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When Alex Nelson was in residential school in Alert Bay, there was one spot he felt at home and free to be himself — the soccer pitch.

“To get away from that building, that institution, the staff, the smell, the whole shebang, the one grace I had was always the soccer field,” Nelson said Thursday. “It allowed me a freedom to just be outside with that soccer ball and with my teammates.”

Nelson lives in Victoria and at the age of 69 still plays on senior men’s teams. But his real passion is coaching young people, with a special fondness for teaching young aboriginal people.

He was thrilled with an announcement Thursday from the provincial Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development for a new medal to honour outstanding young aboriginal people.

It’s to be called the Premier’s Award for Aboriginal Youth Excellence in Sport. It will be awarded to 12 people under 25, six men and six women, at the 2016 Gathering Our Voices event in Victoria, March 21-24.

Working with the B.C. Association of Native Friendship Centres, the First Nations Health Authority and Métis Nation B.C., the medal criteria were established to honour achievement in sport, leadership and community commitment.

Nelson’s cultural home is with the people of Musgamaqw-Dzawada’enuxw of Kingcome Inlet on the B.C. Mainland. He assisted in establishing the criteria and is especially proud it will honour the whole person, not just the athlete.

“It really tries to honour the holistic well-being of a person, those people who are also academic achievers, community connected and culturally driven,” Nelson said.

“And I really love that it will be recognized at a provincial youth gathering,” he said. “When you can get honoured among your own peers, it really adds something.”

Nelson agreed young aboriginal athletes can have a tough time taking full advantage of the benefits sports can bring.

Leaving home with a scholarship or even to pursue a pro career can be an enormous culture shock when you are from a small community with a unique culture and a heavy emphasis on family.

But Nelson also said First Nations home and community can always help, even those members who leave.

For example, he has two nephews from Alert Bay area who went far with soccer, one who joined the Winnipeg Fury and one who played in England and returned to play with the Vancouver Island Vistas.

“And when they are away, they phone home as much as they can,” Nelson said. “When they come home, we celebrate and we do it in a cultural way and that gives them a sense of belonging.

“I use the word ‘spirit,’ and for me it means a real strong connection,” he said. “Young people can take the spirit of our people, of their family and community, and they can take it with them and it will keep them grounded.”

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