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Warming hearts and throwing darts

Why HRM’s 14-year-old Canadian dart champion Emily Alford says winning isn’t the point

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IAN SELIG
  • IAN SELIG

On any given Friday night in Halifax, you'll find Emily Alford in the pub, going up against a group of 20-something guys in a game of darts. She asks if they'd like to play for a drink "of pop or something, of course," she says. Or, if she has a bit of money on her, she'll say "Hey, let's play for five bucks."

The 14-year-old Canadian national junior girls darts champion is honest and energetic. She'll likely have her bouncing hair in a ponytail and her bangs cut just over her eyebrows. The group takes her offer, and in quick order with sharp precision, she'll win.

"It's kind of cool coming out with $60 or an arm of drinks," says Alford. "All of them just stand there like...uhhh," wondering what just hit them.

On Sunday mornings she's at the Somme Legion on King Street in Dartmouth, practicing with the Halifax Youth Dart League. During the week she's at Lockview High School in Fall River. On Tuesday evenings she volunteers at the Bedford Legion Bingo, and every day she's practicing darts right in the middle of the living room in her parents' house.

In May, she was at the 2019 National Youth Championship in Saskatoon, and came home to Beaver Bank, NS, with a bit more than an armful of pop and five-dollar bills.

At the tournament, she shared third place with Brooklyn Martell in the national youth female doubles; came first in the junior mixed doubles with Halifax partner Cohen Campbell; won one of four spots on Canada's youth team that will be heading to the World Cup in Romania in October and won a scholarship shoot championship, too.

After being knocked out in the semi-finals the year before, she won first place in junior female singles to become the junior girls national champion.

Her biggest accomplishment, though, was being selected from more than 70 peers at the tournament to win the sportsmanship award. Listening to the way she speaks about fair play, having fun, helping others and respect for the game, it's not hard to see why she won.

"I've always been taught, ever since I started, that every game, every match, starts and ends with a handshake," she says. "Normally with me, it also starts and ends with a hug."

Alford's custom-made competition t-shirt showing off her sponsors and sporting two ribbons—one for military support in honour of her dad, and one for lymphoma awareness in honour of her mom—has Emily Energizer Alford written across her shoulders. Her dad, John, says she often gets called Tigger, "cause she's always bouncing."

Her endless positive energy has earned her recognition from her peers in the dart world. Her dedication, skill and commitment have earned her acknowledgement from her mentors and adults. There's something about the game that's just natural with her, says her dart-playing dad—like it is for the Crosbys and MacKinnons of the world.

There's something about the community, too. When she first walked into the legion at the age of seven, that felt natural, too. "I have an anxiety disorder," says Alford. "A lot of people that know me wouldn't really think that I would, but I do, which darts helps with a lot." Darts is "a feeling of belonging" for her, so the worries she normally feels in her day-to-day life—about homework, what people around her think of her—fall away. "I know I belong there," she says.

IAN SELIG
  • Ian Selig

Justine B. Allen argues in her 2003 study "Social motivation in youth sport" that among female adolescents, social connections are a motivator for enjoyment in sport, a finding Allen says was good news among reports of declining numbers of young female athletes. In 2010, only 16 percent of Canadian women reported playing sports, versus 38 percent in 1992.

Finding a way to create more opportunity for young people like Alford to find this sense of belonging in sport is a challenge. In Canada, 59 percent of girls aged three to 17 participate in sport, but by adolescence girls experience a much steeper decline—22 percent—than boys.

And even though Nova Sotia's per-capita-rate of dart players is high, there's only about 30 youth players in the whole province who are competing.

W hen I came into like the dart scene," Alford says, "it was like everybody accepted me for who I was.

"I haven't always been the most popular person at school because my personality really is very energetic," she says. "A lot of kids just try and find something to pick on so they tend to find darts, and say 'Oh, you're weird.'" But I take pride in darts. It's something that's been a part of me for a long time."

For half her life, Alford has been learning that winning darts is part knack, part perseverance, part mental focus and part math. But mostly it's just practice.

David Thomas, who runs the youth dart league in Halifax and is provincial director of Darts Nova Scotia, says Alford's eager commitment to learning and practicing is one of the reasons she's getting better. "She's playing all the time, and it's something you can't just pick up."

A player since '71, Thomas says he'd probably still lose to her with his "what-it-used-to-be" arm. He's given her some advice over the years, but there's no big secret to pass on about how to win.

Thomas and Alford share the well-known dart secret (lesser-known life secret) that hitting the most obvious target, smack-dab in the middle of the board—the bullseye—isn't a player's best route to winning. In steel-tip darts and when a game is a race to get to zero from 501 points, Alford says hitting three triple-20s or triple-19s is a better aim than just the bullseye, reminding that you have to "double out" to win the game. But there's also no "right way" to play darts, says Alford. In any given game, "I would take a different route than another person."

And winning, however you manage to do it, says Alford, isn't as important as upholding good sportsmanship. Losing and skipping the handshake—or in her case, the hug—takes away from being a skilled or talented player, though she does admit, "everyone has their moments."

Her wisdom is endearing if it's not impressive. Thomas describes it simply: "She has no ego. She's the same with everybody....She knows she can play the game well, but she doesn't hold it over anybody."

"You're going to get people here and there, that aren't always going to be your favourite or they're not going to like you very much," says Alford. She's experienced jealousy, and like winning, there are many routes to good—or bad—sportsmanship. "But at the same time, you've got to keep in mind the people that support you."

And Alford's bubbly personality and genuine kindness has earned her many supporters. One of whom also happens to be one of her heroes: Deta Hedman.

The Jamaica-born English darts superstar Hedman has thrown innumerable darts and won countless games in her long career. She's known for being the first woman to beat a man in a televised major, at the UK Open in 2005. Having Hedman as a role model, watching her play—and win—against men and women gave Alford the ambition that "I could beat anybody that I wanted to. Man or woman, girls or boys, it doesn't matter." Alford herself is the only female on darts supplies brand One80's sponsored Team Canada athletes.

The report "Women in sport–fuelling a lifetime of participation" says that despite the wide-ranging evidence of the benefits of sport, the decision for girls to play sport and continue playing, is frequently influenced by social pressures from parents, guardians and peers. Peer influence and lack of positive role models, social support, encouragement, self-confidence and money are the top reasons why adolescent girls say they stop participating in sport.

In the '80s, Hedman says in an email, "Acceptance wasn't particularly easy as a Black lady" in the sport, and she's used her success and love of the game to fight the "constant battle to get the ladies game the recognition it deserves." She and Alford had already been speaking via email before they met in person at the 2018 World Masters in England.

While Hedman may be one of Alford 's dart heroes, she says her mom is her real-life hero. In 2017, her mom Krista was battling stage four lymphoma, which Alford says "took a toll on all of us." Hedman says she reached out to Alford during this time and "gave her tips on our sport and a way to take her mind away from her mums [sic] battle."

Alford remembers being called to the hospital to say her goodbyes, and her mom telling her she wanted her to go to England and play in the World Masters. To which Alford defiantly responded, "No, you're coming with me and you're going to watch me play."

Alford continued to practice. Her mom went into remission. She qualified for the World Masters tournament, and by November 2018 she was chatting up and playing games with players from all over the world in the pub across the street from the competition space in Bridlington, England.

Alford says she and Hedman played a few games, and had a few drinks ("all un-alcoholic, I promise," she adds). Hedman remembers the group of dart lovers in the pub getting strange looks as they belted out "The 12 days of Christmas."

"Emily seems to fit in great in the darting community," says Hedman. "We come in all shapes, sizes, looks and races. I've always had to fight in life for my rewards. I hope some of the experiences I and others have gone through makes it easier for girls like Emily to find their future career path in darts easier."

It's working. In March, Alford and Haley Crowley from New Brunswick became the first youth pair to ever compete in the finals of an adult ladies competition.

At the next World Cup tournament in Romania this fall, Alford will once again be surrounded by her welcoming and warm community that not only followed her mom's battle with cancer, but is eagerly watching her rise up the ranks. She'll play alongside her Team Canada teammates—Hayley Crowley, Ontario's Donovan Pilon and Alberta's Nathan Osmond—and reconnect with lifelong friends from around the world. She likes that she's able to come from a small town in Nova Scotia and say to the world stage, "This is what I have to offer."

And though her national champion doubles partner, 12-year-old Cohen Campell, says "there's not many players like her" who can be a positive partner that boosts him up when he comes back to the line after a bad shot, she's on a mission to get more people involved.

She makes sure to mention that any new players can come and try darts for free on Sunday mornings at 10 at the Somme Legion, noting they'll start back up again after the summer months. If youth love it as she does, it's only five bucks a week after that. It's "a lot of laughs and a lot of fun," Alford promises. And at the end of the day, as Hedman says, "whether you are young or old, male or female, you both have three darts in your hand."

You can't hit, or miss, the bullseye without trying.

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