30 are: precision/synchro skating coach Penny Baker, hockey player Robin Bawa, swimmer and all-around sports enthusiast Eulah Varty, the Willis bowling family and national women's soccer team member Emily Zurrer.

The inductees all expressed their gratitude for the recognition.

"There's one clear message,'' said emcee Norm Jackson after listening to the five speak to the gathering. "How important our families are and what great roles they played in our accomplishments in sports.''

Penny Baker

Baker put precision skating on the map in the Cowichan Valley by guiding a succession of recreational and competitive teams.

"When I started teaching in the '70s, precision skating — they called it that — was never even formed yet,'' she said.

"I remember starting a couple of little teams in Kerry Park and they were just recreation. We competed on the island.''

One year, the Canadian championships were held in Vancouver so Baker said she thought '"I'm going to go over and just check out what they're doing.'

"I went there and I realized that this was awesome. I was just blown away and I thought 'I can do this.''

Baker started arranging ice, recruiting skaters ages 14 to 21 and away she went.

The first junior precision team, the Golden Girls, started in 1983 and qualified for the Canadian championships in Laval, Quebec the first year. The only trouble is the team had to raise $20,000 in short order to get to the nationals, but pulled it off.

Baker continued to coach teams at provincials and nationals for many years, including five at one time.

The bond between Baker and her skaters was unsurpassed and friendships continue to this day.

"We get together and I see a lot of those skaters,'' she said. "I talk to the girls and they say they miss the skating and the camaraderie.''

After Baker retired as a skating coach, she did some travelling and even put her coaching expertise into dragon boating.

But the many long hours she spent on the ice were her passion and she'll never forget all the great experiences.

Robin Bawa

"I can't begin to tell you what a great honour it is to be with such great athletes in the Cowichan Valley,'' said Duncan-born Bawa, who now lives on the Lower Mainland.

Bawa learned to skate at the age of eight when outdoor ice in the valley was common. He started on a pond behind his father's workplace.

"After that it was off to Somenos Lake,'' Bawa said. "Every day after work my dad would come home on a winter day and take me down there to play hockey and skate all winter.''

Bawa's parents registered him for hockey at Fuller Lake "where I had some of the most memorable moments, from mighty-mites — great coaches, great friends and teammates — and such a wonderful community,'' Bawa said. "Those days I'll never forget.''

He played throughout the rep system before going to the Western Hockey League's Kamloops Blazers at the age of 16. The transition was made much easier by the presence of two other valley players, Doug Bodger and Richard Hajdu, on the team.

Bawa was passed over in the National Hockey League entry draft, but signed a free-agent contract with the Washington Capitals when Duncan's Greg Adams was also there. Bawa thus became the first Indo-Canadian to play in the NHL.

He spent considerable time in the minor pro ranks but also got into 61 NHL games over the years with the Capitals, Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

Bawa looks back fondly on his time in the game.

"All in all, I was very lucky growing up in Duncan with such delightful friends, loyal family, great parents, great sisters. I remember the days when dad used to take me to practice at five in the morning and at school I'd be so tired. I'd be in bed and my sisters would be doing all my homework.''

Bawa's seven-year-old son Arjun and his friends are benefiting from his experiences. "I'm hoping to pass it on to all of them,'' said Bawa.

Eulah Varty

There isn't much Eulah Varty hasn't done.

Varty has compiled an impressive resume of athletic achievements that drew gasps from many in the crowd at the ceremony who didn't previously know about her. She's best known for her achievements in the swimming pool at provincial, national and world masters championships but it goes far beyond that.

Varty is a trekker of unbelievable spirit, judging by her experiences in the Himalayan mountains and locally in the 56-kilometre Great Lake Walk and the 63.5-km Great Walk from Gold River to Tahsis. She's also played golf extensively and done open water swimming.

The most amazing part of all is she's in her late 70s and shows no signs of slowing down.

She's already talking about what's ahead, namely the 2014 world masters' swimming championships in Montreal when she'll be 79 years old.

"Swimming puts me at 80,'' Varty said of the age classifications.

"Eulah is an inspiration to all those who meet her — young or old — for her dedication to the sport through her consistent training and through her competitive spirit,'' noted Robin Taylor in a letter to the nominating committee.

Varty's involvement with masters swimming in Duncan goes back 20 years.

"The first thing they did was teach me some proper swimming,'' she said. "To this day, I'm still working on it.''

Varty has lived and competed all over the world, experiencing many things most people only dream about doing — particularly at her age.

"A lot of this would not be possible except for the tireless support of my husband Bill,'' she said.

Willis Family

The Willis family, Bob and Annie and daughters Catharine (Rowe), Jennifer (Park) and Kimberley (Green), have an incredible track record of competitions around the world.

Catharine is already a member of the B.C. Women's Tenpin Bowling Hall of Fame for all her achievements. Jennifer has earned numerous medals for Canada in her years of bowling and Kimberley is still going strong with a 2012 selection to Women's Team Canada following many years as a top competitor on the island, provincially and nationally.

Bob was the man who made it all happen for the girls.

"We all took up the sport at an early age,'' said Park. "Our father was there to guide and mentor in his way. The three of us have all had great success with the sport, mainly due to the encouragement and support of our parents.''

Bob died in January of this year. "This would have meant a lot to him to be here today,'' said Park.

Even though the sisters spent a great deal of time bowling in Nanaimo where Bob was a proprietor at Evergreen Lanes, Duncan is still where it all began.

"We have always and still do consider Duncan to be our hometown,'' said Park. "The family home does remain in Duncan and always will.''

"We've had the privilege of representing our city, our province and country over the last 30 years, that ages me,'' Park summed up. "We've seen many faces around the world and we've met so many people along the way. We've still been coming and going through the bowling centre. Our family has had the unique opportunity of the extended family. My parents opened their business and their arms to so many and in return we found many lasting friendships.''

Emily Zurrer

The path to soccer success for Zurrer began at Crofton elementary school and through the Cowichan Valley Youth Soccer Association en route to a distinguished career at the University of Illinois and national women's team distinction in the Women's World Cup and two Olympics.

Zurrer has overcome some trials and tribulations along the way to maintain her place at the highest level of women's soccer in the world.

She played in her first Olympics in Beijing in 2008 and started on the process toward the 2012 London Olympics with a series of events that included the 2011 Women's World Cup in Germany. Unfortunately, Zurrer and her teammates misfired there and finished last.

"We were all devastated,'' said Zurrer. "We came home, our heads held low, we were embarrassed. We thought we had let the nation down. A lot of us questioned if it was all worth it, all those hours, days and months and years. We basically came together, picked ourselves up. We had a new coach, we were ready to take on the year.''

Another challenge presented itself to Zurrer when new coach John Herdman left her off the pre-Olympic qualifying roster in Vancouver.

"I had amazing support from the community, from my amazing family, I don't think I'd be able to do without them,'' she said. "I really dug deep and decided this was something I wanted more than anything in the world so I got up every single morning — I was home in the valley — and went to the Cowichan Sportsplex and I worked my butt off and there was nothing that was going to stop me from making that team and proving myself to the new coach.''

Zurrer's sheer determination won over Herdman and she was put back on the squad again heading to London this summer when a hamstring injury prevented her from playing. But Zurrer still received a bronze medal as a member of the Canadian squad.

"Standing there with that Olympic medal around my neck and being honoured (Saturday) has made it so worth it,'' she said.

The best part of Zurrer's story is she's only 25 years old and it's far from over, with more chapters yet to be written.

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