Vernon swimmer Riley McLean is one of 12 aboriginal youth athletes honoured recently by Premier Christy Clark with the Premier’s Award for Aboriginal Youth Excellence in Sport.

Vernon swimmer Riley McLean is one of 12 aboriginal youth athletes honoured recently by Premier Christy Clark with the Premier’s Award for Aboriginal Youth Excellence in Sport.

Students honoured by premier

Aboriginal youth athletes recognized by B.C. Premier Christy Clark at a ceremony in Victoria March 21

Last month, Vernon swimmer Riley McLean took some time out from training towards the Rio Paralympic Games for a trip to Victoria, where he received the Premier’s Award for Aboriginal Youth Excellence in Sport.

For the Grade 10 Seaton student, it’s the latest in a long line of accomplishments. A Canadian record holder in two para-swimming events — the 50-metre freestyle and 50-backstroke — Riley competed at the Parapan Am Games in Toronto last summer, where he reached three finals and finished fourth in the 100-m freestyle, and fifth in the 50-m freestyle and 50-meter backstroke.

“I’m continuing training for now. I’m going to Toronto (this week) for the trials to qualify for the Paralympics in Rio this summer. And if I don’t qualify, I’ll go to Japan in four years. I know I’ll be going there when I turn 18 because I get assessed again.”

The 15-year-old French immersion student is coached by Renate Terpstra through her Okanagan Para Swimming program at the Vernon Recreation Centre.

“I feel good about my chances for Rio, though. I love swimming and I have a great coach,” said Riley.

The Premier’s Awards for Aboriginal Youth Excellence in Sport were presented during the Gathering Our Voices conference in Victoria last month. Twelve recipients crossed the stage in front of 2,000 of their peers at the national youth summit, to accept the inaugural awards for outstanding achievements by aboriginal youth athletes throughout the province.

More than 75 nominations were put forward recognizing those who excelled in performance sport, displayed strong leadership qualities, were committed to higher education, and served as community role models both on and off the field of play. The awards were developed in partnership with the Aboriginal Sport, Recreation & Physical Activity Partners Council, which is made up of the BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, First Nations Health Authority and Metis BC Nation.

“My dad saw the information about it and thought it would be a cool experience for me,” said Riley, 15. “Then I found out there was a speech I had to make so I wrote one that lasted a whole minute and when I got there I found out it only had to be 30 seconds. It was a great experience.”

Riley’s dad, Keith McLean, hopes this recognition of young athletes will inspire other aboriginal students.

“I think it would be a good idea to encourage some of our aboriginal athletes to apply. There are so many barriers for these kids, stuff that for the rest of us is not an issue,” said Keith. “As an aboriginal support worker (at Beairsto), I see it all the time. We need to tell them ‘yes, you can do this,’ because they have been getting the wrong message for so long that it’s part of their identity, and we need to change that.”

To help grow the spirit of encouraging aboriginal athletes, in subsequent years, those training and competing in performance sport will be invited to apply for regional awards. From these regional recipients, individuals will be chosen through the provincial award process.

“The province footed the tab to send Riley to Victoria and back so cost is not an issue to participation,” he said, adding that while Riley was unable to attend the forum that followed the conference, due to  his training   commitments, more than 1,000 aboriginal youth attend annually. “They are treated to a really great program from the looks of things: everything from cultural experiences, to advice on health and lifestyle, to academic goals and achievements.

“Aboriginal kids came from as far north as Nisga’a country and as far east as northern Ontario. There is a registration fee for the regular attendees but it is still only about $175.”

Riley’s travel and accommodation costs were covered by the Aboriginal Sport, Recreation & Physical Activity Partners Council.

Premier Christy Clark gave out awards to six men and six women whose athletic accomplishments matched their commitment to their community and future goals.

“These awards recognize the best and brightest young aboriginal athletes in our province, who have been achieving excellence both on and off the field, rink or court,” said Clark. “B.C. has a long and proud tradition of producing world-class athletes, and I hope these awards will inspire many more young aboriginal athletes for generations to come,” she said.