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March 20, 2007

It was an experience that we will never forget! We heard the call for volunteers on radio and Alex decided that he would look into it to see what the volunteering entailed. When he returned home he was very excited and said to 14 year-old Allison and me, “Let’s all get involved, I think we’ll really enjoy it!” He told me they needed people who could speak different languages. He had asked if a team was coming from The Netherlands and was told yes. The next day we returned to the planning office on Lisgar Street and offered our services pointing out that Alex and Allison spoke French and that I spoke fluent Dutch.

The II World Junior Championships in Athletics were to occur from July 22 – July 31 at Laurentian University. All of the athletes were 16 and 17 years old. The first contest had taken place in Greece the previous year. Young athletes from 120 countries were expected to participate in Sudbury in 1988. The immense task of organizing a complex competition of this magnitude was begun more than a year ahead of time. More than 1000 athletes and support The Volunteer Command Centre was located at Huntington College. We each received an accreditation badge, which we had to wear at all times while we were on duty at the Championships. We needed it to access our designated areas as well as any volunteer services. We were issued specific uniforms consisting of navy blue pants and a light blue polo shirt, which had the official logo, imprinted on it, as well as our own white running shoes. We were also advised that we would have to pay to attend any events in which we were not directly involved.

Many fundraising events were held previous to the actual event. The biggest one was a Beach Boys Concert, which also featured Roy Orbinson, a favourite of ours. There was a huge crowd and the three of us enjoyed ourselves immensely! At one point I glanced at our daughter and she was dancing to the same tunes as we were. Such fun!

Lionel Courtemanche was in charge of the wonderful Opening and Closing Ceremonies and attendance at the practices was mandatory for all those involved. That included the three of us as we had been assigned to be hosts for various teams. Alex was host for the Russian Team, (we never did find out why), Allison had the Lebanese team and I was hostess for the Dutch team as I had requested.

Alex was working graveyard shift on July 24, the day our teams arrived at the Sudbury Airport. I had gone to the airport by shuttle bus when the Dutch team arrived. I was tremendously excited and had even prepared a welcome sign in Dutch from Bristol board. After my credentials had been checked I was allowed to board the plane to introduce myself to the team I would be hosting. Were they ever surprised and pleased when they heard me address them in Dutch! They had not expected that at all! The team consisted of 15 athletes and 7 leaders including: head of the Royal Dutch Athletic Association (KNAU), a doctor, physiotherapist, three male coaches, and one female coach. We all deplaned and boarded the bus, which took us to Lockerby Composite School for registration and accreditation. That process was far too lengthy and by the time it was completed it was 3 am! Considering that the team had arrived at the airport at 9 pm, the team members who had been en route all day were extremely tired and somewhat cranky. They wanted nothing more than to find their beds at the university residence which had been christened the “Athlete’s Village” for the duration.

The next morning we were at that Athlete’s Village by 9 am. I was met with questions and problems as soon as I arrived. The physiotherapist’s massage table had not arrived with the rest of the luggage; their coffee machine adapter did not work and the adults needed their coffee; Esther, the female coach required a single bed; what are the pool hours; when and where could they play tennis; etc. A few phone calls solved most problems but not that of the coffee machine. When I ran into Alex and told him he drove home to Lively to get our own coffee maker for them. They were most appreciative! After that he was as welcome in the Dutch quarters as well as I was! I was invited to attend the first technical meeting of the team. To my surprise and great pleasure they made me an honorary team member. This meant that I could attend all of their strategic meetings during the competition. As their hostess it was up to me to apprise them of all the amenities available at the university. Things such as the convenience store, post office, phone centre, bank, laundry facilities, hair dresser, medical centre, games room, linen exchange, command centre and of course the dining hall and its hours, were all of varying importance to the youth and their leaders.

Alex’s problems as host of the Russian Team were very different. The biggest problem he faced was the language barrier. This made it extremely difficult for him to communicate with the 90-member team members. He soon discovered that the Russian athletes’ passports had been confiscated before they got off the bus at the Athlete’s Village. He was certain that this was done to prevent defection during or after the games. The coaches pretended not to understand English but they navigated the site very well. When the athletes and staff realized that Alex had his car at the university they convinced him to take some of them to a Future Shop where they purchased “ghetto-blasters’. Jeans was the other item of great interest for the Russian youth. He chauffeured several of the coaches and the lone interpreter to South Ridge Mall where they bought some inexpensive items.

Finally it was time for the Opening Ceremonies. On July 26, we gathered at the Athlete’s Village at 5 pm and walked with our assigned teams to the soccer field with the ceremonies to begin at 7 pm. I carried the sign for Holland; Alex did so for Russia and Allison for Lebanon. The flag bearers for each team were the team captains. The mood was exciting and festive and numerous people as well as many media members were taking many photos. I asked Esther Goedhart to take a picture of me with the Dutch flag. It was a sentimental yet meaningful gesture on my part appreciated by the Dutch coaches. The teams entered the packed stadium in alphabetical order to be welcomed by loud applause. I was so very proud to walk at the head of the team from the Netherlands. The USSR Team led by my husband received a warm welcome. As is the custom, the team representing the host country, Canada, entered last to thunderous applause, cheering, and flag waving. It was an intoxicating feeling to participate in all of this!

A hilarious incident occurred when Alex needed to bring something to the Dutch Team’s quarters in the Athletes’ Village. He knocked on the door and was told to enter. As he described it to me later, he couldn’t believe his eyes – physiotherapist Hans Heymeskamp was giving a massage to Yvonne van der Kolk who of course was nude from the waist up. Neither the athlete nor the physio were the least bit disturbed by Alex’s presence and continued their activity but Alex didn’t know where to look he told me afterwards.

The team leaders from The Netherlands were most upset to learn that even though I was their accredited hostess I was not allowed to watch the competitions unless I paid the expensive entry fees. Rien Stout, the Chef de Mission was in fact outraged and he and Joop van Drunen who was the head of the Royal Dutch Athletic Union,( Koninklijke Nederlandse Atletiek Unie - KNAU), accompanied me to see accreditation officer Gary Polano, and informed him that they needed me in the stadium with them in case translation was required if something came up. The necessary accreditation was granted. I was elated to know that now I was able to really be an active part of the delegation wherever they wanted me to be with them. Alex did not receive this accreditation and so ended up spending more time with our Dutch friends that with his assigned team.

The competitions were exciting as these young athletes were the best in the world in their age groups. Whenever both a Canadian athlete and a Dutch athlete were competing in the same event, I must admit that my loyalties were divided. The Dutch members would look to see for whom I was cheering. July 1988 was the hottest July on record at the time and sitting in the stands demanded wearing a hat and plenty of sunscreen. I continued to wear my official shirt but changed into shorts due to the excessive heat, rather than the hot polyester pants which had been issued. Some of the events were changed to evening due to the heat. It was too dangerous for the competitors some of whom had already passed out or had suffered heat stroke keeping the paramedics busy.

Science North offered the athletes free admission on July 27 provided of course that they were not competing or training that day. There were barbecues, swimming parties at Lake Laurentian, disco parties, and many other events, for the participants every evening. Allison really enjoyed mingling with the kids who were not much older than she was. Alex and I visited with the Dutch leadership after the races had been completed for the day getting to know them and hearing about their experiences while they wondered about the Canadian way of life.

One morning I showed them some blueberry bushes on the grounds. They loved the taste of the wild berries! I had some at home and that evening when I went home I baked several dozens of blueberry muffins to have with coffee the next day. They absolutely loved them and were most appreciative of my efforts especially in that heat! I discovered that Esther’s birthday was on July 30. I suggested to the other adults that we surprise her with a party. They agreed enthusiastically so I ordered a large birthday cake from Cecutti’s for her. When I told the bakery who the cake was for they gave me a huge discount. I presented Esther with a picture book showing Canadian scenes, which she said she would treasure. It was a fun evening and we had managed to surprise her even though all of the athletes knew of the plan. Esther and I had connected almost as soon as we met especially so when we realized we were from the same province in Holland (Zeeland), were born the same year and had even been married the same year! We were immediately comfortable with each other. We promised to stay in touch after the games and we actually have!

When the Closing Ceremonies were over on July 31, it was time to say goodbye to my new friends. They presented me with beautiful gifts of appreciation. I received an exquisite pair of wooden shoes specially carved for the KNAU and a lovely oval Delft blue vase. Because Alex had been so helpful to the Dutch team he was given a very expensive bottle of the best Dutch gin called Bittenberg in a wooden case. He had also received a book in Russian from his Russian team and some pins.

Christmas of 1988 we received Christmas cards from every member of the team from the Netherlands again expressing their appreciation for what we had done for them. Esther and I had corresponded several times by mail and she made me promise to visit her the next time I travelled to my homeland. Each time since then that I have gone to Holland we have always spent time together. Alex, Allison and I had spent at least 12 hours a day at the venue and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly! Now that it was all over we had no regrets but we were totally exhausted and all three of us literally collapsed on the bed! It was truly an unforgettable experience!

When Alex and I travel to Holland next month we have already planned to visit Esther and her husband Joop.

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