Young Island athletes receive ‘Sports Heroes’ awards

Maren Kasunich

MANITOULIN—Two young women on Manitoulin Island have received ‘Meet Our Sports Heroes in the Making’ awards through Indigenous Sport and Wellness Ontario (ISWO).

“I didn’t know that I had won this award. It was a surprise,” stated Maren Kasunich, 14, of M’Chigeeng First Nation, who along with Ada Speck of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territories were both selected for the award.

“My mom (Melissa) wrote a letter nominating me for this, as did my coach (Gerry Holliday),” Marin told The Expositor. 

Melissa Kasunich, in her nomination for her daughter wrote, “Maren’s Anishnabemowin name strongly suits her spirt. She is an ‘Anongoohns’ (bright star), as she shines brightly in all that she does and gives. She is a kind and giving person and she trains every season, giving it her all. She applies herself to the best of her abilities in all that she does, whether it is school, at work, or in helping others. She is a positive, kind and compassionate young lady who makes good choices based on her values and teachings.” 

“Maren has set records on Manitoulin Island over the years, as well as in Northern Ontario, in track running events and in cross-country running,” wrote Ms. Kasunich. “She has been making it to provincial invitational races in cross-country and track since she was in Grade 7 to compete against high school students. Keep going, Maren!”

“Maren assisted with younger children while in public school and volunteered in the school library. Maren has volunteered every year to raise funds for the Heart and Stroke Foundation since Grade 1 and has assisted with peers in her classes who needed support,” the proud mom continued. 

She explained, “with the ongoing drug crisis amongst our First Nations people and youth, Maren has chosen a healthier path of refraining from drugs and holding strong to her teachings and values of living mino biimaadiziwin, the good life.”

“Maren admires many role models and mentors, for their values and integrity, perseverance and heart. She received the honour of getting to speak with Billy Mills to hear his story of challenge and triumph. She has gratitude for her coach, Gerry Holliday, who volunteers to train her and has a similar work hard ethic,” she continued. 

In his nomination letter Mr. Holliday wrote, “Though my first encounter with Maren was as an athlete at Lakeview School in M’Chigeeng where I was her basketball coach, the real athletic journey would really begin when I went to observe her at the Lakeview School track meet where she communicated her desire to excel in the sport,” wrote Mr. Holliday. “Known as a no-nonsense coach I rarely take on new athletes. However, as a result of my previous knowledge of Maren’s work ethic, I had no doubt as to her commitment or desire and agreed to become her distance running coach.”

“One of the many reasons I believe Maren to be a strong contender for this award is her ability to adapt to new challenges, an attribute of a good leader. She was quick to analyze what was required of her, implementing training methods foreign to her. Within the next four months this athlete would apply herself through a rigorous training program to become, in her age category, the top female track and cross-county athlete in Northern Ontario,” wrote Mr. Holliday.

“Over the next couple of years she would remain persistent, conducting herself with a maturity far beyond her years. Social sacrifices have often become the norm in her effort to achieve her lofty goals. This has led to many awards in her running culminated by her top five finish at the Ontario Cross Country Championships in King City and her top finishes at the Ontario Legion Championships in Brampton,” continued Mr. Holliday. “With COVID in play over the past year our club has hesitated to travel south however at a few meets hosted in the north last fall she proved herself to still be a top high school runner in the North. Regardless of how all these setbacks she continues to train and stays focused on her goals in the highly competitive running fraternity.” 

“I am especially pleased with this young lady when it comes to her leadership skills. Despite her very busy life, be it school, training or her success in her running journey she still makes time for younger runners in her group who may need assistance. Maren often does her warmups at practices with the younger runners encouraging them along the way,” wrote Mr. Holliday. 

“Throughout the years, as her personal coach I have developed an ever-growing respect for her abilities and often I use her as an example to present day athletes on how to conduct themselves on a daily basis,” wrote Mr. Holliday. “In conclusion I’d like to reiterate my strong support for Maren’s application for selection of an athlete that excels in her sport while acting as a community role model for the youth of M’Chigeeng.” 

Ada Speck, also 14, of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territories is another local ‘Sports Heroes in the Making’ competing in ski racing, volleyball and swimming.

Marine Speck, Ada’s mom, said in her nomination letter, “Ada works hard in all sports and tries to be the first one there and last to leave. She is motivated at home and set up an exercise program to work toward her goals. She is eager to be a part of various leadership opportunities and has recently been accepted in a Grade 9 sport specific program that offers student high school credits at school.”

“Ada has also recently been accepted into a leadership program for junior assistant coaches with Soul Beach Volleyball,” wrote Ms. Speck. “She will be learning a number of leadership skills and how to coach other youth.”

Ada “has continued to motivate others to stay active and follow their athletic goals. She has also participated in a few programs with our local friendship centre in order to stay connected with community,” Ms. Speck continued.

Ada’s coach wrote, “I can confirm that Ada has been a competitive alpine ski racer in the Blue Mountain Jozo Weider race program for the last six years. Ada has successfully progressed through our divisional race program from the U8 two-day program and through to the U14 SOD program.”

Ada “looks up to both Sarah Paven, the youngest player to play Olympic volleyball, and Andrew Hinchey, a former volleyball Olympian who was told he was too short to play. Andrew’s story is really impactful for Ada since she is only five foot one inch tall right now.”