This year’s Ontario Winter Games held in Renfrew may have unofficially ushered in a new event on Thursday night and it can best be described as 'Wandering in the Whiteout'.
That’s what it felt like for close to 1,000 athletes and visitors who were on site awaiting the formal opening of this year’s Games being held in Renfrew when a sudden and intense whiteout swept through the field at Mateway Park, sending some furniture across the front of the main stage and making it difficult to see 10-feet or more.
As everyone waited for the sudden squall, which included winds gusting over 50 km/hr. and bitterly cold winds which made it feel like -25 C, to pass so organizers could officially open the 2023 edition of the Games, the chair of the Ontario Winter Games, Peter Emon shook it off and joked that nothing was going to stop the Games from getting launched.
Scheduled to begin their parade towards the stage at 6:30, the athletes waited in the blinding snow and were finally given the green light to begin their march just before 7 p.m. As the flag bearers led the way, some had trouble holding on to the flags as the gusting winds, but they made their way despite the conditions.
As they marched from the main arena, they were followed in by PACHI, official mascot and head cheerleader of Games Ontario events. Behind PACHI were hundreds of athletes, many with their heads down to avoid the blinding snow and among them were some who will be competing in the first of two weekends at various locations throughout the county.
When the County of Renfrew secured the bid to host the Games in 2021, it moved forward with the intent of hosting the venue in February and March 2022, thereby keeping the event on its normal bi-annual rotation. However, with the effects of the COVID pandemic still present, Emon and his committee pulled the plug and postponed it until February, 2023.
That postponement resulted in many of the hundreds of volunteers who originally committed to helping out not being available for the revised schedule. However, despite that setback the committee were able to recruit close to 1,000 volunteers for the 2023 event.
Cindy Burwell, the Games general manager, said it was all worth it in the end.
“We had to live through COVID and we lost some events at Calabogie Ski Hill due to the fire that damaged their snowmaking equipment,” she said. “Then we had a minor scare with a rink shutting down in Arnprior. Then the extreme cold, but we got through it and it says a lot about the athletes and our volunteers.”
Due to the extreme weather many of the special guests kept their messages brief.
A video message sent from the Office of the Honorable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario was played on a large screen and she praised the young athletes for their efforts to reach this milestone.
“I salute the athletes for pursuing your dreams and never giving up,” she said. “The people of Ontario are so proud of you and can’t wait to see you in action. I wish you all the best of luck and remember this moment for you shall be creating your own wonderful memories.”
One of the biggest ovations from the crowd came when local Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) John Yakabuski (Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke) came on stage with three-time Olympian and holder of the fastest 800-metre race in Canadian history, Melissa Bishop-Nriagu of Eganville. Ms. Bishop-Nriagu is the official Ambassador of this year’s games.
Mr. Yakabuski could not help but let out a mighty laugh when he took the microphone
“I was told by Warden Peter Emon, who is chair of the Games, that this is going to be a memorable evening…well, he wasn’t kidding was he,” he said. “Nobody who is here will ever forget the weather that came through to start this ceremony. Although the work started a couple of years ago and then like so many things, it got sidetracked by the COVID pandemic. But it didn’t stop the work. They started over and I just want to thank the efforts of Peter Emon and all those who made sure the games went on.”
As he passed the microphone over to Bishop-Nriagu, she recalled growing up in Renfrew County and running one of her very first competitive races on the trails behind the main stage.
“I was born and raised here just down the road in Eganville and I ran down this hill and got my first taste of cross-country running,” she said. “I congratulate you all for making it here and you will create memories that last a lifetime.”
She shared her personal experiences of competitive sports and reminded the young athletes that winning does not always mean coming home with a medal.
“I want to leave you all with a little piece of advice that took me three Olympic Games and 13 years to figure it out,” she said. “Winning isn’t normal. I have had my share of wins and losses. In 2016, my goal at the Rio Olympics was a medal, of any colour, and I would have had myself a winning Olympics. I finished fourth. Was I upset? Yes, very much. Did I reach my goal? No I didn’t. But did I have a winning performance? Hell Yes I did!
“After the shock wore off that I finished fourth and didn’t win a medal and wiped my tears away and I stiffed up my broken heart, I realized I couldn’t have run any faster on that day. I couldn’t have been a better athlete on that day. Not only did I run the fastest time in my life, but I ran the fastest time in Canadian history. All this to say that winning doesn’t have to mean first place. It is not always winning a medal. But if you put your best performance out there on that day, then that is a win.”
Emon, who is also Warden of Renfrew County, brought words of encouragement on behalf of the residents.
“We are here to help you and we want you to consider this your second home and take from us some comfort, some support and know that we want you to be successful,” he said. “We know it was a lot of work to get here, it was a lot of work for your coaches, your families and parents and we applaud you for that. Now we turn the games over to you. These are your games and we want you to make these the best games ever.”
Although the sudden whiteout and strong winds forced the cancellation of a fireworks finale, there was a fire of another kind when paralympian Todd Nicholson of Arnprior and Regyna Armonas of Renfrew carried the ceremonial torch and lit the cauldron at the opening ceremonies.
Nicholson took part in the Ontario Winter Games prior to a car accident that left him paralyzed in 1989, but he went on to represent Canada as a paralympian and captained the Canadian squad to a gold medal in 2006. Ms. Armonas won a gold medal in volleyball at the 1974 Ontario Winter Games and was a member of the Canadian Olympic Team at the 1976 Games held in Montreal.
The Ontario Winter Games take place this weekend at several venues in Renfrew County and Ottawa. There will be a second opening ceremonies on Feb. 9 at the Ma-te-Way Activity Centre in Renfrew and organizers are hoping for better weather. The second weekend of competitions from Feb. 9 to Feb. 12. For a full list of events, check out https://renfrewcounty2023.ca/