When Tania Cameron left Kenora, Ont. with a bus full of athletes to the Ontario Summer Indigenous Games in Ottawa, she wasn't sure if there would be enough money to afford hotel rooms through the weekend.
Her eight-week fundraising campaign had fallen $6,500 short of its $53,000 goal to support seven teams of 15 to 18-year-old volleyball and basketball players from across northwestern Ontario to compete at the provincial level.
Even with that uncertainty, the Treaty 3 Titans volleyball and SwishNish basketball teams made the trip to Ottawa.
And they didn't just make it to the games, they dominated.
They returned with nine medals, including four gold and a silver in volleyball, which prompted Sport & Wellness Ontario manager of sport and athlete development Gary Lynch to say he was "thoroughly impressed" with the talent emerging from the northwest.
"I just think the kids were so motivated to play," Cameron says. "It's been a long two years without sports.
"For seven teams and for every team to come home with a medal, I'm just shook. I don't know how we did this, but we did it. We're just bursting. I'm bursting with pride. Like every time I heard that we medalled up, I just started crying."
The budget uncertainty meant coach Cameron had to restrict the Treaty 3 teams to volleyball and basketball, despite requests from soccer and baseball players, swimmers, wrestlers, and others. She could have filled two buses but despite having tapped First Nations, tribal councils, youth funds, and corporate sponsorships, she could scarcely fund one.
Cameron posted the request for donations on social media from the road. The sports programming Cameron has been running since 2015 has garnered national attention and support in her time of need poured in. There were even parents who were watching the games handing her cash at courtside.
Through it all, she paid the trip off just in time.
"It's people that just gave, right across the board gave, gave, gave," Cameron said. "I was just intending a little Treaty 3 team. But when tryouts came, my gym was packed with kids from Thunder Bay, Pickle Lake, Mishkeegogamang, coming from the fly-in communities, Fort Frances," Cameron said, "I'm like, 'Why didn't you guys just make your own team out of Thunder Bay?' [They said] 'No, we want to play on your teams.''"
WATCH | Check out the highlights from athletes at the games
Eighteen-year-old power hitter Kylan Whitehead from Webequie First Nation played every second of every game through 20 straight sets without a loss. He then helped to lead the Under 19 male team to a further championship in a single-game-elimination tournament among all male teams.
"They were just warming up like in the first game to the last game, because it didn't get easier all the time and just got a bit harder," Whitehead said of the competition. "It got challenging at times, but we still took it."
Whitehead's real surprise was a recruiter for Durham College volleyball taking him aside and asking him to visit the Oshawa campus to see if he was willing to take his game to the next level.
"I wasn't expecting to get scouted during this tournament. I just all of a sudden got talked with, then I was shocked in the moment that I knew my dreams were coming true," Whitehead said.
Eighteen-year-old Arianna Wigwas from Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek (Gull Bay First Nation) considers basketball her top sport but she drove from Thunder Bay to Kenora for volleyball tryouts in March and made the team.
Her U19 female team won two of three games in the round robin tournament before losing in the finals to the team from London. But she views the silver medal as a symbol of success for winning one set against a far superior opponent.
"We knew we had to come out really competitively and play strong right off the bat, which we did. And we actually pulled a set off of them and won, which was really, really exciting for us. Like that was a big win and it was super exciting," Wigwas says.
"We see a lot of very naturally talented and gifted athletes coming from all over Ontario. And especially seeing northern athletes come out and pull off these amazing, incredible moves was awesome to see."