Student athletes at William E. Hay Composite School gathered on Tuesday, June 10, to celebrate their achievements throughout the year on the field, court, and range.
Hockey, volleyball, badminton, basketball, archery and track and field were some of the key sports celebrated at the event, though anyone who competed in the name of the school was acknowledged at the hours-long event.
This year, the school had students compete not only locally but on the provincial and national stage, bringing home banners to decorate the William E. Hay gymnasium and providing names to add to the athletic honour rolls located on green placards in the gallery.
This year’s festivities included guest speaker Les Parsons, who as a child only entered into athletics in Grade 12. Parsons grew up on a ranch near Lacombe and spent a lot of time running as he worked, so when he was required to run in a physical education class, it was a breeze.
“I just ran like Forrest Gump,” he said to the assembled students, parents and teachers.
That running impressed his teacher, though, and Parsons found himself on the track team. And then the football team, which brought him for the first time to Stettler. There, both teams competed in green and gold. He remembers catching the football and making a run for the enemy end, only to be obliterated by a line of green and gold.
“I remember looking up at a sky of blue,” he recalled. “Then the guys leaned over and said, ‘Welcome to Stettler!’”
From there, Parsons became a “sports star,” taking to every sport like a natural. He enjoyed it so much that instead of his original intentions, he went to post-secondary in athletics.
And was cut from every team.
“I was a pretty big fish in a small pond in Lacombe,” he ruefully noted. “At (the University of Alberta) I was no one.”
Being cut from the teams was a wake-up call for Parsons; until then, he hadn’t had to try to improve, he just could simply exist in sports and do well, he explained. Now, he had to try. He wasn’t willing to give up.
So he joined the cross-country ski team, and ran on skis.
“For two years I was the worst cross-country skier in the province,” he said. Then, the team acquired a new coach.
“Maybe you should try gliding,” the new coach told him.
It was like a light bulb had turned on, and Parsons went from the worst skier in the province to one of the best in the turn of one season, an improvement so marked that he was accused of cheating.
About that time, Parsons went into coaching, starting with women’s volleyball, a sport he’d never played.
“I was the losing-est coach in Alberta Colleges Athletics Conference (ACAC),” he confessed. But over the years, as he learned not only the sport but how to coach, his teams became better, and he became coach to more and more sports.
He started to have more success when he started to put into play a coaching philosophy he learned from one of his coaches in Lacombe: Don’t coach sports, coach people who play sports. The message was clear to Parsons: help people become better people who play sports. The rest would follow.
Parsons’ coaching career has taken him to the Olympics repeatedly, starting in 1998 in Nagano, Japan. There, he coached Becky Scott, a cross-country skier.
She came in last.
After, she told Parsons she had to get better or she had to quit. He suggested better.
“We left no stone unturned,” Parsons said of the quest for improvement. Four years later, Scott competed in Salt Lake City, Utah, in the next Winter Olympics. She went from a 45th place finish in Nagano to a third place finish in Salt Lake City.
Afterwards, she told Parsons that she was the only one who had fairly won a medal, and it was revealed afterwards that both the silver and gold medalists had been using performance enhancing drugs.
More than a year after the Olympics, Scott got her gold medal. She competed again in Turin, Italy, four years later and ended her Olympic career with a silver.
“It’s about perseverance,” Parsons said. “Not everyone will reach the Olympics, but each athlete will have their personal Olympics, the competition which is the height of their career.”
Sometimes those competitions aren’t actually competitions, but challenges to be overcome. For Parsons, his world shifted when he started doing international volunteer work through sports, working in war-torn and impoverished areas of the world.
He remembered working in Afghanistan in 2001; he was there working with the Taliban, trying to work towards getting girls educated with a group of international workers.
Then New York City was attacked, and he and others had to flee.
“I remember getting to the Khyber Pass to cross into Pakistan,” he said. The place was packed tight with people and the border guards were using clubs to keep them back.
Using his Canadian passport, Parsons was able to cut through the crowd and cross through safely, while all around him people were being clubbed.
Parsons said he realized, then, that a lot of the things that concerned him didn’t really matter.
“You can’t take what you have here for granted,” he told the students.
“It doesn’t end in Grade 12,” he noted. “Keep on going, learn new sports, keep giving back.”
Like he did, volunteering around the world and learning to swim in his 20s, after he broke his leg during a qualifying ski, ending his own Olympic dreams.
“(The lifeguard) would throw me into the pool,” Parsons recalled. “Then I’d drink a lot of water.”
Today, however, Parsons can swim.