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The 2010 Games’ northern gateway

From aspiring athletes to military personnel, Pemberton Valley is getting reading for the Olympics



Travelling north past Whistler is a little like taking a trip into the past.

Drive about 35 km and you find yourself in a deep valley lorded over by the majestic Mount Currie. Drive there at dusk and the mountain engulfs the valley in shadows.

Below the mountain you find Pemberton, a town borne of the gold rush era that has worked hard to preserve its past. Townhomes to the south look like sets from a Sergio Leone picture. The most popular eatery in town has hitching posts in its parking spaces.

In a year's time this community, famous for its seed potatoes and music festivals, will add another notch to its historical belt - the 2010 Winter Olympics, an event for which Pemberton will play an important role.

As the "northern gateway" to the Olympics, Pemberton will essentially play the role of host and good neighbour to the Games. There won't be any athletic events happening in town, but officials and organizers have worked hard to see that the Spud Valley has a place in the Games.

"As a community, we're supporting the Games," said Pemberton Mayor Jordan Sturdy. "We're really, essentially, a pretty critical part, in that many of the people in this community work in and around Whistler and in doing so are really part of the whole Games. So we are certainly a supplier of personnel."

Can't find a parking space in Whistler? No problem. Pemberton is working with VANOC to arrange park and ride and transit opportunities to help ease what could be a congested Games.

The plans haven't been finalized yet, but Mayor Sturdy expects the town is going to be an important hub for transportation during the Games.

"If you're coming from the north, unless you have a parking spot in Whistler, you're going to be stopping here," he said.

For a brief time in early January, Pemberton became the setting for "Cool Runnings II" as it hosted the Jamaican bobsled team at the Copperdome Lodge. That all changed when the team couldn't get any ice time at the Whistler Sliding Centre and had to relocate to Utah.

Pemberton, good host that it is, has taken that setback in stride. Other teams have expressed interest in staying Pemberton but it's already making room for other guests.

Chief among them is the Canadian Forces. Canada's military has made the Pemberton Airport a temporary home for the Olympics, using the space for various training exercises and a nearby Ministry of Forests fire base as a barracks for some 200 soldiers.

Combined RCMP and Canadian Forces personnel used the Pemberton Airport for "bronze training," the first of three stages in preparing security operations for the Olympic Games. This week has seen the "silver" training exercise, which included the temporary installation of radar equipment that will help security personnel track aircraft flying over 10,000 feet. An eight-by-eight wheeled armoured personnel carrier, a Bison, has also been brought in for the exercise.

"Bronze was a preparatory exercise done mostly... in Richmond last fall," said Major Dan Thomas, a spokesperson with the Integrated Security Unit (ISU), a joint unit between the RCMP and Canadian Forces that's responsible for security during the Olympic Winter Games.

"Silver is meant to test technology as well as communications, working relationships," he said. "Now is the time to find out what works and what doesn't."

Gold training, the final stage of Olympic security preparations, is expected to take place in November.

Sturdy said the Village of Pemberton is looking at ways to accommodate the military.

"The ISU has secured quite a number of rooms in the Pemberton area at a variety of different locations and will be placing or launching personnel here," he said. "We will be looking for support services around the lodging, food and that kind of thing."

But there's more going on in Pemberton besides hosting guests in camouflage gear.

Pemberton believes it is to Whistler what Heber, Utah, once was to Salt Lake City. During the 2002 Olympic Games, Heber City hosted a community celebration that brought its population of around 7,000 people together to commemorate the arrival of the Olympics.

Two Pembertonians visited Heber in 2002 and brought back with them the inspiration to put on Winterfest, an event that the community has hosted for the past five years. The festival, which takes place this year from Feb. 14 to 22, is a chance for the community to display the best of its artists, musicians, cooks and farmers in a celebration that will bring hordes of locals (and others) into Portage Road. Individual events include an opening day parade, a film festival, video dance party and street hockey tournament.

But Winterfest 2010, Sturdy said, will be much bigger.

"We plan to have a much more significant event over the 17 days of the Olympics, to providing a venue for our community to gather and celebrate and participate," Sturdy said.

Early plans for the 2010 festival include setting up a big tent on the grassy field next to the new Pemberton Community Centre - smack dab in the middle of town - so that everyone has a central place to gather. Other tentative plans include setting up a big screen so that the community can watch the Games together.

"(We hope to) have some sort of viewing site so that 1,000 people can sit around and watch the Canadians win the gold medal in hockey," Sturdy said.

Mount Currie, a Lil'wat reserve just to the east of Pemberton, also has plenty of Olympic spirit leading up to the Games. The Lil'wat Nation is an official partner in putting on the Games as one of the Four Host First Nations.

Together, the First Nations will have opportunities to promote their culture and history during the Games. That will materialize in the design of the medals, décor at the venues and the designs of Olympic promotional material. It's the first time that aboriginal people have been official partners in planning the Olympics.

The proximity of the Olympics has been a driving force for two young athletes from Mount Currie. One, Sandy Ward, is a 23-year-old snowboarder with dreams of making the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. As a member of the First Nations Snowboard Team she's already making a name for herself on the riding circuit.

Last February she came first in boarder cross and second in B.C. women's halfpipe as part of competitions put on by the International Ski Federation. Her experience there led to an invitation to the 2008 Canadian Snowboard Nationals.

Though she feels the 2010 Olympics are out of reach for her, she's excited at the prospect of seeing the world's best come to Sea to Sky for the Games. She ultimately hopes she can get a job at the Games that'll put her close to those athletes.

"It's definitely a good opportunity. If I get to go to some of the snowboarding events, that'd be really cool," Ward said. "To watch that and know one day that I'll be at that level, it's pretty cool."

The Olympic fever is just as strong in Elainah Andrew, the nine-year-old granddaughter of Lil'wat Chief Leonard Andrew. Though she's only in Grade 4 at Signal Hill Elementary School, she's already starting to take the luge world by storm.

Elainah, already a snowboarder and track and field athlete, stoked her passion for the sliding sport last summer, when her father saw an opportunity to join a one-day luge trial in a local newspaper. He signed her up and soon enough, she and another recruit were cruising down a hill in the Pemberton Benchlands on a street luge.

Today, Elainah already has competitive experience under her belt. She practices three times a week after school and competed at the Youth Canadian Championships in Calgary on Feb. 6.

In previous competitions she came third in the Youth B Girls division at the inaugural B.C. Cup for luge last December - but first among B.C. women in that category.

Mother Christine Andrew, a support worker at Signal Hill, sometimes gets scared seeing her daughter shoot down a sliding track at 90 kilometres an hour. But she's happy to see Elainah doing something she loves. The Olympics, Christine said, have only pushed her to get better.

"When she was in track and field she realized that she can do this, she can win in things," she said. "She can do anything she wants."

With a year to go, Pemberton is buzzing with excitement over the Olympics. And even if the Jamaican bobsledders have passed it by, it has plenty to look forward to come 2010.