News Story

Mormon Canadian Athletes Ready for Pan Am Games

Separated by almost 4,700 kilometres but connected by national pride and devotion to God, Hugh Smith and Coby Iwaasa, two high-performance athletes and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will represent Canada at the Pan Am Games in Toronto this month.

“If you don’t know where you want to go, it doesn’t matter what road you take” is the motto of 31-year-old Smith, a gymnast from Windsor, Nova Scotia, competing in his third Pan Am Games. The adage struck a chord with him after hearing Church President Thomas S. Monson speak of the Cheshire Cat’s similar advice to Alice when she found herself at a crossroads in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

There was no doubt about Smith’s route. He was enrolled in gymnastics at the age of four. At his first gymnastics meet at age eight, he won six gold medals and is today a member of Canada’s national gymnastics team.

Although Smith enjoyed success at an early age, he always knew he would serve a full-time mission for the Church, and a scripture from the Book of Mormon affirmed what he already knew in his heart: “But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God” (Jacob 2:18). Smith speaks of his mission in Mexico as the most amazing experience of his life.

Smith has never had an injury that has kept him from competing — something unheard of in his sport. “Everyone on the Canadian team has had some kind of injury,” he says. “I really can’t do what I do without God. He gives me the confidence that I need to know that I’m going to be okay. Prayer and keeping close to Heavenly Father are what helps me most. Without Him protecting and watching out for me, I definitely would not have been able to accomplish any of my goals.”

Smith competes at Toronto’s Pan Am Games on Saturday, July 11, in all six male categories — pommel horse, rings, floor exercises, horizontal bar, parallel bars and vault.

Jackson Payne, from Edmonton, Alberta, is another returned Mormon missionary on the Canadian gymnastics team. He returned to the team in 2014 after completing a two-year mission for the Church in the Korea Seoul South Mission. At the recent 2015 Canadian championships, he won the gold medal in the men's senior all-around event.

Fellow Canadian Coby Iwaasa of Lethbridge, Alberta, began toppling racquetball records a few years after he could swing a racquet. When he was just 14, the speed of his volley was clocked at 140 miles per hour (225 kilometres per hour).

Although he began playing racquetball when he was much younger, his passion for the game increased when he was about 11 — he hated losing. Iwaasa’s father and first coach, Milton, said, “We are extremely proud parents. Coby has buckled down and maintained his discipline to work hard to achieve what he has so far. … We marvel at his drive and determination. When other kids his age were out having fun, he was in a court doing drills by himself with his coach.”

In a sport that challenges overall mental and physical fitness, Iwaasa credits the Lord and his many wonderful coaches and trainers for his success. Just 19, Iwaasa has proven his prowess on the court against much more experienced competitors. In a recent match, down 0–14, he rallied to win 15–14.

In May of this year, Iwaasa received his call to serve a two-year mission for the Church in Nagoya, Japan, where his grandparents served in 1993. His grandfather was also one of the first missionaries sent to Japan after World War II, and his father served in the Japan Tokyo Mission in 1975. His father’s cousin, David Iwaasa, served as mission president of the Japan Fukuoka Mission from 2006 to 2009. Coby Iwaasa enters the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, in October.

Iwaasa’s biggest career dream — to compete in the Pan Am Games — will be realized as he competes in Toronto on July 19.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are known not only for serving voluntary missions to share their beliefs with others but also for their healthy lifestyles. The Church’s health code — which is followed by many other Mormon athletes — advises against the use of alcohol, tobacco and other harmful substances and also promotes the practice of balanced nutrition.

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