A world-class distance runner, a sweat-till-ya-drop football team and an octogenarian who volunteers with the energy of a teenager.
They were all honoured with gigantic trophies and applause at the 24th annual Tim Hortons North Okanagan Sport Awards Tuesday night at Lakers Clubhouse.
Hannah Bennison, a 17-year-old Grade 12 VSS student, joined a star-studded list of athletes of the year winners which includes Olympians Kevin Hill and Camille Martens, golfer Jackie Little and NHLers Brent Gilchrist and Curtis Lazar.
Bennison is among the world’s best under 20 cross country specialists. She was the top Canadian finisher at the IAAF World Championships in Uganda last fall, finishing 24th. She also won a third straight B.C. high school cross country title and a national under 20 crown.
“After a year of injuries last year, it was really rewarding to come back so strong,” said Bennison, in a media scrum. “I hadn’t expected to, and having been injured, I learned a lot about myself and it put everything in perspective. I don’t take anything for granted for sure, and this is very rewarding.”
Bennison has earned a scholarship to run for the Providence College Friars of the NCAA next season. She will study political science.
“I really want to inspire the youth to join our sport and find the passion I have found in it,” said Bennison, in her acceptance speech. “It has helped me become a better person and a better student and really set huge goals in my life. This is an amazing award and I’m very grateful to accept it, and I hope that it inspires others.”
An inspiration in school as well, Bennison will give a speech at the VSS year-end assembly. It’s called ‘An Ode to Acceptance,’ urging the popular kids, jocks, nerds and misfits to treat one another equally.
Bennison’s address finishes with: “We, the modern-day teenagers, have more power than our insecurities. We must use them to fuel us, not destroy us. We must act as one, and squash the importance of the best cafeteria seat. We must blur the lines – not just on paper or on Facebook – but in real life. We must figure out who we are as individuals, not who we are in the high school hallways. We must set the stage for the next generation of teenagers to have an opportunity to live in a lunchroom free of dictatorship, and full of possibility.”
“I really love it. I think even if I can’t compete someday for some reason, I will definitely keep running. I will run my entire life. I really love to compete too.”
Justin Sigal of Special Olympics was the runner-up for top athlete after winning two medals in cross country skiing at the World Winter games in Austria.
The Panthers joined the likes of the national champion Vernon Vipers hockey team and Jim Cotter’s provincial curling foursome as Team of the Year. The Cats lost 35-15 to the Seaquam Seahawks of Delta in the Subway Senior AA final at B.C. Place.
“I’ve coached for a number of years and what made these guys special was they had talent and they also had the work ethic that goes with it,” said VSS head coach Sean Smith, accompanied by several players and assistant coaches. “I’ve had one or the other with different groups. They also put in a lot of time outside of the season to get better and stronger.”
Smith, who recently won the prestigious Orange Helmet coaching award from the CFL B.C. Lions, gave major props to his support staff and parents for helping the Panthers raise the bar for the younger players entering senior football.
“Now, it’s up to them to win it all,” smiled Smith.
The Panthers were the first Interior team in 20 years to reach the provincial finals.
Smith said the vagabond Panthers, who load up vans with equipment for home games on fields at Fulton or the college turf, hope to one day have their own field to play on at VSS, where the fields are unplayable.
“It’s very frustrating. It’s now probably been six years since we’ve been able to play on a field. We lost our field when they were building the new VSS, plus the four years since we’ve been in it. It takes its toll on everybody.”
Ian Gibson, 81, was presented with the Leadership in Sports award for his five decades of service to boxing and soccer.
Gibby, as he is affectionately known in soccer circles, was a miner in Kirkconnel, Scotland before he and his wife Betsy moved to Vernon in 1975. Betsy died last November. The couple had been married for 58 years. Gibson broke down in tears when he mentioned “my wife was the biggest supporter I had.” His son, Ian Jr., stepped up to the podium, comforted his father and said a few closing words on his father’s behalf.
“Coming to this town was a pleasure for me really,” said the retired Riverside Forest Products employee, following the ceremony. “When I came here I went to see Don McDonald (Vernon boxing club founder and coach), and he told me ‘I don’t need help, but I need somebody for refereeing and judging.’ That’s what got me involved in that.”
Gibson worked his first B.C. Boxing Championships in 1977 at the PNE Gardens in Vancouver, returning to officiate the Golden Gloves the same year. He studied for various classes and earned his national ticket in 1987 when he manned the ring in Sydney, N.S. He has officiated more than 4,000 amateur bouts.
Gibson started women’s soccer here in 1976 and also jumpstarted the men’s city league, which today honours him with the Gibson Cup as playoff champions. A member of the B.C. Boxing Hall of Fame and Okanagan Sports Hall of Fame, Gibby mentors young soccer officials and helps out at the youth soccer office.
“I’m totally involved with the kids in boxing and soccer. Right now my boxing association is really exploding. We were down for about three years, and now all of a sudden it’s climbing again.”
The award winners are chosen by a media and community panel, chaired by Ken Richardson, and featuring John Topping, Jack Gilroy, sponsor Dan Currie, Taylor MacInnis, Betty Selin, Kate Bouey, Pete McIntyre and Kevin Mitchell.