Photo by Kevin Light Photography
With textbooks and gym bag in tow, Savana Walkingbear pulls open the heavy steel glass door of the Pacific Institute for Sport Excellence and is instantly met by his teammates and three assistant coaches who greet him with a succession of high fives.
With a watchful eye, he makes his way past a barrage of volleyballs served mechanically from the opposite end of the court. In the Camosun Chargers team room he changes into his practice gear and receives a quick, routine taping by one of the team’s athletic therapists. Back in the gym, practice begins as Head Coach Charles Parkinson (who will be inducted into the Volleyball BC Hall of Fame on February 6) starts calling the warm-up and the defending National Champion Chargers get down to business.
This is how every evening in Savana’s life begins now. While it seems like a typical scenario in the life of a student-athlete, it is, in fact, a far cry from where Savana came from and from where he thought he’d ever be.
“I grew up on a reservation called Thunderchild First Nation, near Turtleford, Saskatchewan,” says Savana. “I have seven brothers and two sisters. Being the middle child was kind of a difficult spot. Instead of trying to be cherished for being the oldest or youngest, I decided just to be myself and to develop my own attributes and values and beliefs.”
Despite growing up in a supportive and sport-centric household, the 6’3″ CCAA All-Canadian, now 25 years old, had more than his share of challenges before getting to play at the post-secondary level.
“Both my parents (Bernadine and Winston Walkingbear) were elite athletes and all my brothers and sisters are very athletic – it was very competitive growing up,” he says. “Volleyball was definitely the big sport in my family. My sisters played, my three older brothers played, and now my three younger brothers are following in my footsteps and the family tradition.”
“In high school I tried out for different teams but they weren’t the best teams. I played on the lower tier teams because they were more affordable than the elite programs.”
“After high school, I didn’t get a scholarship or offers to college or university. It’s much harder to be scouted on a reserve, and there are no connections like there are in the cities. My experience was much like my father’s. He was a walk-on at the University of Saskatchewan Huskies but because of the financial aspect, he could only go so far. I was a walk-on at Lakeland College in 2011. No one knew my name. I just played my game. I made the team and got offered a starting position. But from there, I got to play every single game for the next three years!”
“In my third year at Lakeland, I was selected as a Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) All-Canadian and was flown to the National Men’s Volleyball Championships at Holland College to receive my award. That’s when I saw the Camosun Chargers compete for the very first time.”
“It was definitely a difficult road to get to where I am today. Even to play for Lakeland, which isn’t a top volleyball school, it took me two years of training myself every single day. I couldn’t afford a gym membership, so I worked out outside. I would go for runs, run hills, pull trees, run in sand, run in water, swim in water … I would do anything I could to make my workouts that much more difficult and advanced. It all came down to being the best that I can be.”
Financial obstacles were not the only barriers Savana faced growing up. “About ninety-nine per cent of my friends turned into drug dealers, and the problems with drugs and alcohol abuse were everywhere. It came down to the point where it was a normal thing. It was very hard trying to stay outside of all that.”
“One of the hardest things though, was having to listen to other First Nations people try to discourage me,” he says. “I would be training and people would laugh and tease me. They’d tell me I wasn’t going to go anywhere in life. They would try to discourage me and persuade me into quitting. It was definitely one of the most difficult times.”
With those days behind him, Savana is on a new path that includes completing his certificate in Camosun’s Indigenous Family Support program and helping the Chargers win their second consecutive National title in men’s volleyball.
“After seeing the Chargers win Nationals in 2015, I did some research into Camosun and found the Indigenous Family Support (IFS) program. I immediately felt this huge connection and that was what really made me want to come to the college. Of course I knew that Camosun would also give me the opportunity to take my volleyball to the next level. I saw the best of the best at Camosun.”
Savana says Camosun’s IFS program allowed him to access information he wasn’t before able to find. “I’m learning about the history of residential schools and what happened with our parents who went there. My dad went for thirteen years and my mom went seven years. We’ve studied the ‘intergenerational effect of residential school warriors and survivors’ and how our generation’s struggle with losing their identity has resulted in gangs, drugs, alcohol, and all the negative stereotypes that are put upon First Nations and Indigenous Peoples.”
“Camosun has changed my life. I now understand what took place in the past and I understand the present and I want to help better the future.”
While Savana did not overcome his obstacles overnight, he attributes the positive change in his attitude to the birth of his son Lextyn in 2011. Although their visits are precious few, because Lextyn and his mother live on the Thunderchild reservation, Savana finds great comfort and inspiration in the fact that his time away from his son will be well worth it.
“The birth of my son was a life changing event for me. From that moment, I wanted to show him that anything is possible. I wanted him to be proud of his dad. It was a hard time when my son’s mother and I separated. It was a decision I had to make at that time and I had to ask myself, ‘How do I want my son to see me?'”
“It’s tough because I miss him so much. We talk on the phone as much as we can but it’s limited. But I know the sacrifices will be worth it. He knows what I’m doing, he knows I’m going to school, he knows I’m playing volleyball and he’s very proud of me for doing that. He’s very content with what I’m doing so it really helps me to be here.”
Savana does not hesitate to credit the people who have helped him along his journey. “My biggest supporters are definitely my parents and my current partner, Sienna Evans. All three continue to encourage me to be the best that I can be. I’m also very grateful to my former coach at Lakeland College, Taylor Dyer. I had little experience at that time and I thank him a lot for bringing me up into the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC) and pushing me forward in my academics. Charles Parkinson is also a big supporter; he’s a phenomenal coach and an awesome role model that I look up to.”
“I also have a really strong connection with my teammates. I like to call it a brotherhood. I wasn’t sure how I would be accepted coming here but it was such a warm welcoming, something I never expected. Everyone greeted me with handshakes and hugs and it was just such a great feeling.”
“The people in the IFS program are also very amazing and supportive. Sandee Mitchell, who I contacted prior to coming to Camosun, has been very supportive. She stays in contact with me and is basically the teacher I always wanted to have!”
“Everything has changed since I’ve been at Camosun. I’m no longer the one people make fun of … I’m looked at as a role model. I have a lot of support and a lot of people who encourage me. It’s so different; it’s something I’ve never experienced!”
The Chargers men’s volleyball team is working towards the PACWEST Provincial Championships February 25-27 in Abbotsford and the CCAA National Championships March 10-12 hosted by Douglas College in New Westminster. Savana has been selected as one of the Top Six male athletes across Canada and the US and will be featured in the next Native American Fitness Calendar which focuses on health, athletes, nutrition, and positive lifestyles. Savana will complete his certificate in the IFS Program in June 2016.
With his program and a successful Chargers season wrapping up, Savana is well on his way to a very bright future. And while other students dream of playing professionally, Savana feels it’s time to start giving back.
“It was always in my mind to push forward in playing volleyball and to go as far as I could, like playing for Team Canada or playing pro overseas. But the older I get, the more I appreciate what I experienced already and it’s almost time for me to give back now. I want to give back to the youth and inspire and motivate First Nations communities around Canada. I know I can do this by being a motivational speaker, by hosting volleyball camps and training camps and cultural camps, and by going all over North America to reach out to as many people as I can. My mom does her own post-secondary work with Walkingbear Consulting. She has definitely given me the motivation and inspiration to start my own business and do something different.”