Now we need to aim higher, says delighted island games team manager

Bob Kerr, general team manager for the Shetland Team at the recent NatWest Island Games in the Isle of Wight, gives a personal view of the team’s performance.

This year’s games in the Isle of Wight was again a whirlwind of prep­arations, travel and the excite­ment of a packed week of island sport.

The overall medal tally was 15 – seven gold, four silver, four bronze. This is our best off-island perfor­mance, only bettered when we were at home in 2005. At the end of the week, we found ourselves well placed in the final medal table, in 10th place out of 24 island teams, sandwiched between Cayman and Gibraltar. A good result I would say.

The runaway story of the week for Team Shetland was of course the successes in the swimming pool. Andrea Strachan with four gold medals is our most successful com­petitor at any one games and her medals (and two games records) are well deserved. Amy Harper took an impressive five medals too, includ­ing one gold. Felix Gifford also took a bronze medal, the first ever men’s swimming medal for Shetland. Well done to them all.

I remember when Andrea took her first gold medal in the open air pool in Rhodes in 2007, also in the women’s 50 metre breastroke event, ahead of swimmers from Bermuda and Jersey. She seemed genuinely bemused by the attention she re­ceived then, at her first games aged 14. Two years later in Åland, most of the swimmers were struck by a nasty tummy bug and as a result had disappointing results in the pool.

This year, it all came together. The hard work by the whole swim team paid off with medals and personal bests all round. I was impressed by their team spirit and dedication. Each day, they were up at around 7am to head for the pool and morning heats, followed by some rest in the early afternoon. They would return to the pool for evening finals and return to the caravans and be in bed for around 10pm each night. All of them teenagers, this was a very disciplined performance.

Their swim coaches, Petur Petur­sson and Lorraine Gifford, and team manager Lesley Hutchison, deserve special mention for their hard work too. They worked well as a support team.

From when the first results came in, Petur was grinning almost non-stop for the whole week. He is passionate about his swimming and I was genuinely delighted to see him so pleased.

Praise also is due for what I hear was a superb Sunday dinner for 15 people, in a caravan, on our second day in the Isle of Wight. Lesley Hutch­ison and Andrea’s mother, Linda, apparently rustled up a full roast dinner, including Yorkshire puddings, to set the team up for the week ahead. It obviously worked. We will have to plan ahead and book them for the whole team for next time!

Of course we have an impressive network of swimming pools in Shet­land but success to this level also needs hard work and support from competitors, coaches and family mem­­bers.

The swimming coaches and local swimming organisations have work­ed extremely hard in the last couple of years to improve their skills and to bring in high level swimming expertise to Shetland. This has borne fruit in recent months and now also at the games.

For Andrea and Amy, the exper­iences of swimming gained in Shetland have given them a spring­board to achieve greater things, now that they are both off at university and making their mark on the Scottish mainland.

Well done also to cyclist Christine McLean. This was a well deserved gold for her too. She has made unparalleled achievements in time trial cycling events across Scotland and Britain. She confessed to being disappointed not to have a games medal in Rhodes in 2007, partly due to the climate and the poor organ­isation of the cycling event. Without any cycling included in Åland in 2009, it has been a long wait for her to have her chance again.

The cycling event was well run this time and the weather had cooled by Thursday. Christine said she was nervous before the race and that the standard was really high, with some top riders (and their support teams) from the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. In the end the nerves never showed and her time, with a good few seconds to spare, was comfortably ahead to win the gold medal.

Our middle distance track star, Emma Leask, won gold again in the women’s 800 metre final. It was a much hyped race, with the Western Isles’ Eilidh Mackenzie surely keen not to finish in silver place this time around. Also running was Claire Wilson, silver medallist in Rhodes in 2007 for Shetland, now living in and running for Jersey. The con­troversy in the closing straight of the race has been well reported and it is clear that Eilidh was just too keen to make it across the line first.

After the emotional finish of the race and the decisions that followed, Emma was of course absolutely delighted with her gold medal, as was her mother, Janice, who was there to hug her too.

We have good relations with the Western Isles and our diplomatic incident on this occasion won’t spoil that. Equally too, there is no anim­osity with Claire Wilson, who took the silver medal this time around for Jersey, and she was chatty with everyone at the side of the track.

I gather that Emma has had an offer of work experience in Guern­sey, starting this August, as a gap year, before hoping to gain a place at university in 2012. This will also give her a chance to train and compete with the Guernsey athletics team. What a fantastic opportunity.

This could of course mean that Emma finds herself competing against our Claire Wilson, also in Jersey, at the annual sports clash between the two islands. The “inter-insular” contests are much like our inter-county events, only far more intense apparently. Who would have thought that two of our best runners would find themselves there – two Shetland lasses running for Jersey versus Guernsey?

I don’t want to pick out too many individual competitors, but it is hard not to also mention our Lynda Flaws who played fantastic table tennis to reach the final match and take a silver medal in the women’s singles competition.

Lynda has spent the last year studying (and playing table tennis) in Denmark and this has obviously benefited her game. I gather she is going study in Glasgow next year so that she is close to the Scottish table tennis circuit and on to greater things.

Unusually perhaps, this year’s games had a smattering of sports celebrities which was a chance for some of our athletes to meet some inspirational sportspeople.

Lord Coe was the high profile figure to officially open the games and to remind us of the sporting preparations ahead of London 2012. Unst athlete Faye Richardson was quick off the mark to get her tracksuit signed by the 1980 and 1984 Olympic gold medallist before we left the arena. Not a bad souvenir to start the week.

Olympic gold medal swimmer Duncan Goodhew MBE was on hand to conduct a smaller opening event at the swimming pool. He is a lively character and he set the tone for what was to be an energetic week in the water.

Our three dinghy sailors all met and chatted with yachtswoman Dame Ellen MacArthur, now based in the Isle of Wight, on the first day of competition. Their tracksuits are now also personalised and I am sure they have positive memories of meeting one of their sporting legends.

And when I arrived at the sailing venue on Thursday morning, I was delighted to hear that our youngest (and smiliest) sailor, Kirsten Napier, had been asked to be part of a small party to meet HRH the Earl of Wessex on his short visit there. As I spoke to other competitors, Kirsten looked relaxed standing next to Prince Edward and the group of VIPs on the upper balcony for 15 minutes or so, enjoying the view across the English Channel and the spectacle of the dinghy race.

The second half of the week saw the frustration of fourth places for some of our competitors.

In the women’s doubles squash competition, Joan Smith and Kerry Pottinger were narrowly beaten in a hotly contested bronze medal match against the Cayman Islands.

On the same day, our pistol shooter Dave Lewis was agonisingly close to a medal, finishing just three points short of bronze medal in the 10 metre air pistol event.

After 150 shots, clay shooter John Magnus Laurenson was only two points off a bronze medal in a very tight Olympic Skeet event, behind a top shot from Åland.

And on the spectacular expanse of the Newclose cricket ground, a small crowd of competitors gathered to cheer on team mates during the finals of the individual head-to-head archery events. Billy Finnie was pipped into fourth place by just four points by Faroese archer Albert Dam.

Fourth place is a difficult place for anyone. Our medal tally may have been higher but the fact that some of our competitors were in the final stages of these events reflects how well we performed overall against some tough teams.

The standard of the games is getting higher every year. Our badminton team for example, who haven’t been at the games for six years since 2005, commented on the noticeable difference now, with some superb players from other islands on court.

We have always kept ahead of Orkney and, more recently the West­ern Isles too. I feel though that we should be looking up the medal table rather than down.

This year the games were dom­inated by Guernsey, with 107 medals in total. The Channel Islands have always been strong, but this year Guernsey pretty much cleaned up in the swimming pool and in the cycle events, with some incredible results, and then took a tidy share of medals in plenty of other sports.

But of course, medals aren’t the whole picture. So many of our team were happy with their performances with many personal bests and that is as much as you can ask. If everyone learns something from each compe­tition to help them for next time, that is a major achievement. To be able to experience (and learn to control) the emotions of sports competition as a competitor and share in the highs and lows of the rest of the team is an amazing opportunity. The games certainly offer that.

We had a visit from two coll­eagues from sportscotland, who are based in Dingwall as part of the Highlands and Island Regional Sporting partnership. They have heard so much from us about the importance of the games for the Northern and Western Isles and took the opportunity to see it first hand, while it is in the UK. They will I hope now be advocates for the games to national governing bodies of sport, whose support is so important to help prepare island-based athletes for the future.

On a similar note, we also had a brief visit trackside from the res­pected international athletics coach and chair of Scottish Athletics, Frank Dick OBE, who now lives in Southampton. He was very keen to see what Scottish Athletics could to support our athletes and took time to visit and speak to track and field athletes from Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles. Frank is quite an influential figure and his support is exactly the kind of thing we need.

Overall this year’s games were well run and well delivered. Any concerns were unfounded and all the major issues were resolved. The caravan park worked well for us and the majority of the team were all together which was real plus for team spirit and banter. The team were happy and so was I. It makes all the months of planning all seem worthwhile.

Thanks to The Shetland Times for their news coverage of the games, and especially to photographer Kevin Jones who did an excellent job of trying to take pictures from several venues all at the same time.  Thanks also to the team from BBC Radio Shetland and BBC Radio Orkney whose nightly radio cov­erage was again well received. The Shetland Supporters Group also did an excellent job at cheering on Team Shetland whenever they could. Thanks for that too.

This year’s games was also a first for the amount of coverage on Facebook and YouTube so we will see how that develops for next time.

Shetland Island Games Assoc­iation will regroup after the summer months and start planning for next games – Bermuda 2013. It will be expensive but it will be a once in a lifetime opportunity to be there. The Bermuda, Falkland, St Helena and Cayman Island teams all come across to Europe every time so it perhaps only right we return the favour.

For anyone considering taking part, please start saving now. And I hereby forewarn everyone else we will be fund-raising in earnest!

The two year gap between games always passes quickly and it won’t be long before the whirlwind of preparations, travel and competition comes around again.


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