Canada Games alumnus and Olympian Ryan Cochrane was a torchbearer in Victoria - the westernmost stop on the first-ever national torch relay. (FILE PHOTO)

Meet the Greater Victoria athletes in Red Deer for the 2019 Canada Winter Games

Players express gratitude and excitement about representing Team BC

Eight Greater Victoria athletes are making the trip to Red Deer for the 2019 Canada Winter Games.

After years of training and countless hours of exhausting practices, players spoke to Black Press Media about their gratitude for loved ones and excitement to be called up as a Team BC player.

Over 150 events in 21 sports are being featured, bringing together 13 teams from all 10 provinces and three territories. The Games run from Feb. 15 to March 3. You can watch the competitors and find schedules on canadagames.live or sportscanada.tv.

Nolan Bentham, 15 – Hockey

Nolan Bentham currently practices and does workouts in the morning with his team Yale Hockey Academy in Abbotsford. The defenceman has been drafted by the Victoria Royals and has been training with the team. He’s hoping to earn a spot in the Royals lineup starting next year.

“I’ve just been mentally and physically getting ready — working in the gym, on the ice, trying to fine-tune skills, and I’m just really excited for the Canada Winter Games. I’m really looking forward do it…There’s tons to be grateful for, even in my small hockey career so far — parents, brothers, teammates.”

Ryleigh Bissenden plays for Canadian Wheelchair Basketball League (Gerry Kripps)

Ryleigh Bissenden, 21 – Wheelchair Basketball

Ryleigh Bissenden first started playing wheelchair basketball six years ago in a home school program. She started going out to practices more frequently, then slowly started practising in training camps. Simon Cass, her coach for the past six years, is also from Victoria and will be coaching in the Games. She currently plays for Victoria Wheelchair Sports and the women’s provincial team for B.C. and the provincial junior team. Bissenden is headed to Montreal after the Games for CWBL Women’s Nationals.

“It’s been crazy. I feel like it was just yesterday we were talking about how it was only a year away, and now we leave in a couple of days — so it’s really exciting. I feel like the team’s been training really hard. I’m feeling nervous for how cold it is there, but I’m really excited to experience the whole thing. I think it should be a lot of fun. My family’s been really supportive. They’ve come to as many Games as they can.”

Antonio Li, 21 – Badminton

Antonio Li has retained the No. 1 spot in badminton in B.C. for men’s singles since 2016 and is currently No. 2 for men’s singles in Canada. Li lives in Toronto to train and coach at KC Badminton Club but spent most of his life in Victoria. He’s competing in men’s singles and mixed doubles with teammate Kylie Chang. He’s currently taking time off from school to coach and qualify for the 2020 Olympics. Li also competed in the 2015 Summer Games. He started playing in a three-court community club in the Cordova Bay area, where he found his passion and fell in love with the sport.

“It’s my first time going to the Winter Games, so I’m eager to play an event like this. It’s a great opportunity. It’s not my first time playing in a tournament, but playing a multi-sport event like this kind of plays on the nerves, but I’m there with the team and I have all that support. I’m thankful for my parents for supporting me.”

Victoria Synchro artistic swimmers Kaitlyn and Mara will swim duet at the Winter Games (Tara Gant)

Kaitlyn Aylesworth, 16, and Mara Lambert-Wilson, 17 – Artistic Swimming

Kaitlyn Aylesworth and Mara Lambert have been selected to swim duet after a two-year selection process. They have four events coming up, each with different routines: the technical duet, a free duet, technical team and free team. The team events will consist of 10 swimmers. After the Games, the athletes have national qualifiers and national championships coming up.

The pair have been travelling to Surrey to practice for team events every other weekend. “It’s been a lot of travel and missed school and commitment on their part,” said Tara Gant, their regular coach at Victoria Synchro. “It’s a lot of travel.”

“The experience has been really long but it’s really rewarding to see where we’ve come from — it’s been really great,” said Lambert-Wilson. “We’ve been training every weekend. I’m excited to see all the sports and everyone that’s coming. I’m feeling a bit nervous but that comes with competition.”

“It’s been a really great experience,” said Aylesworth. “There’s been a lot of travel to Vancouver, but I really bonded with my team and we’re really coming together. All our hard work is paying off. There’s a lot of excitement, I’m just trying to tell myself to stay focused, keep working hard. You know, it feels like the final stretch and the team and myself are really excited about it.”

Defenseman Ty Gibson of the South Island Royals (Nic Hoekstra

Ty Gibson, 15 – Hockey

Ty Gibson plays defence with the South Island Royals junior team. He’s been drafted by the WHL’s Everett Silvertips. Last year, he made the playoffs with the Pacific Coast Hockey Academy Sea Devils.

“It’s going to be an honour to go and represent B.C. and play at the Canada Winter Games. I’m just super excited. I’ve met the team before, and it’s a great bunch of guys. We’re gonna go out there and try to win gold for the province,” said Gibson.

“Family-wise it’s been huge support: grandparents, great grandparents, aunts and uncles – all have been wishing me luck and have been there the whole way. Hockey team, coaches, same thing, they’ve been there for me, supporting me, pushing me, just wishing me good luck.”

Webb won two bronze medals at Ranier Cup(Weri Gadou-Morisho)

Dakota Webb, 15 – Judo

Dakota Webb has been practicing judo for two-and-a-half years and has been having year-round practices to prepare for competitions, which last from fall until the mid-summer. She has competed internationally as Canada’s top eight ranked athlete in the under 18, 70 kg category.

In January, Webb competed in Montreal’s 2019 Elite Nationals judo competition. She’s competing in the +70 category for Team BC. The weekend after she gets back from Red Deer, Webb is headed to the open national championship in Edmonton.

“It’s pretty exciting that I get to represent Victoria, but I’m also pretty nervous. Everybody’s been super supportive and super excited that I’m going. It’s been really nice to have all my coaches working with me to get me prepped for this as much as they possibly can. My mom’s been pretty supportive about this, and my dad as well and definitely my coach.”

Hockey player Megan Bouveur, 17, from Victoria is also going to the Games. She’s a forward for Shawnigan Lake School.

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