ALMOST a week on from Shetland’s record medal haul for an “away” NatWest Island Games in sun-kissed Jersey, good-natured team secretary Bob Kerr has well and truly reacclimatised to these windswept islands’ so-called summer.
Posing for a photo in Lerwick on Wednesday afternoon, Bob chuckles wryly as Shetland News’ camera decides it needs a flash in what is supposed to be broad daylight in early July.
Seven days earlier the isles’ elite footballers had been contending with 30C+ heat and the badminton team were grappling with stifling indoor temperatures of around 40C – and with real success.
“We spend a lot of time planning the games and when it comes along, it’s always just such a busy, hectic, exciting week,” Bob says, “and I’m personally so pleased that we’ve had such a wide range of high performances and results across a number of sports.
“Twenty three medals overall, which is our most successful games off-island, and a fantastic achievement by everybody involved.”
The 125-strong team and its merry band of supporters returned home with many happy memories from the “friendly games”, which for a few Shetlanders this time was more the “family games”.
Ten of those medals came in athletics and seven in swimming, along with a silver and bronze in cycling, a pair of shooting bronzes, a badminton silver and a team bronze in the women’s triathlon.
There was a surprise return to Shetland colours for Claire Wilson, who stepped in to win gold in her first ever competition steeplechase. In the pool Andrea Strachan’s three golds and two silvers mean she is “our most successful medal-winning athlete”.
One of several heart-warming tales – alongside Katie Bristow’s resolute silver medal triumph in the 5,000m on the final day’s competition and the “icing on the cake” of Elaine Park winning her first ever medal in her ninth games – was badminton father-and-daughter pairing Gordon Keith and Shona Mackay.
Their mixed doubles silver medal, as Bob says, was a “quite unexpected and fantastic family story”. Shona says she “never imagined” she’d be of a high enough standard to win a games medal.
“When I reached the quarter finals of the singles I was delighted and thought that would be the highlight of my week,” she tells Shetland News.
“It was an incredibly special moment to stand up beside dad and collect our medal – he has trained so hard over the last 15 years and achieved a lot in that time which is inspirational to me.”
Shona, who now lives in Caithness, said it was “lovely coming home to the hype amongst family and friends who are keen to hear all about the games”.
She thanked all her teammates and everyone else in Shetland for their backing: “The support and messages we received throughout the week, but particularly on Thursday night and Friday morning, really made us feel like we were doing Shetland proud.”
“The atmosphere was fantastic within the camp, everyone always knew what was happening and who was in running for medals – they were a huge support to each other during the competition and a great team to be part of,” Shona continued, adding: “I would do the whole week again in a flash.”
It was also a week never to be forgotten for the Bristow family. Football team manager Niall oversaw a run to the semi finals for his players, who narrowly missed out on a medal in their best ever performance aside of 2005’s gold as the host island.
He also had the welcome distraction of following his son Bobby and daughter Katie’s fortunes in the athletics.
Bobby led Shetland to a team silver in the half marathon, again beyond expectations and “that in many was set the tone for all the competitors”, Niall says.
Katie, meanwhile, did “fantastically well” after suffering a setback in dropping out of her strongest event, the 10,000m. She “responded phenomenally” to win silver in the 5,000m on Friday.
“So it’s been a great week for Team Bristow,” Niall says, “and we’re actually in Glasgow at the moment for my son’s graduation. So this particularl fortnight will live long in the highlights for the Bristow family.”
He rates the football side reaching the semis as a “big achievement” amid a “brutal” schedule incorporating five games in six days.
“It gives the bigger teams an advantage – look at winners Guernsey, for example. They effectively put out their second team in their second game, and they’ll alternate their sides.
“The manner in which we played in the semi final against the Isle of Man was excellent and the fact that we pushed a bigger, stronger team right to the wire – that in effect probably cost us the game the next day, but I wouldn’t do anything differently.
“I have no regrets whatsoever and [am] very proud of what the players achieved.”
A growing feature of the Island Games is Team Shetland’s travelling support – numbering some 70 official supporters along with a few families.
Already several folk who stayed at home this time are exploring making the trip to Gotland in 2017.
“The numbers seem to grow every games,” Bob says, “and we’re pleased to see Shetland flags and folk shouting for Shetland at all the venues – it really does make a difference to the team’s performance.”
Perhaps the most enthusiastic were the two Andrews, Simpson and Hutton, who made their way around the venues conspicuous by the custom-made t-shirts and knitted Shetland headbands they donned.
“I’ve never been abroad to watch sport before, never mind Shetland sport,” Hutton tells us. “The atmosphere created in Jersey was amazing by athletes and spectators from all islands.
Hutton’s highlights included Shona and Gordon’s success, Strachan bagging more swimming golds, following the footballers from game to game and singing the Up Helly Aa song in the Jersey’s swimming pool complex!
“Myself and Andrew wanted to show our support for Shetland by our knitted sweatbands and personally designed t-shirts. We are already looking forward to planning Gotland ’17.”
Bob says the Scandinavian island will put on a “culturally different games from Jersey, and I’ve no doubt they’ll deliver an excellent games”.
It’s less clear what will happen two years on from that – Menorca having informed the games association that they won’t be able to fulfil their commitment to host in 2019 “due to a change of government and political difficulties”.
The international executive committee is now having discussions with a small number of islands that may be in a position to step in, Bob adds.
“Four years is not a long time to prepare for the games, so it’ll be interesting to see how those discussions evolve and we look forward to hearing in due course.”
Neil Riddell & Chris Cope