Karey Lee Watanabe has a lifelong passion for mountain biking, and is passing that passion along to residents of the Crowsnest Pass, starting with the young people she mentors at the local Boys and Girls Club.
Watanabe has world championship aspirations for her students. Borne of her own background as a professional mountain biking competitor, she has more than 20 years of experience, primarily in Japan, where she lived and worked prior to returning to Alberta.
Originally from Edmonton, Watanabe said she was captivated by the Crowsnest Pass area when she first visited nearly 5 years ago to the point where she bought a house and started a summer business offering cycling tours and coaching, commuting between her homes in the Crowsnest Pass and in Hakuba, Nagano, Japan.
“When I first came upon the Skills Site and walked the trails—located on the Pass Powderkeg ski hill overlooking Blairmore—I knew I wanted to teach on them,” Watanabe said. “They are perfect. For me it will be a dream come true if I can help kids experience cycling in this amazing place.”
This year, six kilometres are being added to 16 km of existing trails near the community. More than 40 km of trails have also been developed on public and private land. The trail systems are built and maintained to International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) standards.
Eryn Sawatzky, a Coleman resident whose nine-year-old son Sawyer (pictured below) spent all summer learning to ride safely while flying through the air on his bike, said the opportunity allowed him to move beyond what was comfortable and familiar, and possibly catch the mountain biking bug that is mountain biking.
“The confidence boost this gave him was huge, and expanded his horizons a lot,” Sawatzky said. “He wouldn’t have had this chance if not for the Boys and Girls Club and Karey Lee’s passion for helping the kids learn in a safe and encouraging environment.”
She added that Sawyer has been riding a bike since he was five years old, but understanding how to ride properly, especially in the mountains, gives him a huge advantage.
“With these excellent trails literally in our back yards, it is really important for kids not only to learn how to ride properly but to understand that there’s a huge group of people in the community who love this sport and want everyone to succeed.”
Watanabe’s recent appointment as the Executive Director of the Boys and Girls Club of the Crowsnest Pass gives the organization the advantage of her experience as a professional athlete. Watanabe said that while mountain biking had been offered in the past at the Boys and Girls Club, it was never a regular activity, in part due to lack of trained cyclists and proper equipment.
“Kids have been riding around in the mountains forever, but some kids don’t have bikes to use, and most bikes are not built for the type of rugged trails found in the Crowsnest Pass area,” said Watanabe. She added that the inventory of available bikes was limited to those that came with the children and those that were donated, which were still not enough to meet the significant demand the program experienced.
Funding from the Community Foundation through the Community Priorities Grants Program enabled the group to purchase 15 new mountain bikes, as well as helmets and related safety gear. This will improve their collection and allow even more children to experience their hometown mountains in a whole new way.
“We have a beautiful facility, we have people with passion for the sport, and we continue to gain momentum through local organizations like the United Riders of the Crowsnest Pass Cycling Club (UROC)—a really enthusiastic group of people who have put thousands of hours into trail building and maintenance. They have also supported our organization as volunteer coaches and program developers,” said Watanabe.
To learn more about the Boys and Girls Club of the Crowsnest Pass, please visit their website at http://bgccnp.blogspot.ca or find them on Facebook or Twitter.