Innsbruck, Austria has a reputation for being a winter sports centre.
Host of the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics, Innsbruck also hosted the first Winter Youth Olympic Games in 2012, a multi-sport and cultural festival celebrated in the tradition of the Olympics for youth ages 14-18.
In January 2016, Innsbruck will host its first International Children's Winter Games for young athletes, ages 12-15. Sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee, there have been 47 Children's Summer Games since 1968, but only six Winter Games since 1994. Kelowna, BC hosted Canada's only Children's Winter Games in 2011. Windsor, Ontario, hosted Canada's last Children's Summer Games. The goal, similar to the Olympics, is to promote peace and friendship through sports around the world.
For Fairground's Rachel Thurston, it's a chance to represent her country. The 11-year-old short track speed skater has been 'burning up' the ice in her age division competing with the Kitchener Cobras. Last year it was in the 10-year-old division, starting with a number wins, followed by an introduction to training with the older provincial-level skaters.
"I did (win) at the beginning of the year, then I started going down and up, down and up, because I'm in the middle of them."
"At Regionals, she's competing against teams from cities like Toronto and Barrie," said Rachel's father, Dave Thurston. "When you go to the championship at the end of the year, it's from wherever – there was one from Saskatchewan... it's a lot bigger. There are teams from across the province.
"She had some pretty good times."
Ranked fifth or sixth provincially, she did well enough in her age group to get the nod from the Kitchener team.
"There's only eight of us going," she said, noting the group would be 16 in total including coaches and chaperones. "They just picked who they thought would be good to go."
Thurston, who will be going into Grade 7 at Langton's Sacred Heart School in the fall, has completed five seasons of speed skating with two in London, three in Kitchener. Shortly after the 2014-15 season ended she started her off-season training – on the ice, as well as dryland. In past years she was limited to inline skating, but this summer the training has ramped up.
"Normally she doesn't skate in the summer," said Rachel's mother, Annie Thurston, at the Fairground General Store. "She used her Rollerblades, but now she's skating weekends in Stratford to get ready."
She is also learning how to use long track skates, which is what she will be skating in Innsbruck, but long track facilities are rare in Canada.
"I've always wanted to go to the Olympics and I was really happy when they picked me," said Rachel, who turns 12 in November, meeting the minimum age requirement by two months. "I always wanted to go but I never thought I would be picked."
"She'll be the youngest one of the bunch" Annie smiled.
Rachel said she is most looking forward to meeting new people and having fun and just enjoying the experience.
"You can trade Canadian stuff for other people's stuff," she noted. "Yeah, I like that."
And maybe a medal, her mother suggested.
"Of course," Rachel laughed.
"Coming home with a medal," she added, "or just having fun trying to."
"I think it'll be wild," said Dave.
The Kitchener team, which will be Team Canada in Innsbruck, will leave January 8 on their 10-day Winter Games trip.
In the meantime, the team has been fundraising. Rachel pitched in last weekend at a bottle drive in Kitchener. They also sold pies and had a barbecue.
Her family – and friends of the family – have also been selling 25-per-pack pepperettes at $10 per package, mild or hot. They are available at the General Store in Fairground (south of Tillsonburg), or from friends who have been selling them at various 'mobile' locations.
"We've actually sold quite a few," said Annie.