The U19 Women’s World Lacrosse Championship hosted in Peterborough, Ont. ended on Saturday with a North American showdown between Canada and the United States.
But this story is not about the winner or even about winning — it’s about sportsmanship on and off the field.
With 22 countries participating, Team Kenya came in 18th place. It sounds like an unfortunate ranking, but for the first African team to compete at a lacrosse world championship it is quite the contrary.
Kenya sent 18 young women to compete. Coach Storm Trentham told Global News there were “lots of challenges, lots of roadblocks, but you know there’s 18 reasons here today why we just carried on.”
Proper travel clothing was among the challenges the team faced.
“If they wanted to be a part of the team and travel, they had to put five pairs of underwear together… and they were struggling with that,” explained Rose Powers of Sport a Rainbow, a Peterborough-based initiative encouraging diversity and inclusion in sport.
“Players were coming to those coaches and they were saying, ‘I don’t have five pairs of underwear. I don’t own that,'” she said.
Ashlee Aitken, a liaison for Team Kenya in Peterborough, added, “There was a million obstacles even before their arrival, in getting them here, in getting the visas and passports, just that alone was months of planning.”
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Aitken recalled accompanying the team to a shopping centre upon their arrival. It was a day of firsts for the young women who had never seen an escalator or automatic doors.
The challenges they faced included a major hurdle to compete in the championship.
“Unfortunately the cleats that they had ordered and sent to Canada all came in the wrong sizes so they had no shoes to play,” said Aitken.
A group of local businesswomen pitched and paid for new sneakers for each Kenyan player. The team managed to keep it competitive, until a rainy day and a game against Team Israel.
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“The girls started getting injured and sliding on the field,” recalled Aitken.
Israel won 13-4.
“I thought they were just not used to playing on wet turf,” said Michael Duvdevani, a father of a Team Israel player who came from Alabama to watch the game.
That evening, he learned the Kenyans had no cleats.
“It was an absolute shock to me because I never even considered that being an option. I don’t know of anyone that plays without cleats,” he said.
But the Kenyans aren’t like other players. They have minimal financial support, and the young women face poverty and hardship at home, and Team Israel took note.
“I know how important it is for people to wear the right kind of footwear,” said Duvdevani, a pethordist who founded “Complete Feet” in the United States.
Duvdevani and other parents from Team Israel conspired with Team Kenya’s coach for the players’ sizes and purchased a pair of cleats for each one. They presented them the following day to the Kenyans’ surprise and it was a game changer.
“The cleats really were a key piece that was missing and luckily we had some amazing people in Israel Lacrosse that stepped up to purchase every girl a pair of cleats… And the next two games we won,” said Aitken.
Kenya played Israel once more and lost again, but only by a point. The score meant nothing though.
“We’re all humans, we’re all people and out of this we saw humans. We saw young people come together and the message that I have is we can do that everywhere,” said Powers.
Aitken, who said she already misses her newfound friends from Kenya, noted, “One simple act changed these girls lives forever.”