There are just over 120 days now until the Western Isles sportsmen and women load up the chartered flight with their kit, gear and medal hopes and dreams for the 2017 NatWest Island Games.
As the squad touch down in Visby, Gotland, they will carry with them the sporting and athletic hopes for the entire Western Isles and for most this will be the pinnacle of their sporting career.
Western Isles Island Games Association (WIIGA) Chairman Norrie Macdonald has spoken at length of the impact of the Island Games both on himself and on the Western Isles from his perspective.
“Where do I begin to attempt to convey to you the changes I have seen in our islands’ attitudes towards sporting endeavour since our first foray to the 2005 NatWest Island Games held in the Shetland Islands,” explained Norrie.
Speaking in a piece contributed to the offical NatWest Island Games site he continued: “I am ‘old school’. Born in 1961, I took part in most sports at school; athletics, swimming, badminton, table-tennis, but, as teenage years progressed, threw everything I had into football, a typical islander.
“As the legs wearied, I took up golf. It was through this that I got my first taste of the NatWest Island Games, as manager of the Western Isles Golf Team in Rhodes in 2007.
I have been smitten ever since.
“Fortune has been kind to me and I now find myself, happily, chairing our association.”
The Chairman admits the Island Games has impacted all who have taken part deeply.
“I’m not going to try and tell you what the games mean to all our islands, merely what, from my perspective, it has meant to us,” he said.
“I have seen, in the past dozen years, a degree of passion, enthusiasm, commitment and confidence, hitherto absent from our collective Western Isles sporting endeavours, blossom exponentially.
“Indeed, prior to our ‘coming together’ to form a team for Shetland we were very much a dis-united archipelago.
“From Lewis and Harris in the north, down through North Uist and Benbecula, to South Uist and Barra; we were far more interested in our inter-island rivalries than we ever were in collectively taking on the might of Jersey, Bermuda and the Isle of Wight.
“Indeed, breaking things down further, inter-district rivalries on our islands was seen as the ‘be-all’.Then things changed.”
He went on: “The Western Isles Island Games Association was formed with a view, not just to participate at the NatWest Island Games, but to help develop our island athletes to compete at this, completely new to most of us, international level.
“Our programme has been to nurture the most talented sportsmen and women we have, provide them with the best facilities and coaching/development available, and bring them to the highest level they can attain.
“If they are good enough, they get on the plane (this year to Gotland, Sweden); hopefully some may even get further (Gold Coast in 2018/Tokyo in 2020).”
Reflecting on the legacy of previous Games - which have taken our athletes to Shetland/Rhodes/Aland/Isle of Wight/Bermuda/Jersey he insisted: “The Games have been the driving force behind a sea-change in attitudes toward sports in the Western Isles.
“Athletes returning from previous Island Games have all spread the message that they are the ‘real deal’, the pinnacle of their sport, our very own ‘Olympics’.
“Which indeed, for the majority, they are.”
“We too have changed,” mused the WIIGA Chairman.
“Our outlook and philosophy has matured and, thanks mainly to the huge investment from our member clubs, the attitude and performance of our athletes has risen to match our ambitions.
“Obviously having ‘grown’ into a recognised participant, our association has learned many things; through trial and error initially, but mainly with the support from our friends, the rest of the Games family.
“The learning curve has been quite steep.
“We like to think that as a result of having been accepted by the International Island Games Association (IIGA) in 2002, everything has been taken to the next level.
“Excellence is now a byword in our clubs.
“Athletes know that to make the games team they need to demonstrate ambition and commitment to reach the desired levels of performance required to seriously compete.”
The effects of the Island Games can been seen year round reckons Macdonald who points to training attitudes and commitments among the long lasting impact of our participation in the international event.
“Today I see things that I never saw happening just 10 years ago,” he said.
“Runners pounding the streets at 6am every morning (and 6pm every evening), cyclists putting in mile after mile of relentless climbing and sprinting, and our pool opening early to cater for a growing group of dedicated swimmers.
“Our women’s football team have now been joined (unheard of) by the men in training over the winter months (it’s primarily a summer sport here).
“We have a new shooting club.
“Badminton, previously a very ‘big’ sport in these islands, has seen a resurgence (we hope to see a team participating soon).
“Mountain Biking and Triathlon are now very much on the programme.
“Golfers now have access to an all-weather floodlit driving range where they can hone their skills, anytime, in all kinds of weather.
“On top of all this NatWest Sports Development Programme provides us with funding to send our teams away to compete on the mainland and develop even further.
“We have seen our medal haul rise steadily, one of our athletes has competed at Commonwealth Games level, and some are (hopefully) on the cusp of Olympic recognition.
“The bar has risen across the board.”
“Participation levels and lycra sales are through the roof,” he adds with a smile.
“I realise that the NatWest Island Games does not have the same reach as an Olympics but believe me when I tell you that they do make a massive difference to the lives of every single islander involved with health and sports.
Even if we never won another medal; participating and improving standards, investing in youth and in fitness, and meeting all our new (not so new now) friends every two years would still make everything worthwhile.
“We are all part of a wonderful thing.”