Sometimes, one moment can change the course of your entire life. That was the case for Alexandre Despatie. The young diver began dreaming of an international career after winning at the 1993 Jeux de Québec Finals, held in Baie-Comeau. And now, the two-time Olympic medalist is getting ready to experience the competition in a whole new way, as spokesperson for the 55th Jeux de Quebec Finals in Laval this summer.
Travelling to Quebec’s north shore, sleeping in a gym dormitory with other young athletes, eating as a group in the cafeteria, making new friends and participating in the first of many press conferences … Alexandre Despatie was just 8 years old when he first competed at the Jeux de Québec Finals, but the experience is etched into his memory.
The young diver made a splash—literally and figuratively—when he won the gold medals for the 1-metre and 3-metre springboard events, even though he was competing in the category for 12–13-year-olds. "I wasn't expecting to stand on that podium," he admitted. "It was one of my first competitions. I didn't have any real expectations."
A natural athlete—and a natural communicator
Alexandre told us that he loved taking part in the Jeux de Québec and especially enjoyed meeting other athletes. "When you're at a multi-sport event, things are different," he explained. "You meet other kids, who are doing a completely different sport. I made friends with a cyclist, and then we went biking a few times together. You can meet people at these games and start friendships that last for years."
He also remembers the crowd going wild for his exploits. While he did appreciate the applause, he was also intimidated by their enthusiasm. "I kept my eyes down until I found my coach. I've always been a little embarrassed by applause like that. Even at the Olympics, I just kept looking at the ground once I was out of the pool," he said.
During those province-wide finals, the young Alexandre gave his very first press conference. Michelle Gendron, a long-time strategic communications coordinator for the Jeux de Québec, helped get him ready to meet with journalists and photographers.
"I took him to visit the room ahead of time, so he could get a feel for it. I also let him know that if anyone asked a question he couldn’t answer, all he would have to do is look at me and I'd step in right away," she said. This offer turned out to be unnecessary, in the end.
"A journalist asked him what it felt like to compete with divers who were older than him. Without missing a beat, Alexandre replied that it didn't feel any different, since he was still out on the diving board alone. He was a natural! He showed a lot of poise," added Michelle.
With the 55th Jeux du Québec Finals about to begin, Alexandre Despatie knows that young athletes are getting excited at the idea of competing in their respective sports. His favourite memory of the 1993 Finals? "Riding the school bus," he replied immediately. "We were all together, talking, laughing and eating candy."
Don't forget: for young athletes, having fun is what's important!
The experience of a lifetime
Alexandre Despatie, who is now working in media, is thrilled to be the spokesperson for the Jeux de Quebec Finals this summer—especially since they're being held in Laval, his hometown. This year, more than 3,300 athletes under the age of 18 will be arriving from all across Quebec to compete in a variety of sports. The competition will run from July 22 to 30. The former diver will also be attending different events and providing commentary every evening on RDS.
Whether or not they bring home a medal, everyone participating in the Jeux de Québec Finals will walk away with memories they won't forget any time soon. "That's the power of the Jeux de Québec. And it's true for the volunteers as well as the athletes," said Alexandre Despatie.
In fact, more than 2,000 volunteers are needed to make the Jeux de Québec Finals a success. "Obviously it's a fun time and our volunteers are making memories, but they’re also playing a crucial role in the games," explained Michelle Gendron.
Michelle remembers one young boy who clearly understood how vital his contributions were. “His job was to carry the competition results to journalists—this was way before the internet! One day, he ran into a man who started chatting with him, asking what he was up to. And after a few minutes, the boy interrupted him and started walking away, saying, 'I'm sorry, sir, I don't have time to talk with you right now. I'm very important.' Of course, what he didn’t know was that he was talking to René Lévesque! Mr. Lévesque found the boy's answer absolutely charming. He didn't want us to tell the boy that he had just snubbed the Premier. He said that if the Jeux de Québec could instill that much confidence in young people, they needed to continue for as long as possible," said Michelle Gendron.
Support from sponsors
Major events like the Jeux de Québec rely on support from their sponsors. Desjardins has been a partner for over 35 years, since 1984. This longstanding partnership shows how committed Desjardins is to young people. The cooperative provides both material support and emotional support, through a cheer squad formed of volunteers and employees. The squad goes from event to event, encouraging athletes and standing with parents, who are often nervous, and fans in the bleachers.
A few years ago, one young man who was competing in table tennis stopped to personally thank the squad for cheering him on. He was the only competitor in the sport for his region, and nobody from his family was able to come see him play, so the squad made a huge difference for him in particular. He also said that having Desjardins in the stands proved that his sport was just as legitimate as the others. Never underestimate the power of encouragement!
A one-of-a-kind event
The very first Jeux de Québec Finals were held in Rivière-du-Loup in the summer of 1971. At first, they were created to bring sports to a province-wide level and help to train officials and coaches. In the middle of the 1980s, this scope expanded to include finding young athletes who could compete on the national and international levels. Like Alexandre Despatie, several other Olympic athletes made their debuts at the Finals: Joannie Rochette, Émilie Heymans and Alex Harvey, to name a few.
As of today, there is no other competition like the Jeux de Québec in the world. "No other country has created a continuum of local competitions that lead to regional and then provincial finals," explained Michelle Gendron.
After 50 years, it's safe to say the Jeux are still going strong.