Victoria Royals vs Prince Albert Raiders at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre. Photo credit: Christopher Kelsall

As it appeared by Your Magazine, by Christopher Kelsall

The three leaders in local industry are technology, manufacturing, and tourism. They each gross over a billion dollars for the local economy. The natural beauty of Victoria is world-class as is the living standard, but there is another aspect of Victoria that makes the area jump off the map: sport and recreation. We live in an adventure playground.

Victoria is the training ground of champions and world beaters. The area is also a recreational hub for the great outdoors, but little may you know, walking among us are international champions from a broad range of sports.

There are few cities in the world like Victoria. Melbourne, Australia and perhaps Austin, TX are two that come to mind that offers the volume of recreational opportunities to the general public, as well as have an elite sporting culture; welcome to Mecca.

There are a dozen national teams or national sports that make their home in Greater Victoria, including rugby 7s, rowing, cycling, surfing and stand-up paddleboard, mountain biking, women’s field hockey, triathlon, para-sailing, para-swimming, tennis, golf and Athletics Canada, which is the governing body of running and track and field, they have their “West hub” here.

You may have already brushed shoulders with international talent and may not have even been aware of it.

Elk and Beaver Lakes are wrapped tidily with a 10-kilometre trail, perfect for running. The kilometre markers that the CRD Parks department and the Prairie Inn Harriers running club measured and set, go anti-clockwise and are accurate in case you want to give the lakes a go. Watch out, you may pass an Olympic-level triathlete, runner, rower or WBO Heavyweight Champion boxer Adam Braidwood along the way.

One run I was on – safely removed from hip replacement surgery – I was making my way around the lakes with downhill ski poles and Will Dean, a two-time gold medal-winning Pan Am Games rower and two-time Olympian pulled up beside me to inquire about the poles. We ran five or six of those kms together. It was charitable of him to run my pedestrian pace that day.

Elite rowers have all the legs and the cardiovascular system to run distances comfortably, so while we ran, we talked about area athletes we mutually know. As anyone living in Victoria is familiar, this town is all about the proverbial two degrees of separation.

I asked Dean who his mentors are and he subsequently listed off a who’s who of rowing. I shared with him my story about once racing a 5K at the lakes hoping to dip into the 17-minute range, which is okay for a semi-seriously training master (40-plus) athlete. During the race, in front of me was a giant specimen of a man, loping along. He had more muscle in his two calves than I had in my entire body – I referred to his calves as “two babies fighting under a blanket” – you had to be there. The athlete was (and still is) Derek Porter, an Olympic rower and gold medallist, one of Dean’s idols.

Porter beat me that day, just cracking into the 17s. There he was; the Greek-like God of rowing descended from the mythological heavens beating me at my own game. He likely loped off to the boathouse to practice rowing for another two hours that day.

The interactions are endless.

Highlander FC at Centennial Stadium. Photo credit: Christopher Kelsall.

Years later, I was enjoying a wobbly pop at a local establishment with 2012 London Olympian Geoff Harris. He is from Halifax, specialized in the 800-metre distance (track). The 800 is a two-lap heart-wrenching blast; a long sprint or a short middle-distance run, either way, you spew lactic acid into both arms during the final 200m of that race.

He calls Victoria home – a two-coast Canadian – he now coaches with the aforementioned AC West Hub. Harris is a red-headed fireball of energy. He knows more about craft beer than you do about running. We were sitting with Team Canada rugby 15s player Amanda Thornborough and he says to me, “Chris, you know what would be a great story? One where you title it “Two feet from Greatness” as there is just so much talent in this town.” We finished our brew with him telling me the IBU content and the variety of hops we just sampled – he is a connoisseur.

Speaking of beer, I ran into Jon Montgomery, the 2010 Vancouver Olympic gold medallist in the sport of skeleton, at a golf tournament. You may remember that indelible Canadian moment when he was walking through Whistler Village for his post-race interview with CBC and someone out of the crowd hands him a full pitcher of beer, which he proceeded to drink.

I asked him how often he is asked about that so-Canadian beer moment. He said, “I get asked about it every single day of my life, sometimes twice or more a day.”

Somewhere Ross Rebagliati is rolling his….eyes.

I regularly get to hob-nob with various top-level athletes, like two-time world middleweight kickboxing champion Stan Peterec and two-time Olympic marathon runner Bruce Deacon. Two doors over from our house, a friend of my daughter’s nearly made the Olympic team in the backstroke at age 13. She ended up competing in the NCAA. Silken Laumann Olympic silver medallist, Lori Bowden two-time World Ironman Champion walk among us, as does Ulla Hansen and Paul O’Callaghan who ran in multiple world cross country championships for Canada and Ireland respectfully. Both are Greater Victoria teachers, as is the legendary Debbie Scott (Bowker). Jon Brown of Great Britain twice finished fourth in the Olympic marathons, in Sydney and Athens. He is the former UK record holder for the 10,000-metre distance.

Brown cup on the Gorge, UVic Vikes vs UBC Thunderbirds. Photo credit: Christopher Kelsall

The Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame displays that are located at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre are filled with friends and acquaintances like Maurice Tarrant, at age 88, he is still running. He owns several national and world age-group records in distance running. He won approximately 250 Vancouver Island Series races over the years, without interruption. Down the hall is three-time Olympian Simon Whitfield, who won gold in Sydney in the triathlon. He plays local recreational soccer. Players likely don’t know that they are being deeked by an Olympic gold medallist. He can be found stand-up paddleboarding off Gonzalez Bay most days.

A few displays later is Diane Cummins, former national record holder in the 800m distance. Deacon is in the hall of fame, as is Peterec. He is the Gordie Howe of kickboxing. He fought at least once in his 50s and won; I pity the fool that took him on.

Our sport and recreational culture is pervasive. Victoria, before the Royals major-junior hockey team came to town and you may remember, after the Victoria Cougars left us for Prince George (cough), we were the biggest city without a Canadian Hockey League team in North America. That doesn’t sound so sporting, does it?

But Victorians are busy playing. There is a culture of sport, recreation, and adventure that is exclusive to this city, partially due to the climate, partly due to the proximity of forested trails, commuting paths, ocean and lakes that surround the city and facilities and smaller hikeable mountains like Mt. Doug, Mt. Finlayson, Scafe, Stewart, Tolmie and Bear Mountain and Bear Hill located on the north side of Elk Lake – a molehill like its twin Christmas Hill.

Victoria is now home to the Pacific FC soccer team that will play in the Canadian Premier League (CPL) starting in the spring of 2019. Team selection trials are complete. Do we have enough soccer in Victoria? Below them are the Victoria Highlanders, who play the highest level of amateur soccer, they compete in the US Pro Development League. That will be two high-level soccer teams to watch, plus several division 1 teams in the Vancouver Island Soccer League, and there is also the University of Victoria Vikes.

We can ask the same question about hockey, with five Junior B teams, as well as the Junior-A Grizzlies and the aforementioned Royals. Is Victoria a hockey city? The same question can be asked about whether Victoria is a spectator city or a participation city.

More people will participate in the TC10K or the GoodLife Fitness Victoria Marathon, Half Marathon and 8K (led by Olympic-level athletes) in either of these races than fill The Q Centre in Colwood to watch the Grizzlies, who ice a very exciting brand of top-level amateur hockey.

Ask any of the players on the HarbourCats baseball team – who are mostly top-level American talent – how they like playing in Victoria and their eyes will light up.  

They have the opportunity to train at the modern and state of the art Pacific Institute for Sport Excellence (PISE).

The University of Victoria recently added the 77-million dollar Centre for Athletics, Recreation and Special Abilities (CARSA) – a stunning facility. Meanwhile on the Westshore Colwood and Langford seem to be leading the charge in providing top-notch facilities for sport and recreation. Bear Mountain just added tennis bubbles. Westhills Stadium is getting an expansion and the areas are complemented by the legacy of the 1994 Commonwealth Games including the Westshore Velodrome and Saanich Commonwealth Pool.

Cameron Cycling Series on Belleville. Photo credit: Louise Hodgson-Jones

While Greater Victoria continues to bid on regional, national and international sporting events via the very active Greater Victoria Sport Tourism Commission, led by Keith Wells, Mayor Stew Young in Langford is bringing in a seemingly, never-ending stream of championships including the national boxing championships, PGA Golf, Mountain Biking and Xterra Championships to name a few. These events generate enthusiasm for sport, which motivates youth to get in the game for the health, social benefits and to chase their dreams.

Check your calendar for a local sporting event near you and consider supporting the healthy living opportunities that the capital region offers. You are after all living in the mecca of sports and recreation.