James McKeage would rather talk about the Cochrane Cowboys’ accomplishments at wrestling nationals last weekend than winning a lifetime achievement award for his more than a quarter century of coaching.
That humility is just one reason those who know him say he’s so deserving of the honour.
“It’s not something that was even on my radar. I never even would ever consider winning a lifetime achievement – I’ve only been coaching for 26 years,” said McKeage. “It makes me a bit uncomfortable to be singled out, but I am very grateful for the recognition. I’m honoured and humbled by it.
“All the people I coach with are deserving – it could have been any one of us. It’s a big team effort.”
“He’d be the first one to put praise on to everybody else. He’s a very modest man,” said friend Vern McNiece, who has coached alongside McKeage for more than a decade. “But he coached 5 ASAA high school provincial championship teams in a row.
“If you look at his career and what he’s done as a coach and a teacher and a human being … it’s really astounding. He’s loved and cherished.”
Last Friday at a gala event emceed by Olympic speed skating champion Catriona Le May Doan, Sport 4 Life recognized McKeage along with a handful of other volunteers who give their time, energy and efforts to improving sport in the community.
Bow Valley Grizzlies rugby club co-founder and booster Steve Horton was named Leader/Coach of the Year; longtime Yelnats supporter Ron Sabo earned the Volunteer of the Year; Scotiabank’s support of minor hockey was recognized with Local Business of the Year; and Cochrane Minor Hockey Association pillar Angela Sellwood was recognized with the Spirit of Sport Award.
McKeage wasn’t able to accept his award in person – because he was again volunteering on the Cowboys trip to National Cadet/Juvenile Wrestling Championships in Windsor, Ontario.
“It’s just been a whirlwind,” said McKaege.
McKeage, an English teacher, has been coaching the sport for more than 25 years and was instrumental in setting up wrestling programs at Col. Irvin Junior and Diefenbaker high schools in Calgary before moving to Cochrane 11 years ago.
He entered his two sons, Aidan and Brendan, in a tournament that same year with the newly-minted Cochrane Cowboys – and Aiden ended up in the final match against Cowboys’ founder and coach Vern McNiece’s oldest boy, Callum.
“Here are two crazy dads screaming in the corner,” McKeage recalled. “Then he talked to me and got me to come out and help in Cochrane.”
Fast forward more than a decade, and McKeage has travelled to countless tournaments across the world and helped shape dozens of high-level wrestlers – including Aiden, who is currently on scholarship with the University of Alberta’s Golden Bears, and Brendan, a decorated wrestler and two-time national champion who brought home a silver medal this weekend from Windsor.
At the competition, athlete Connor McNiece earned gold in his category, while young Danika Cook took bronze. The Cowboys as a whole tied with Toronto’s Akhara of Champions club for first place overall.
“As a club, we did just wonderfully,” McKeage said. “I’m very proud of the kids.”
With Brendan deciding just this week to accept a wrestling scholarship at the University of Calgary, McKeage said it’s time for him to step back from his role on the squad and allow younger coaches to rise up in his place.
McKeage said, while he’s appreciative of the recognition of his own time as a leader and volunteer, he’s most proud of the youth who have grown up and accomplished so much through the sport over the years.
“It’s wonderful the doors that it opens,” McKeage said. “More than that, in all these kids, the building of life skills that wrestling does – to work through adversity, to work with others, to train and focus, to deal with pain and disappointment and success … it’s just a wonderful learning experience.”