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Olympians make an impression on youth athletes

Two Olympians are always better than one.

For the second straight year, the News Leader Pictorial enlisted two Olympic athletes — one retired from competition and the other still going — for its fifth-annual Cowichan Valley Youth Athlete of the Year awards luncheon Sunday at Shawnigan Lake School.

Rower Kyle Hamilton and track and field’s Hilary Stellingwerff provided the top 20 athletes — made up of eight from Cowichan Secondary School, five from Frances Kelsey, three from Brentwood College, two from Shawnigan Lake School and one each from Quamichan Middle School, Claremont and Duncan Christian School — with plenty of insight into what it takes to become an Olympic athlete and what the experience is like when you get there.

Other Olympians have done the same with the top valley youth athletes in previous years since the luncheon started.

Rower Jon Beare was the guest speaker in 2009, fresh from an Olympic bronze medal win in Beijing. Swimmer Ryan Cochrane was up next in 2010 after returning from Beijing with a bronze and then Paralympian Tony Theriault gave an amazing account of his trials and tribulations in 2011.

Last year’s event at Duncan Meadows Golf Course featured two Olympian guest speakers for the first time — former valley Youth Athlete of the Year winner and national women’s soccer team member Emily Zurrer, and field hockey player turned Olympic rower Anna-Marie de Zwager.

The underlying messages conveyed by Hamilton and Stellingwerff during their addresses to the group revolved around overcoming adversity. Both have experienced plenty of that during their careers, but it’s how you deal with it that makes the difference.

Hamilton, who rowed with the Canadian men’s eight, made reference to the 2004 Olympics in Athens when the crew was coming off back-to-back world championships but suffered what he called a “massive collapse.’’

“We came in as heavy favourites and then completely unravelled after the Americans beat us in our heat,’’ he said. “We finished fifth in the final, but it might as well have been last.’’

Hamilton said his crew started to redeem itself with the 2007 world championship en route to the 2008 gold medal in Beijing.

“I’ll never forget crossing that line and having that feeling of finally reaching that big goal and the joy and relief of not blowing it,’’ he said.

Standing on the podium while the anthem was playing was an incredible experience, Hamilton said.

“I can remember thinking about everything that went into that medal — all the work, all the sweat, all the focus.’’

Stellingwerff, 31, who’s from Sarnia, Ont., spent five years in Switzerland before coming to Victoria where she now trains. She made her Olympic debut in London in 2012 and placed 16th in the 1,500 metres.

Getting there was quite a battle for Stellingwerff. She was ill going into Olympic qualifying — literally puking her guts out — and didn’t think she’d make it.

“I told my manager to scratch me,’’ she said.

But Stellingwerff was already in Rome, Italy for the qualifying anyway so her manager talked her into entering. She qualified.

Once she got to the Olympics, “it was like another step up,’’ said Stellingwerff, “because the Olympics is every four years. It was truly one championship I hadn’t done and the biggest one.

“Being there, I had to go into professional mode and not be too overwhelmed. Once I was in the zone and I was on the track, it was so much fun to be honest.’’

Stellingwerff spoke of other adversities she has encountered and wanted the young athletes to understand things don’t always go well.

“You have things where you don’t make it and you go, ‘Man, was I as good as I thought I was?’’’

As much as the young athletes were enthralled with the guest speakers, it worked the other way. Stellingwerff said she’ll be following the progress of the valley’s young athletes now that she knows them.

“It’s such a great event for young kids to be recognized for that,’’ she said. “I’m in the later part of my career and I’m thinking of coaching in the future. I was really interested in their stories and all their different paths.’’

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