BY DAN MCNEE
LISTOWEL – The third time is truly the charm.
For the first time in its existence, Paddyfest has a male ambassador. Sam Van Steenbergen was only the third gentleman to run in 36 years, following in the footsteps of past contestants Dustin Chamney and Matthew Gottfried. The 16-year-old from Listowel beat out Juanita Vongsouphath, Niki Louvelle (talent award winner) and first runner-up Renee Schultz to win the competition on Saturday at the Listowel Evangelical Missionary Church.
“It’s pretty exciting,” said Van Steenbergen of being named ambassador. “I liked getting to know all of the contestants, I think we all had a pretty good time.”
The March 2 event was once again hosted by North Perth councillor Matt Richardson, his ninth year at the helm. Judging was provided by radio personality Brad Moore, CNE Ambassador of the Fairs Linda Slits, and Canadian figure skating duo Jodeyne Higgins and Sean Rice. But the day truly belonged to the four young contestants who gained a wealth of experience from the 2013 edition of the competition.
“This experience was so rewarding, I’d recommend it to anyone,” commented Schultz, whose older sister also ran for the title last year.
“Working with this group of four individuals has been absolutely amazing,” added ambassador competition chair Nicole Kaufman. “Each of them have special talents in different ways.”
Van Steenbergen also took home the congeniality award as voted by the contestants themselves. His speech on learning the values of hard work on the family farm was the strongest amongst the four, and also impressed the judges with his answer to the impromptu question. VanSteenbergen was asked to give advice on balancing the important things in one’s life, and he spoke on prioritization and his experiences on the subject.
“The contestant that wins is really the face of Paddyfest,” said Kaufman. “They need to be an outgoing individual and have community spirit. All of the contestants this year had that, but obviously, Sam was the one that made the most impression today.”
VanSteenbergen also gave an outstanding effort on the piano in the talent portion of the competition, but Louvelle’s Irish dancing number proved difficult to top. It would not be the only dancing during the afternoon though, as the Listowel School of Dance also performed for the large crowd on hand during the intermission.
Before the winner was named, the audience was also treated to many laughs with the group talent portion of the show. Junior ambassadors Eden Stratton and Lauryn Town, Junior Cyclone ushers Mac Nichol, Daniel Dekoning and Carter Stewart and the four contestants put on a Paddyfest fashion show, capping off a fantastically entertaining program.
2012 Paddyfest Ambassador Taylor Gilkinson perhaps summed up the afternoon best just before VanSteenbergen was announced the winner.
“Every year seems to get better, and today was a true testament to that,” she said.