One might say playing sports is in volleyball player Kawehnokwiio Bailey Thomas’ blood.
With powerful female role models in her mother, who swam on the Canadian Junior Olympic team, and her grandmother who ran marathons competitively, it is no surprise Thomas has found her passion in the athletic arena.
It was those family matriarchs, who both also played volleyball competitively and now coach, that got the 18-year-old into the sport when she was only five years old. Now poised to represent the province of Quebec at the Toronto 2017 North American Indigenous Games (NAIG), Thomas will have a familiar face leading her along the way—her grandmother, veteran NAIG coach Kahnastatsi Jacobs.
“My grandma is the coach of the volleyball team and my mom is the coach of the swimming team going to NAIG,” noted Thomas. “Now that [my grandma] is my coach, I think it’s an advantage for me especially since I live with her. She supports my daily life and motivates me to train and practice every day, so I can in turn do the best I can on the court.”
This year will be Thomas’ second-time competing at the NAIG, it will also be her second stint as team captain after serving in the role on her under-16 team at the 2014 Games in Manitoba.
When the teenager was growing up, she travelled with Jacobs on several of her NAIG coaching assignments which is where the high school senior says, her dream of one day competing there was ignited. Thomas describes her experience playing in the Games for the first time three-year-ago as the highlight of her athletic career so far.
“I had been looking forward to participating in the tournament all my life, so when I finally got to, it was like a dream come true,” said Thomas. “We put up a good battle at the tournament, but in the end, didn’t come out on top. It was amazing to be around so many other Indigenous athletes and meet so many great people.”
Of the Mohawks of the Akwesasne, whose reservation borders three regions including New York State, and Quebec, Thomas, a two-sport athlete, has been able to compete for Ontario teams in hockey. It was her father’s side of the family that got her going on the ice as a young child and since then she has made it her focus, believing her chances of earning a post-secondary scholarship will be greater there than in volleyball.
She currently plays for the Hockey Training Institute in Ontario and says it has been challenging for her being in a male dominated sport, where the women’s game is not always valued in the same way. One of her biggest frustrations has been watching men’s teams get prime ice-time slots for practice, shafting the women’s teams to the later hours of the night.
Thomas grew up playing hockey with the boys, and says being the only girl on the team lead to a lot of bullying. She suspects it was her athleticism that often made the boys feel insecure, and says her ability overcome their verbal and physical negativity made her the athlete that she is today.
“When I was playing on the boy’s team they would sometimes punch me for beating them at races on the ice,” said Thomas. “At first it caused me to start hating the sport until I realized they were just mad because I was improving faster than they were. I started to build off it and work harder. It gave me a lot of motivation to do better in sport.”
Thomas will graduate high-school this year, and has completed the traditional rites of passage for adolescence in her Indigenous community. She looks forward to having a varsity sports career and would like to study engineering and business. With a deep desire to give back to her community, she plans to follow in her family’s footsteps and become a volleyball coach, and recently completed her first volleyball training camps which served over 30 children in her community.
“My mom and grandmother helped me organize it but I basically ran the sessions myself,” said Thomas. “I have a lot of kids looking up to me in the sport of volleyball so I wanted to make sure they had the opportunity to learn how to play.”