Cherish Nontell was getting ready to compete at her second Saskatchewan Winter Games.
The previous Saskatchewan Games was the the biggest event the 16-year-old has ever competed in, she said.
The teenager from Christopher Lake, around 40 kilometres north of Prince Albert, had already qualified to represent Team Lakeland at the upcoming Saskatchewan Games this February.
But that dream was shattered last Friday.
Like many other events in the province, the 2022 Saskatchewan Winter Games will not proceed as planned due to COVID-19.
"I was disappointed," said Nontell.
"Not only me, but all the other athletes were disappointed. But I'm glad that they cancelled it to protect our health."
Nontell started Para nordic skiing when she was eight years old. She said she loves exploring the cross country ski trails.
She competed at the Saskatchewan Winter Games in North Battleford in 2018, representing Team Lakeland — which includes the areas of Prince Albert, Nipawin and Melfort.
"I really enjoyed it," said Nontell. "I liked the ending ceremony. I liked seeing all the athletes."
She was proud of her performance, she said.
Not safe to host games: organizer
The next winter games were set to take place in Regina from Feb. 20 to 26.
Last Friday, the Saskatchewan Games Council and the Regina host committee decided to put the games on hold based on the advice from medical experts, according to the event's website.
"Friday was such a tough day," said Mark Bracken, executive director of the Saskatchewan Games Council, on Monday.
"After that meeting with the Saskatchewan Health Authority officials, it became crystal clear to us that due to the unpredictability and the rapid spread and the contagiousness of the Omicron [variant], that we weren't in a safe position to provide the Saskatchewan Games program to young athletes."
Like Nontell, Kamaya Makowsky is similarly disappointed about the cancellation of the games.
The 13-year-old was getting ready to represent Team Saskatoon as a speed skater.
"I was really sad when I found out," said Makowsky. "I was really hoping to go because when my brother went four years ago, it felt so special watching him race."
To represent Team Saskatoon "would have been really cool," said Makowsky.
"You could travel to somewhere and you can have a whole bunch of other people from different cities come and race against you."
Nine teams, 15 sports
The Saskatchewan Games would have celebrated their 50th anniversary this year.
Nine district teams made up of around 1,500 athletes were supposed to compete in Regina in 15 different sports, according to the Games' website.
Like the Olympics or Paralympics, the Saskatchewan Games take place every two years, alternating between summer and winter events.
"We were ready to go," said Bracken.
"What I really feel for is the young athletes who, a lot of them had made their teams, they were excited and prepared to come to Regina."
Saskatchewan Games an opportunity for athletes from the north
That includes athletes and other members of Team North.
"This is a chance for our southern parts to see how talented we are in the north in some of our sports and get some of that exposure for our athletes," said Ryan Karakochuk, the program manager for sport, culture and recreation in Northern Saskatchewan.
"It gives them the avenue to definitely get scouted and also get looked at all across the province."
LISTEN | Ryan Karakochuk spoke about the cancellation with host Garth Materie on the Afternoon Edition
With communities in the northern part of the province being smaller and more spread out, recruiting athletes for Team North was particularly challenging this time because of the pandemic, he said.
"In northern Saskatchewan we've had a tough time just opening up and competing among other communities," said Karakochuk.
"A lot of our communities weren't traveling to other communities."
With LaRonge being the biggest centre in the Team North district and having the most training facilities, many participants from the north would have come from that town, according to Karakochuk. Other areas of the district include Cumberland House, Pelican Narrows, LaLoche, and Stony Rapids.
The Saskatchewan Games are usually an important platform for young athletes from the north to showcase their skills.
"Up in the north, we don't get enough competition as maybe we would like," said Karakochuk.
The north had teams ready to go in curling, figure skating and cross-country skiing, with trials for other events still set to happen before the games.
"We know some of our sports, like cross-country skiing, canoeing, that we can truly play with anybody in the province," said Ryan.
Second Sask. Games scuttled by COVID-19
Bracken said he doesn't know yet if the Games will be postponed to next year or cancelled, but he is hoping they can happen in 2023 in Regina.
If the event is called off, it wouldn't be the first time in Saskatchewan Games history.
In 2020, the Summer Games in Lloydminster were first postponed and eventually cancelled due to the pandemic.
"That was the first time in history we had to cancel," said Bracken. "This pandemic has cost us now two Saskatchewan Games in a row."
Saskatchewan Games can be a stepping stone, says Bracken
Bracken said the Saskatchewan Games are a special event for young athletes in the province.
"It's more than just another soccer tournament," he said.
"It really is a provincial level Olympic Games…. For a handful, it will be a stepping stone or a springboard to bigger and better things."
COVID-19 might have interrupted the Saskatchewan Winter Games this year, but it doesn't stop Nontell from continuing with her training, thanks to the help of her coach, ten-time Paralympian Colette Bourgonje.
"That has been fantastic to work with Cherish and her family," said Bourgonje.
"[The Saskatchewan Winter Games] would have been a great opportunity for Cherish to work hard and have an opportunity to ski on different ski trails. And, you know, she would have done well."
This weekend Nontell will head to Humboldt for another race.
Like Nontell, Makowsky also continues to train while she waits for officials to make a decision about the future of the games.
In the meantime, the 13-year-old can dream of even bigger goals.
"I really would like to make it to the Olympics," she said.