Two Greater Trail athletes will look for a little home-grown magic as they go for gold when they join the largest Team Canada contingent in history at the 2015 Pan Am Games that kicks off today in Toronto.
Of the 720 athletes competing for Team Canada, field hockey veteran and Rossland native Thea Culley will play in her third consecutive Pan Am Games for the women’s national field hockey team, while Fruitvale’s Ella Matteucci will take to the baseball diamond for Team Canada women’s nine.
The Games, which run from July 10-26, will see over 7,600 athletes from 41 nations of the western hemisphere compete in 36 sports, with over 23,000 volunteers helping out at 32 venues across Toronto, Hamilton, Haliburton, York, Durham, Peel, Halton, Simcoe, Ajax, and Niagara.
“Playing at home in Toronto is going to be a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Culley. “Some athletes will never get the experience of playing at a major games in front of a home crowd. I know that it is going to bring up a lot of extra emotion when we hear the anthem being played at the beginning of each game. I am also preparing myself for the electricity of the crowd as we march into the stadium at the opening ceremonies. It will be magical.”
In addition to owning home-field advantage, the Games hold even more significance for the two athletes. For the 21-year-old Matteucci, the Games are a first for her and Team Canada, as women’s baseball makes its historic debut in an international multi-sport setting like the Pan Ams.
“This is our most exciting year, the first one,” said Matteucci. “I’ve never been more excited especially because it’s a multi-sport event, and I get to share it with my parents, (Paul and Melissa). I wish (my brother) Eric could come but he’s working.”
For Culley, 29, and the Team Canada field hockey team, the Pan Am Games is the squad’s final chance to advance to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, something the women’s team hasn’t done since 1992.
But the number-23 ranked team in the world should have a good shot at it, if hard work and preparation are any indication. The team traveled to New Zealand for a three-week tour in January, then to Ireland, where they finished second in the World League 2 tournament in March. They then hosted Ireland in a four-game series in Toronto at the end of May, before traveling to Spain in June for the World League Semifinal Olympic qualifying tournament where Team Canada missed an opportunity to qualify for Rio, finishing ninth.
“Spain was a tough competition,” said Culley. “The Hockey World League Semifinals is probably the most competitive event I have played in to date. The top nations were there and getting to play the likes of Argentina, China, Spain, and Great Britain in pool play was a challenge that will definitely serve us well at the Pan American Games.”
Culley, a 10-year veteran, gets set to play her 140th Cap (games played in international competition), while Matteucci is in her third year playing for Team Canada, and one of the youngest players on a team full of depth and experience.
“I see my role as a pitcher, I mean they do have me on the team as an outfielder but we have a lot of outfielders ahead of me, so mainly just pitching, a little pinch hitting, probably pinch running,” said Matteucci. “I am happy with my role, and just really excited to be there.”
Matteucci helped Team Canada to a fourth place finish at the IBAF World Cup in Japan last year. The experience was a highlight for the recent Clarkson University graduate, but she almost missed her Pan Am Games opportunity when she suffered a separated left shoulder early at the May tryout camp in Toronto, and was uncertain of her status.
“I slide head first right, and I just went in and my one arm didn’t come with me and I dislocated my left catching shoulder,” said Matteucci. “I missed four days of tryouts, so I was just happy to be named to the team.”
Unlike field hockey, the Canadian women’s baseball team, ranked fourth in the world, hasn’t had the same opportunity to prepare for the Games. While the Team is familiar with the number-2 ranked U.S., the other three teams in the Pan Am competition, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Cuba, (all ranked in the world’s Top 10), are relative unknowns to the Canadian team.
“We don’t know much about them, not like we do Team USA,” said Matteucci. “Those other three teams, they maybe not as strong, but we’re not 100 per cent sure, but I know our biggest competition will be the United States.
“I think we are a bit of a frontrunner, and hopefully the crowd will push us over that edge, and be able to take home the gold. Obviously, that’s everyone’s goal and I think if we perform both defensively and offensively really well, we’ll be fine.”
Matteucci, a two-sport phenom, helped the Clarkson Knights to the NCAA hockey championship in 2014, while also carrying Team BC to a bronze medal at the National Women’s Baseball championship and helping the local Trail Pirates to an XBL title in the same year.
She has been living in Burlington, Ont. and working out with Team Ontario’s baseball squad since selection to Team Canada in May, and while she says she misses her home and playing with the Pirates, living out east gives her an opportunity to practice with many of the players on Team Canada in preparation for the Games.
“I think we’ll have a really strong roster, and we’re all excited to just get together for the next three weeks here and get some practice in together.”
While Matteucci’s star is on the rise, the veteran Culley is looking at what could be her last shot at making it to an Olympic Games. Regardless of the outcome, the RSS graduate has enjoyed a very exciting and rewarding career, competing in two Commonwealth Games in 2010 and 2014, claiming a fourth-place finish at the 2011 Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, and winning bronze at the Pan Am Cup in Argentina in 2013.
“I think over the course of my 10 year career on the team, the thing that I will value most is learning to be a champion,” said Culley, who lives and trains in Vancouver. “To me, being a champion isn’t about winning or losing. It is the ability to get up one more time that you get knocked down, the ability to thrive in the face of adversity, and the understanding that a dream will remain a dream unless you take the action required to make it reality.
“These will be at the front of my mind as I compete at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games, my final chance to qualify for Rio 2016.”
Their respective roads to gold begin this week with the opening ceremonies going at Rogers Centre today.
Culley and Team Canada’s women’s field hockey team see their first action against the Dominican Republic July 13, while Matteucci and the Canadian baseball women will play a series of exhibition games this week in Quebec and Ontario, before joining the Games for the second week. Team Canada women’s baseball team’s first game goes on July 20 against Cuba.
Go to www.toronto2015.org for more info on the Games.
Pan Am notes: In the 2011 Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Fruitvale native Chris Kissock helped Team Canada Men’s baseball team to a thrilling 2-1 gold medal victory over the United States, while stopping Cuba’s winning streak of 10 straight gold medals at the Games.