Cheer on Northwest athletes in the Pan Am Games

Seattle native Chelsea Burns is in Toronto to compete in the triathalon at the Pan-American Games. (Photo courtesy of Paul Phillips / Competitive Image)
Seattle native Chelsea Burns is in Toronto to compete in the triathalon at the Pan-American Games. (Photo courtesy of Paul Phillips / Competitive Image)

Casey Kotchman has played in nearly 1,000 Major League Baseball games. But perhaps none had the international significance as the ones he’ll play over the next two weeks.

The one-time Seattle Mariner is just one of a bevy athletes with Seattle ties participating in the 2015 Pan-American Games, which kick off today in Toronto.

Haven’t heard of the Pan Am Games before? Turns out it’s the third-largest international multi-sport competition in the world — sort of like a Western-Hemisphere-only preview to next year’s Summer Olympics.

Approximately 6,000 athletes from 41 nations across North and South America will compete in 36 sports over a two-week span.

For Kotchman — a 32-year old first baseman who appeared in 125 games for the M’s in 2010 — the chance to represent the United States on the diamond was too compelling to pass up.

“Obviously the opportunity and privilege doesn’t come around that often, so [when] they give you a chance to do it, I think you need to jump on it,” Kotchman said. “It’s just an honor to be able to put on the red, white, and blue and play baseball.”

He’s one of two with a Mariners link to play for the stars and stripes, alongside outfielder Patrick Kivlehan, currently of Seattle’s Triple-A affiliate, the Tacoma Rainiers.

For Kivlehan, making the roster and playing for the USA, “might be the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”

“It’s just one of those honors that you’ll remember for the rest of your life, and you’ll cherish forever,” Kivlehan said.

Diehard Mariners fans may also recognize a trio names on the roster for Team Canada: outfielders Tyson Gillies and Tyler O’Neill, and pitcher Phillippe Aumont. Gillies and Aumont were both drafted by Seattle, and spent several seasons in the minor league system before being packaged in a trade with the Phillies organization in 2010, while O’Neill is currently with the Mariners Single-A affiliate.

On the softball diamond, former University of Washington infielder Jenn Salling will also compete for the host nation. The Burnaby, B.C. native is no stranger to the Pan Am Games, after representing Canada in both 2007 and 2011.

While having the games in Toronto — after the previous two were held in Rio de Janeiro and Guadalajara — doesn’t necessarily make them mean more, playing in front of a Canadian crowd does add some excitement. The fact that next year’s Softball World Championships will be held in Surrey, B.C.. just a half-hour from her family’s home, certainly didn’t hurt in deciding to again compete for the national team.

“It’s kind of a no brainer,” Salling said.

Shorewood High Alum Matt West will be competing on the U.S. Volleyball team at the Pan Am Games. (Photo courtesy of B.J. Hoeptner Evans / USA Volleyball)
Shorewood High Alum Matt West will be competing on the U.S. Volleyball team at the Pan Am Games. (Photo courtesy of B.J. Hoeptner Evans / USA Volleyball)

The Puget Sound connections, however, do go well beyond the ballpark, with some of the most notable local links coming on the volleyball court.

Seattle native and Shorewood High School alumnus Matt West was named to Team USA in men’s indoor volleyball as one of two setters on the roster.

Meanwhile, a pair of UW alumna will represent the United States on the women’s side, as setter Jenna Hagglund and outside hitter Krista Vansant made the roster.

All-Pac-12 selection and current UW junior Kelsey Plum was one of 12 players named to the U.S. Women’s Basketball team

In the pool, a pair from the Puget Sound area will swim for Team USA. Amber McDermott of Mill Creek is slated to race in the 200 and 400 meter freestyle, while Seattle’s B.J. Johnson will compete in the 100 and 200 meter breaststroke.

While those two race in the water, a several local residents will face-off on the water in rowing. UW alumnus Sam Ojserkis will be in the men’s eight boat for the U.S., while Seattle native and Holy Names graduate Lindsay Meyer will race in the women’s double sculls and quadruple sculls.

For Canada, a trio of UW graduates in Rob Gibson, Will Crothers, and Conlin McCabe will compete. Crothers and McCabe will both race in the men’s four and men’s eight boats, while Gibson will compete in the men’s single sculls and quadruple sculls.

Bellingham-based Spencer Paxson is one of four athletes representing Team USA in cross-country mountain biking, which will include fewer than 30 competitors total.

A UW alumna fresh off an appearance at last month’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, forward Veronica Perez, will suit up for Mexico in soccer.

One of Canada’s most decorated athletes at the games, trapshooter Susan Nattrass, has lived on Vashon Island since the mid-1990s. The six-time Olympian and seven-time World Champion was the flagbearer for Canada during the 2007 opening ceremonies, and took home the gold in those games.

Finally, Seattle native Chelsea Burns is one of three Americans entered in the women’s triathlon, just two years after transitioning to the sport after competing as a track athlete in college.

Burns considers the Pan Am nod to be an honor, but was taken aback at the scale of the event when she arrived.

“I don’t think I quite realized what a big deal this was until I got here, but just being in this Pan American athlete village and atmosphere, and being around all the other sports and all the other countries, it’s definitely a very cool experience.”

Across all of the local connections, the chance to represent a nation on the international stage was overpowering.

“For any elite athlete, it’s obviously, I think, a dream come true,” Salling said. “And I think that’s the biggest thing too, to be able to represent your country wearing your colors, is the biggest honor an elite athlete could every have. It’s just an immense amount of pride, it’s extremely humbling to be able to do that.”

That even goes for the long-time major leaguer.

“It’s a blessing to do this,” Kotchman said. “It really is an honor, so I’m appreciative of it, that’s for sure.”

The opening ceremonies are set for this evening (Friday) at 4 p.m. at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. Seattle-area viewers can catch the action over the next two-plus weeks on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, and WatchESPN, and get the Canadian perspective on Vancouver’s CBC affiliate, CBUT (Comcast channel 99).