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Italy, meet Merritt’s master ball players

(Debra Manuel, Mary June Coutlee, Molly Toodlican and Mitchell “Magic” Shuter are making their way to Torino, Italy for the 2013 World Masters Games. Manuel and Coutlee will play on the Australian softball team Breakaways, while Toodlican will be on the North American Native Sisters team, coached by Shuter. (Right) Josie Fortier and Elizabeth (Liz) Coutlee will join women from around Canada on the North American Native Sisters team during the 2013 World Masters Games.)                                                                              -Emily Wessel/Herald

By Emily Wessel - Merritt Herald
Published: July 24, 2013 3:00 PM
Updated: July 24, 2013 3:41 PM

Four local women are taking their love of softball all the way to Torino, Italy for the 2013 World Masters Games.

The games, which feature participants aged 35 and up, include all kinds of sports.

For Merritt’s Molly Toodlican, love of the game was something she grew up with.

“My older sister, Mary June, she’s the one who got me into playing ball,” Toodlican said. “I’ve been playing softball since I was about 10 years old. I was playing out in right field with flip flops.”

Today, Toodlican is one of the organizers of the national First Nations team the North American Native Sisters (NANS), which includes another five players from B.C. and nine players from Ontario. Fellow Nicola Valley resident Elizabeth Coutlee and Seton Portage’s Josie Fortier will also play for NANS, which is coached by local Mitchell “Magic” Shuter.

“These are players whom we’ve played with over 30-something years, so we’ve known some of these girls on and off the field — a majority of them, anyway,” Toodlican said of the connection with the Ontarian teammates.

The avid softball player was first introduced to the World Masters Games when she participated in them in Edmonton in 2005 with her then-team in a Kamloops league.

“That’s what got us hooked,” Toodlican said. In fact, Toodlican so enjoyed the Olympics-like event, she went to the next games in Sydney, Australia in 2009, taking her sister and a friend of theirs with her.

The three ended up playing for an Australian team from Perth in those games.

“It was interesting — when we were there, we ended up getting the silver, and the team that got gold was a team from B.C.,” she said.

Toodlican said Masters is an age group, not a skill level, and anyone aged 35 and up can register to participate in the games (with the exception of some sports, including diving and swimming, that are age 25 and up). Like the Olympics, the games happen every four years and kick off with large-scale opening ceremonies.

“The other requirement is you have to have passion for the sport,” her sister and fellow participant Mary June Coutlee said.

Coutlee began her softball career around age 16 and hasn’t looked back. Now 61, she said her passion for the sport has found another outlet in the World Masters Games.

“Because I’m an avid ball-player, I’d heard about the World Masters before I turned 35,” Coutlee said. “That was one of my own goals, to participate in something like that. When I was able to participate in it in Edmonton, I really enjoyed it. You meet a variety of people from all around the world. You just meet so many people that you create memories with.”

This year, Coutlee friend Debra Manuel are rejoining the Perth team they won silver with in 2009 after the team invited them back.

“At the end of the tournament in Sydney, they said, ‘MJ, you’re coming back, aren’t you?’” Coutlee laughed.

Coutlee said she is excited to go to Italy for the first time, but isn’t losing sight of the real reason she’s going.

“I don’t mind the sightseeing, but my real passion is playing ball,” she said. “I’m going to enjoy that while I can.”

The women — and Shuter — will travel through Switzerland before the games and tour around in Italy afterward, taking their trip up to four weeks in total.

Each person had to pay her and his own way through the trip, which Toodlican estimates at about $5,000 per person, including the mandatory medical check-up for the games, registration, accommodation, uniforms, and travel costs. That sum also includes the shirts the NANS team will walk out in during the grand opening ceremonies on Aug. 3.

The games take place between Aug. 2 and 11, and are expected to bring in between 350,000 and one million people. The next World Masters Games take place in New Zealand in 2017.

As for what they’re looking forward to most about their month-long trip abroad?

“The gold,” Toodlican laughed.