When Santiago Albiar speaks of golf, his passion for the sport is obvious.
As such, the Kearsley High School sophomore is always on the lookout for new, competitive settings in which to hone his skills and test his game.
Albiar was doing just that a year ago when he registered to compete in the Greater Flint Olympian Games for the first time as a way to supplement his Flint Junior Golf Association schedule. Why not fit in more rounds of competition during the summer?
What Albiar received from the experience, however, was so much more than that.
Those faring well enough at the event qualify for the CANUSA Games, an annual competition pitting Flint-area athletes against those from its sister city of Hamilton, Ontario. Albiar was among those qualifying for the first in-person CANUSA Games in three years, which Flint hosted last August.
By the time the competition concluded, Albiar was clutching part of the Bill Sturrup Memorial Trophy, awarded annually to the male and female golfers with the lowest accumulated gross score, and basking in memories he will forever treasure.
Albiar became one of the thousands of athletes who have discovered what the CANUSA motto, “Experience the Friendship,” truly embodies.
“I’m really big on golf, love the competition and I’m always pursuing ways of being more competitive, so I thought the Flint Olympian would be a good way to see what I could do in another competition besides Flint Junior and high school,” he says. “That’s all I was looking for and never expected to record the top score and receive a trophy. That was just part of an amazing experience playing with different teammates, being part of the opening and closing ceremonies and getting to know some of the athletes from Canada and what they are all about.”
Albiar’s winning score of 43 at Swartz Creek Golf Course was a major reason Flint took the golf competition and captured the overall CANUSA championship for the ninth consecutive time, winning eight sports to Hamilton’s three.
He intends to help Flint stretch its streak to ten straight when Hamilton hosts the CANUSA Games for the first time since 2019 on August 11-13 after, of course, competing in the Flint Olympian Games which begin on June 19.
It will be Albiar’s first time in Canada.
“As soon as CANUSA ended last year, I knew 100 percent I would be back,” he says. “I want to do everything I can to help us win the golf and CANUSA titles again, but the big thing is making more new connections with other athletes and even learning from them, because that’s the lasting thing that comes from the experience. I’m really excited about my first trip to Canada and seeing what the culture and country are like.”
Flint Olympian and CANUSA are not exclusively for young athletes. In fact, many events are open to those ages nine and up. The 66th Flint Olympian Games will offer 25 sports while the 65th CANUSA Games will feature 14 sports, including baseball, basketball (traditional and 3-on-3), bowling, darts, flag football, golf, hockey, pickleball, skeet shooting, soccer, swimming, tennis, track and field and volleyball.
While Albiar is returning to the Games for a second time, Tony Sitko is back for the 40th time.
The Grand Blanc native’s association with the events began as a high school soccer player where he was a four-year varsity player for the Bobcats. Sitko has spent decades helping organize Flint Olympian and CANUSA since returning to the area after college.
He has served as golf coordinator, associate chairman, co-chairman and will be general co-chairman again this year along with Mike Maienbrook. Sean Croudy and Chris Daly are co-chairmen and Dan Berezny and Jim Whitinger are associate chairmen, rotating roles every two years.
Sitko assumed larger organizing roles after retiring from Flint Community Schools in 2018 following a distinguished career which included stints as a teacher, assistant principal and principal.
“I always look forward to seeing the smiles on the faces of all athletes as they come together for the competition and form lasting bonds,” he says. “The camaraderie that develops is amazing. In my role, I appreciate the on and off-the-field collaboration that takes place to make everything happen and just the interaction among younger athletes and parents. The addition of non-traditional sports to the Flint Olympian Games like disc golf, futsal, cornhole, handball and esports has also been exciting to see.”
Croudy is another mainstay of both events who also first experienced the Flint Olympian Games as an athlete, participating in tennis, soccer and flag football.
He began his current 17-year stint as an organizer at the urging of Flint Olympian and CANUSA legend James Bracy, who appreciated the way Croudy worked with students when he was a staff member and Bracy was principal at Coolidge Elementary in Flint. Bracy helped run every Flint Olympian and CANUSA Games from their inception until his death in 2013.
“I was never able to qualify for CANUSA, though, and that speaks to the quality of athletes Flint has,” says Croudy, who earned varsity letters in football, tennis and basketball at Flint Southwestern.
That finally changed in 2018 when Croudy, then the City of Flint’s Director of Community Recreation, became eligible for the CANUSA mayors’ competition which pits members of the Flint and Hamilton administrations against each other in a sport.
Croudy was edged by Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger in pickleball that year, 13-11, before Hamilton’s deputy mayor beat him in bowling in 2019.
“Yep, 0-2,” he says with a laugh. “Seriously, though, I love being a part of Flint Olympian and CANUSA. For our youth, especially, it gives them the opportunity to do something during summers that encourages being healthy and working together as a team while forming respect and relationships with those competing against them.”
Added Sitko: “It’s really cool they can compete with others from the Flint-area (or against them at the Olympian Games) without the pressure of high school rivalries, as well as get to know people their age from another country.”
Another cool aspect of CANUSA is the 245-mile relay from visiting city to host city which culminates in the lighting of the flame at the opening ceremony. The ceremony also features a presentation of the Friendship Trophy between the cities’ mayors and renditions of the American and Canadian National Anthems. Sitko expects nearly 500 athletes to compete this year.
During CANUSA, athletes under 18 from the host city and their families welcome under-18 athletes from the visiting city into their homes which also provides opportunities for the visitors to get to know the host city better following each day’s competition.
Last year, Albiar’s family hosted Hamilton golfer Ryan Langerer and he hopes to stay with Langerer’s family this year.
“Ryan has just been a great person to get to know and he actually helped me with my golf game,” Albiar says. “Of course, I learned plenty from him about Canada, its culture and what life is like there. Forming a friendship with him has been one of the best things about my decision to compete in the Games.”
Sitko’s family also formed lasting friendships when they hosted Hamilton athletes while his sons were competing.
“Having Hamilton athletes stay with us was a thrill for the whole family and led to lasting friendships,” he says. “We’ve kept in touch with all of them as they go through life.”
For those keeping score, Flint leads the all-time series, 34-26 with four ties. Hamilton last won in 2013.
“I can only attribute Flint’s winning streak to the quality of athletes Flint and Genesee County produces in a variety of sports,” Sitko says. “The number of youth athletic programs and opportunities in the area has also played a role from recreational to travel to school sports. The combination of athletes who specialize in a sport from an early age along with those who opt to compete in several sports is also a factor.”
In 1957, The Greater Flint Olympian Games were conceived and brought to reality through the efforts of Frank J. Manley, Assistant Superintendent of Schools for the Mott Program of the Flint Board of Education and legendary Flint figure, Charles Stewart Mott.
Manley felt an Olympic-style competition would be the perfect way to grow the city’s summer recreational programs and the 82-year-old Mott was more than willing to bring Manley’s vision to life through his Mott Foundation.
Bob Richards, one of the nation’s most famous Olympians of that era, lit the first Greater Flint Olympian Games torch at Northern High School’s Wildanger Field House, a year after winning his second pole vault gold medal.
Manley and Mott then began looking for another competition Olympian Games winners could participate in and contacted the Amateur Athletic Union which then reached out to Canada’s AAU seeking a city of comparable size and interest to Flint. Hamilton was selected and CANUSA was born.
“It’s important to recognize and honor our founding folks like Frank Manley and Charles Mott for their foresight and vision to create something that has benefitted athletes in two communities for 65 years,” Sitko says. “The Olympian Games have done so much to promote wellness and fitness in our area while providing a convenient way for people ages 9-99 to take part in an athletic competition.”
The inaugural CANUSA Games featured roughly 200 athletes competing in seven sports. Since then, they have competed in 36 different sports. In some years, CANUSA has drawn more than 1,000 athletes.
“The closing ceremony is always very special for me because it’s so emotional,” Croudy says. “You always see athletes and even others crying and hugging because they have formed lasting bonds during the previous few days and don’t want the Games to end. People who have met through CANUSA later attend each other’s weddings and get together regularly. It’s wonderful to see.”