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Experience of a lifetime

By Stephen Uhler, The Daily Observer

Belle Bailey, 16, displays some of the pins she collected while competing with Team Ontario in the 2017 North American Indigenous Games, held in Toronto in July. She and her partner made the quarter-finals in badminton.

Belle Bailey, 16, displays some of the pins she collected while competing with Team Ontario in the 2017 North American Indigenous Games, held in Toronto in July. She and her partner made the quarter-finals in badminton.

It was an experience of a lifetime for Belle Bailey.

The 16-year-old Fellowes High School student represented the Pikwakanagans of Golden Lake at the North American Indigenous Games, playing badminton as part of Team Ontario. She and her partner Rachel Cameron reached the quarter-finals in doubles, facing university-level competition on the courts.

Bailey also took part in singles and mixed doubles, the latter with a gentleman named Tiger Trapper. The team's coach was Craig Perry of Sudbury.

“It was such an amazing experience,” she said, who attended the games along with her mom Holly John.

The North American Indigenous Games (NAIG), which was hosted by Toronto from July 16-23, is the largest continental sporting and cultural gathering of Indigenous people, welcoming more than 5,500 athletes – who played in 18 different sports - 2,000 volunteers and a countless number of spectators and dignitaries from across Turtle Island.

Bailey, who plays a wide range of sports, wanted to be a part of the games when she had learned about them. She tried out for the basketball and volleyball teams first, but didn't succeed in getting a spot on either.

John said her daughter wanted to try out for badminton next, but the tryouts were some distance away and they weren't able to get to them due to scheduling conflicts. So, feeling there was nothing to lose by trying, she sent Team Ontario's badminton coach a video of Bailey playing the game. Based on that alone, she made the team.

John said she found this out while Bailey was at school, so she and other members of the family made signs congratulating her and waited for the school bus bringing her home.

“We surprised her,” she said.

Bailey said she was so excited when she found out the good news.

“I was counting down the days,” she said.

When she and her mom got there, Bailey said the opening ceremonies on Sunday July 16 were something to behold.

“You can feel the energy from it,” she said, with everyone entering the stadium carrying their team colours, the sound of drums and the cheers. Her mom said there was so much energy, one could feel it coming from outside the stadium.

John said the events were so spread out among different venues, it was impossible to see all of them. But the whole experience made it worth the effort.

In the end, Team Ontario placed third overall in the medal count with 137 total: 51 gold, 42 silver and 44 bronze. British Columbia was first overall with 176 medals (65 gold, 57 silver, 54 bronze), and Saskatchewan second with 164 medals (64 gold, 54 silver, 46 bronze).

While she didn't reach the final rounds, Bailey said it didn't matter as much as being a part of it all. One tradition among the athletes is trading special pins brought by each competing team with other team members. The pins were as unique as the people on the teams themselves.

She laughed mentioning how Team Ontario jackets, shirts and pins were the most popular at the games, as they represented the host province. People kept offering money to purchase a jacket from a team ember, but all offers were politely declined.

The experience at NAIG gave her a strong sense of pride as well.

“It made me proud of who I am, and feel part of something bigger, Bailey said.

She thanked the Bonnechere Algonquin First Nation, the Rotary Club of Eganville, Fellowes High School, Judy Ellis and everyone who contributed to her and her GoFundMe athletes page for the support.

“We're all getting ready for 2020,” she said, the year of the next NAIG.

SUhler@postmedia.com