Olympians, Paralympian the Valley's 2012 Newsmakers of the Year

Emily Zurrer shows her Olympic bronze medal to admiring students during a visit to Cowichan Secondary School where she used to attend school. - Andrew Leong/file
Emily Zurrer shows her Olympic bronze medal to admiring students during a visit to Cowichan Secondary School where she used to attend school.
— image credit: Andrew Leong/file

It’s the ultimate achievement for an athlete.

There’s no greater thrill than representing your country in the Olympic or Paralympic Games.

Three homegrown Cowichan Valley talents were on the world’s biggest sporting stage at London 2012. That makes Olympic soccer player Emily Zurrer, Olympic rower Michael Braithwaite and Paralympic wheelchair basketball player Richard Peter the Cowichan News Leader Pictorial’s Newsmakers of the Year.

It was the second Olympics for Zurrer, the first for Braithwaite and the fifth Paralympics for Peter.

All three are elite athletes, but took decidedly different paths to arrive at the same destination.

Zurrer was tabbed as an early phenom while playing soccer at Crofton Elementary School.

“Emily was an intelligent player, fearless in the tackle even in those days, had a strong shot and was an excellent header of the ball,’’ recalled Tim Lord, her coach at the time.

“I believe she practiced her ball skills a lot at home on her own and probably with her family.

“She was already an outstanding all-around athlete in her age group in the Cowichan Valley and inspired those around her with her talent and modesty.’’

“As a kid, I didn’t really think about the fact that my natural ability may have been better than other kids my age in some things,’’ Zurrer, now 25, pointed out. “I just simply wanted to play sports. When people would tell me that I had a natural athletic ability, I thought it was ‘cool’ and handy to have, especially when I got to compete with the boys, but I really didn’t think too much of it until I got older and I realized it could take me places.’’

Zurrer continued to excel in a variety of other sports such as rugby, basketball, karate, volleyball and track and field throughout her high school years at Cowichan Secondary before soccer became her specialty.

Braithwaite, now 25 as well, was also an avid sportsman as a swimmer with the Duncan Stingrays and a Thunderbirds’ basketball player at Cowichan Secondary School. But it wasn’t immediately apparent rowing would become his specialty.

“I got into and stayed involved in sports because it was something I could do well and loved doing,’’ said Braithwaite. “I started rowing in Grade 11 with the hopes of becoming good enough to compete at a university level.’’

Braithwaite’s so-called ‘late entry’ into the sport is not unusual, according to the Maple Bay Rowing Club’s Justin Fryer who has kept in contact with Braithwaite throughout his career, because rowers tend to reach full potential at a later age.

“While one can detect potential in early teenage rowers in terms of athletic ability, build and mental attitude to prolonged training and competition, one realizes that it will be a long time before such potential can be realized at an Olympic level,’’ pointed out Fryer.

“Michael displayed athletic ability from the start and was able to ‘move a boat.’ He progressed so fast that he moved from novice to junior in the same year. By Grade 12, he was far ahead of everyone in spite of commitments to basketball, presidency of the student council and a focus on his academic ambitions.’’

Peter, who turned 40 in September, was injured in a freak bus accident at the age of four that confined him to a wheelchair. That didn’t stop him from being a participant as he grew up at a time when opportunities in wheelchair sports were far more limited than today.

“I assume I played all the sports and activities a four-year-old would play at that age, but don’t quite recall back that far,’’ offered Peter. “I was always an active kid and enjoyed all sports. Of course, ball hockey was what we all played after school but also baseball, football, whatever I could join in on.’’

A visit to Peter’s school by the Victoria wheelchair basketball demonstration team proved to be a life-changing experience.

“I think then wheelchair sports noticed I had some potential and got me into their sports programs pretty quick,’’ he said. “So I tried as many different opportunities as I could and tried all of the sports and sports camps that were available to me.’’

The support system in the valley provided all three athletes with the basis they needed, but eventually they had to broaden their horizons to continue progressing toward the highest level of competition.

“It was definitely challenging coming from the island where there aren’t as many opportunities,’’ Zurrer indicated. “The support and quality of people are second to none, but if you want to be playing at a provincial or national team level, it most likely means that you’re going to have to be living on the ferry every weekend during a lot of your high school years like I did.

"In saying that, I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the support — or driving skills — of my parents and coaches on the island. Whenever an opportunity to go play at the next highest level arose, I always had the encouragement to go after it.

“Of course, I had to rely on outside resources along the way. To make the Olympics, you are always striving to train smarter, run faster, eat better, sleep better, think better. There is a team of people behind every athlete and to find the best you have to leave your comfort zone to do it.’’

“My family was very supportive and played a large role in getting me to London,’’ Braithwaite said. “My parents made it possible for me to play any sport that fit into my schedule which required a lot of driving. Additionally, all three of my siblings were very active, both in sports and extra-curriculars. Between morning swim practices and after-school activities, my parents put in a massive amount of time and energy, essentially putting their lives on hold for us.

“I think the main role the Cowichan Valley played was that it created a lot of opportunities for me to get involved in a wide variety of sports. This was probably due to the climate that we are fortunate to have and the infrastructure in the valley sports communities.

“In terms of rowing, the Maple Bay Rowing Club actually provided a very good starting point for me. I think that the relaxed atmosphere at the club, coupled with beautiful scenery, made rowing there very enjoyable and appealing. I also think that rowing is a sport where a very serious approach at an early age can actually be detrimental to an athlete’s development and cause them to burn out before they can reach their potential. I thought Maple Bay provided a great introduction to the sport for me.’’

Peter praised his family and the community for supporting him along the journey of receiving the best opportunities to achieve his goals.

“My family always had a tough time financially but always managed to get me to all of my sporting activities,’’ he pointed out. “And Cowichan Tribes was there to support me whenever I was in need. I did miss a few trips because of financial means but not many. If you ask any amateur athlete, it is never easy without sponsors and financial assistance at all levels.

“Living in the Cowichan Valley played a very big role in my success, mainly because it is a very big sports community. Also, with a large family that was very active in sports that kept me involved and interested in sports as well. Then, once I got involved in wheelchair sports, it was great in that I was able to travel and see more of Canada and other cities and countries.

"I would never say that I made the national team in spite of being from the valley or that it had any specific role, but that it was more of a partnership. I was always very proud to be representing Canada and Cowichan Tribes at the same time throughout my career.’’

Zurrer played in many huge games throughout her years at the University of Illinois and with the national team, but the memory of going to her first Olympics in 2008 in Beijing sent her over the top emotionally.

“During my first Olympics, I had to pinch myself every so often to make sure it was real,’’ she conceded.

“We played against China, the host country, in our second game in front of 60,000 people, and at the time it was by far the most I had ever played in front of. I was so nervous but I loved every second of it. The second time around, I would say that we were more focused on making it to the podium and less occupied with the enormity of it all and the distractions that come with it. Even so, when you walk into the stadium and see the Olympic rings, that same euphoric feeling rushes through you. I doubt that will ever change.’’

Braithwaite, who parlayed a successful rowing career at the University of Toronto into a partnership with Kevin Kowalyk of Manitoba in double sculls at the Olympics, admitted he would have enjoyed his first Olympic experience in London a lot more with better results.

“We were two guys with next to no experience and we were up against a very deep, experienced field,’’ Braithwaite pointed out. “We were outclassed and, no matter the stage, it isn’t fun to lose.

“Apart from the racing, the Olympics were amazing. We finished racing in the first week so I had 10 days to enjoy and experience the Olympics without the stresses of racing on my mind. I didn’t get a chance to be in Vancouver in 2010 so London was the first time I have ever been in a city hosting the Olympics. It was really interesting how positive and excited everyone was. It’s as though everyone was on a two-week vacation from real life and really becoming engrossed in the Games.’’

London was Peter’s swan song after appearances in Atlanta (1996), Sydney (2000), Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008) that produced three gold medals and a silver medal.

“Going into the stadium in my first Olympics is one of my favourite moments in my career,’’ Peter remembered. “It was great to be representing Canada, my people, my sport and just being part of the whole Paralympics’ Games sensation. I really enjoyed each Games very differently from the previous Games so I was able to learn from each.

“I knew this would be my last Paralympics. I wanted to enjoy it as much as possible and not just for myself. There were a few other teammates that had also been in all of those five Paralympic Games together so we enjoyed the moments together.’’

Winning the Olympic bronze medal in London provided Zurrer with a great reward for all her hard work and the realization of how she’s inspired others.

“When I first started this journey, I was just a kid who loved to play sports,’’ she said. “I am still that kid, but now I have more recently started to grasp the level of impact athletes such as myself have made on young kids across the country. For Cowichan kids, especially, I think it’s cool for some of them to see how people like Michael, Richard and myself have been able to achieve our dreams, overcome obstacles and compete at the highest level.’’

“I actually have very little awareness about the kind of influence I have had in the valley,’’ offered Braithwaite. “I like to think that I am inspiring people to try to play sports and eventually find a couple that they can really excel at, but it isn’t like I am being bombarded by fan mail. I know that I can do more to help inspire people and hopefully will in the years to come.’’

As Peter leaves the Paralympic experience behind in his life, he said he always focused on enjoying himself first and never thought about how he’d become a role model.

“I have slowly and surely over my career become the role model that I am today and am happy to share my story and career with my Cowichan Tribes’ community at any time possible.

“The biggest accomplishment is about how a small town boy can make it to the gold medal game at the Paralympics/Olympics games by just going out there and enjoying playing sports.’’


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