Assistant coach John Stuart along with the rest of the Canadian senior men's softball team recently landed on Canadian soil with gold medals in tow.
The national squad, which included B.C.er's Stuart from Langley, third baseman Bryan Abrey from Richmond, and pitcher Tyson Barkman from Abbotsford, captured the Pan American Championship title in Medellin, Colombia.
Team Canada downed Venezuela 4-1 in the gold medal game Sept. 22.
Stuart was part of a three-man coaching staff that included head coach Don Bates from Saskatoon and assistant coach Les Howey from Newfoundland.
"We took a younger team with some veteran leaders," said Stuart, the team's third base coach. "We had two great captains and our first goal in Columbia was to qualify for the worlds."
To accomplish this goal, Team Canada had to finish in the top five.
The Canadians' second goal was to win the tournament, which they did by upsetting a Venezuelan team that had beaten them 2-1 during round robin play and 5-2 in their first playoff game.
The two losses to Venezuela forced Canada to take a back door route to the gold medal final.
A 2-0 win over Argentina set the stage for a championship showdown with Venezuela.
The Venezuelans led 1-0 in the sixth inning.
Being that softball is a seven-inning game, the Canadians had to figure out, in a hurry, how to crack their opponents' defence.
They did just that with two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning.
A single followed by an error tied the game 1-1. Then, with runners on first and second, starting pitcher Andy Skelton came through with a three-run home run that put Canada ahead 4-1.
Skelton proceeded to put all three Venezuelan hitters away during their last at bats to seal the gold medal win for Canada.
This victory ended a lengthy
drought for the Canadian team, which hadn't won a Pan American title since 1993. Canada's last two gold medal appearances ended with losses to Venezuela.
Two members remained on the 2012 Canadian team from the squad that lost to Venezuela in the 2006 gold medal game.
"To be the first Canadian team to win it since 1993, it still brings goose bumps to me, thinking about it," Stuart said.
"The memories and celebrations and getting to sing O Canada with our team is something I'll never forget."
Stuart estimated there were close to 6,000 fans, many of whom were pro-Canadian, taking in the gold medal game.
"We were the fan favourites," Stuart said.
"I think Venezuela is Columbia's closest rival. We had the hometown fan support and it was absolutely crazy. After we won, they [the fans] wanted everything from us, from our hats, to our jerseys, to pins. whatever we could give them."
It took the Canadian team roughly two hours to exit the stadium after the game.
Life away from the ballpark in Medellin was also interesting, Stuart said.
"There's quite a history there with safety concerns," Stuart said. "We felt really safe, we were in a great hotel and the people were very friendly there."
With Pan American gold on their mantles, the Canadian squad would love nothing better than to duplicate the feat at the 2013 world championships being held this March in Auckland, New Zealand.
"Not a day goes by that I don't think about it," Stuart said, about the world tournament.
The team leaves Feb. 21 for New Zealand, and the event runs March 1-10.
"We have 12 players named right now to the roster and we have to name the five final players from across Canada," Stuart said.
LIFE OF SOFTBALL
A lifelong Squamish resident who moved to Langley with his family in 2008, the self-employed Stuart started playing softball at 16.
The 47-year-old played two types of ball as a youngster, playing baseball until he was 21.
He started his coaching career in his former hometown, as a player/coach with a team that went to the senior A level.
In 2002 Stuart was asked to coach the B.C. junior team that won a silver medal at the Canadian nationals, losing to Ontario in the final in Vancouver.
He took 2003 off before returning to the sport the following season (2004), as a coach with the B.C. junior team.
That year, the team finished fifth at the Canadian nationals in Scarborough, Ont.
He made the move to the senior level in 2005, taking the helm of the Vancouver Grey Sox.
"They were at the highest level for a club team," Stuart said.
He coached the Grey Sox for the next five years, but found time to guest coach with Team Canada in 2006.
In 2007 the Grey Sox won the Canadian title in Newfoundland.
Then, in 2009, Stuart was invited by Softball Canada to attend the International Softball Federation (ISF) world championships in Saskatoon, as a scout.
Canada took home bronze at that tournament, which was won by Australia.
Two years ago Stuart applied for the assistant coach position with the national senior men's squad.
"I don't know how many applications they got but I understand they narrowed it down to five across Canada," Stuart said.
Stuart enjoys his role as a coach, but as a former player admits missing being out on the field in the heat of the action.
"The mental part of it says I can still do it but when you're 47 years old, and you're out of shape and you try doing it, the body doesn't do what the brain wants it to do," Stuart said. "But I've coached, now, at whatever level since I've been 25, 26, so I've been doing it for 20 years and I love it. I absolutely love it."