One of the most unique decisions in the eight-year history of the Grand Canyon State Games unfolded last week when officials chose the Tonto Apache Track and Field teams as the organization's Male and Female Athletes of the Year.
In past years, the prestigious award has gone to individual male and female athletes who have excelled in the annual amateur competition.
But this year, GC Games executive director Erik Widmark and his staff opted to give the two awards to the Tonto boys and girls team.
The reason officials decided to break with tradition and tap the local teams, Widmark said, was partly due to the success of Tonto Apache contingent at both the Tucson and Tempe games held last summer.
"Winning is important they've won something like 100 medals over the past four years but we also have a rather stringent criteria (for the honorees) which includes high character and morals," Widmark said.
Also, the selection process involves choosing athletes who in the future will serve as strong ambassadors for the games.
As Athletes of the Year, the Tonto teams coached by Billy Joe Winchester will represent the amateur games at almost every upcoming ceremony and competition.
Among those honorary duties is leading the parade of athletes into the games' opening ceremonies to be held next June at Bank One Ballpark.
"That will be a big thrill for our kids," Winchester said.
The Tonto teams were officially recognized for their selection as Athletes of the Year at an awards presentation held Wednesday, Sept. 13 in Tempe.
Present to accept the award was Winchester and his son, Alex, who is a member of the team.
Coach Winchester said the decision by Grand Canyon officials to honor his squads was especially meaningful to the athletes. "Everyone is excited by it, it's a great award ... because it's given to a small team like (ours) makes it even greater."
The Tonto Apache teams which might be the only Native American-sponsored track and field squads in America had its origin four years ago amid meager, ragtag beginnings.
Without any outdoor facilities, the athletes practiced on the reservation's vacant lots fashioning a shot-put and discus ring from plywood.
"You really don't need all those facilities if you have heart," Winchester said.
As an example of its humble origins, Winchester points to one of his most successful athletes 11-year-old Charlie Lopez.
According to the coach, the youngster's interest in the discus event was sparked last spring when he found a discarded discus under some brush on the reservation. The youngster took it home, where his father repaired it for practice and competition.
By summer, the boy was taking it everywhere he went, Winchester said.
His commitment resulted in his winning a gold medal at the Tucson GC games held in early June.
"It's so great what he did," Winchester said.
In addition to the accomplishments of Lopez in Tucson, the Tonto team was buoyed by a contingent of young athletes who all returned to the Rim country with medals.
Among the gold medal winners were Michael Waterman, Jennifer Flores, Miguel Lopez, Matt Johnson and Daniel Bunting.
Through hard work and perseverance, the team also became a force on the national level, sending qualifiers to the Junior Olympics National Competition in Buffalo, N.Y. and Seattle, Wash.
GC in Tempe
Less than a month after competing at the Canyon Games in Tucson, the Tonto squad traveled to the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe to participate in the second edition of the games.
This time around, it was Michael Waterman who was the standard bearer for the local squad.
Competing in the youth boys' division, Waterman uncorked a gold-medal winning discus throw of 159-3 that set a GC Games record.
Charlie Lopez in the midget boys' division also shined in the discus, recording a personal record, gold-medal effort of 86-8 1/2.
Waterman and Lopez were the only gold medal winners at ASU, but the Tonto team sported the depth to win a bevy of silver and bronze medals.