CARRYING THE TORCH
Canadians are gearing up for Atlanta, hell-bent on having their Olympic experience
There is this elusive thing called the Olympic spirit. The very phrase has a musty, dated sound, and can scarcely be uttered without hearing the theme from Chariots of Fire. It's hard to define besides. But people know it when they feel it.
The Olympic spirit has absolutely nothing to do with Olympic hype, a pervasive affliction that affects not only expected medal-winners but the Games themselves (witness the fastapproaching Atlanta Olympics: “the greatest peacetime gathering of nations in world history”). Nor should it be confused with the Olympic marketing spirit, which is to sell stuff and lots of it, whether it be the Games’ official cosmetics (Avon), packaged meats (Sara Lee) or life insurance (John Hancock). No, the Olympic spirit, as envisioned by the French nobleman who revived the ancient Greek games in 1896, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, surely did not include the possibility that the 100th anniversary of his creation would be dubbed
the “Coca-Cola Olympics,” after Atlanta’s home-town fizz-maker and its half-billion-dollar blitz.
What the diminutive baron talked about was true amateurism and fair play. He talked about “the noble and chivalrous character of athletics,” about competition building moral fibre. “Swifter, higher, stronger,” goes the Olympic motto, a relic from a time before athletes could find the quickest route to those goals in a bottle of strange-sounding chemicals.
But cynicism is easy. The hype is part of the show. The corporate sponsors help cover organizers’ costs and spare taxpayers. And most athletes don’t cheat. Many even subscribe to de Coubertin’s quaint notion of good clean competition, which is not just a gentle way of saying that most of the 10,700 athletes from 197 countries descending on sultry Atlanta for the July 19-to-Aug. 4 Games have a better chance of suffering heat prostration than of winning a medal.
Yes, among Canada’s 300-plus contingent are established stars like sprinter Donovan Bailey and swimmer Joanne Malar, cyclist Curt Harnett and rowers Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle. But there are also far lesser-known competitors who even now, while the rest of us lead more mundane lives, are jumping, spiking, fencing, dribbling, lifting, shooting and punching their way towards Atlanta, hell-bent on having their Olympic experience. And no doubt hoping to surprise prognosticators (and perhaps themselves) by mounting the podium. ‘You don’t go to the Olympics
and not wish deep down somewhere that you’ll get a medal,” says Canadian gymnast Kris Burley, 22, who will be making his first Olympic appearance this summer. “And there are only three of them and well over 100 guys who qualify. It comes down often to who wants it most.” But sports, Burley is quick to add, “is 90-percent disappointment and 10-per-cent achievement.”
Sports is also about overcoming odds, as 4,300 physically disabled athletes from 115 nations will demonstrate at the Paralympics, beginning on Aug. 16 in Atlanta. And it is about striving— for excellence, for joy, for moments captured not on film but in the hearts and minds of a lucky few. “When people find out that I’ve been to the Olympics, the first question is not, ‘Did you get a medal?’ ” says Doug Wood, a 30-year-old Canadian pole vaulter who competed at the Barcelona Games in 1992 and hopes to qualify for Atlanta. “It’s like, Wow, you went to the Olympics, what was it like?’ And I say, ‘It was fantastic. It was two weeks of something that I’ll never ever forget.’ ”
So here’s to the shivers. Let the Chariots of Fire music begin.
BEATING THE RAIN
For most of his 22 years, gymnast Kris Burley’s road to the Olympics was wide, straight and unobstructed. When he was only 10, his early-childhood fascination with vaulting, cartwheeling athletes on TV had him training 20 hours a week in his home town of Truro, N.S. The hard work paid off: in 1990, Burley—the son of high-school teachers—became Canadian junior champion; in 1994, he won three silvers and a team gold at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria; and, in 1995, three bronzes at the Pan-Am Games in Argentina. When he captured the Canadian men’s all around title last year, Atlanta seemed in plain view. Then, last June, his left ankle started to hurt, and doctors told him that if he underwent ankle surgery he would not recover in time for the fall’s qualifying meets. He decided to forgo the operation— and hope. “The pain was excruciating and at times I couldn’t do it,” he recalls. “In June and July, I practised very little and thought,
What am I going to do?’ ”
What Burley did was grit his teeth and persevere—and, last October, he placed 20th in the floor exercise at the world championships in Sabae, Japan, to qualify for the Olympics. In December, he had bone chips removed from his ankle and his swift recovery has surprised everyone, including himself. In February, he placed first all-around at the
GOING FOR IT
Jessica Deglau may be young, but she has no lack of focus and determination. Last April, while attending a national team training camp in Kamloops, B.C., the 15-year-old Vancouver swimmer learned her father had a brain
Elite Canada meet in Montreal, and in April finished 10th in the floor routine at the world championships in Puerto Rico.
He still pushes himself relentlessly. “I’ve never believed I’m a good gymnast and if I ever start believing that I’ll stop improving,” Burley says. “At this level, you can never be satisfied, you can always improve.” That single-mindedness has cut into his kinesiology studies at York University in Toronto and denied him relationships, parties and movies. “After the Olympics, I’ve told myself, You can do the things you did before,’ ” he says. Right now, the only date he has is with Atlanta.
tumor. When the camp adjourned for the weekend, she went home for his emergency surgery—and then returned to Kamloops. “That’s an indication of the level of commitment she has,” says Tom Johnson, her coach at the Pacific Dolphins swim club, who adds that the sport helped the Grade 10 student cope with her father’s illness. “I think her parents realized that there wasn’t a lot that was going to change, and the most productive way to deal with this was to keep the girl happy and realizing her own dreams.” Paul Deglau died at age 50 on Boxing Day, but his daughter pushed ahead with those dreams: in April, she became the youngest swimmer to qualify for the Canadian team—in the 200-m butterfly and as part of the 4 x 200-m freestyle relay team.
It seems as if Deglau has always been in the pool—she first hit the water at age 3. Back then, she had so much energy that her parents filled her days with as many activities as possible so she could sleep nights—skiing, piano lessons and, of course, swimming. When she was 9, Deglau went competitive, and three years
later she was in the Pacific Dolphins’ national development group. In 1995, she joined the national squad. Although she acknowledges that her Olympic medal prospects are slim, she is clearly thrilled to go to the Games. “It’s exciting to make any team,” she says, “and this is twice as exciting.” It is hardly what most teens have planned for their summer vacations, but Deglau’s commitment to swimming has long set her apart. “Some people say I’ve made a sacrifice,” she says. “But I’m not missing anything. If you’re going to do it, why not have fun?”
Andrea Blackwell is never surprised at the lengths her teammates will go to help each other. In 1988, when the Canadian women’s basketball team was playing an essential Olympic qualifying game in Malaysia, her uniform was so dripping with sweat that the Kingston, Ont., native was having trouble keeping her footing. During a time-out in the final quarter, she asked a teammate who had not played if she could borrow her shorts. They traded clothes and Blackwell completed the final five minutes of the game. The Canadians lost that one, but after 17 seasons on the national team, the 33-year'-old understands that the squad’s success depends on chemistry. “That’s what we do really well,” she says. “We don’t ^ have any individual stars, we’re 2 just a good team.”
I That chemistry goes a long way I to explaining why she and the £ team’s other elder, 36-year-old Bev I Smith, have stuck around all these I years. Blackwell joined the squad ï at 16, when she was in her first I year at Bishop’s University in g Lennoxville, Que., and was a mem£ ber of the teams that placed fourth
at the 1984 Olympics and won bronze at the 1986 world championships. Ten years later, she says the most important thing has not been the destination but the journey. “If you put everything you can into preparing for the Olympics,” says Blackwell, “then when you get there it just flows and regardless of how you do, you can be satisfied with your performance. But our chances are as good as anyone else’s—once you’re there anything can happen.”
There was a time last year when the six-foot, two-inch forward was not sure she would make it to Atlanta. In February, 1995, while playing professional ball in Greece, Blackwell was forced to contemplate retirement after learning she needed arthroscopic surgery on her right knee to repair a torn cartilage. But the surgery was successful and she returned to her team in Greece last winter. Still, she knows her playing days cannot go on forever. “I’ll sit down and evaluate it when the Olympics are over,” she says. “It could be retirement, but the flame might not have died out yet.” If the fire keeps burning, it will likely be because of teammates who give up anything for each other—including their shorts.
Not all runners are in a hurry—take, for instance, Lesley Tashlin. Just two years ago, her half-page competitive biography listed a second-place finish at the Canadian championships and noted modestly that her times were continuing to improve. That might have been reassuring for a youngster, but Tashlin, then 25, was presumed to be at or near her peak performance. She wasn’t. On March 30, Tashlin beat the Olympic standard at a meet in Baton Rouge, La., and she has become Canada’s top 100-m hurdler. Winning a spot on the Canadian team at the Olympic trials in June should be a formality. “I feel that if I had started as a junior and gone up through the ranks, I wouldn’t be running today,” she says. “Each year, I was improving—I wasn’t rushing it, I just went with the flow.”
Tashlin—whose brother Taly Williams was a defensive back for the Toronto Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1994 and 1995—grew up in Haliburton, Ont., 160 km northeast of Toronto. In 1989, she enrolled at York University in Toronto to study psychology and to run for the track team. But she left York three years later without a degree, and unsure about her running career. In 1992, Tashlin moved to Ottawa to train under lions Club coach Craig Taylor—and suddenly she was out of the blocks.
At the 1994 national championships, she placed second in the 100-m hurdles and she won the event last year. She finished sixth in both the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria and the 1995 Pan-Am Games in Argentina. Tashlin followed Taylor to Calgary’s Spartans track club, with its winter training facility. She worked briefly cutting and bending steel at a Calgary heater manufacturer, but now solely concentrates on her training. She hopes to make it to the semifinals in Atlanta—and believes the finals are not out of the question. Why did it take her so long? “I’ve been told I have talents,” Tashlin says, “and I just decided to believe it.”
FIGHT FOR FREEDOM
For heavyweight David Defiagbon, beating opponents has been the easy part. His fights outside the ring have been the toughest. The Nigerian-born boxer first approached Canadian team officials in 1990 to help him come to Canada. Feeling threatened as a minority Christian in a predominantly Muslim nation, Defiagbon says he was desperate to leave a country spiralling into violence. It took three years of pleading at international tournaments before he persuaded Taylor Gordon, a Canadian coach, to help him secure an immigrant visa. Becoming a permanent resident was one thing; leaving Nigeria was something else. In September, 1992, when the six-foot, five-inch boxer arrived at the Lagos airport to board his flight, he was detained by soldiers. “They dragged me downstairs,” he says. “They beat me up, punched me. They took my documents from me.” They released him in the morning, but he was later forced to pay the equivalent of one month’s salary to retrieve his plane ticket and papers. A week later, Defiagbon slipped into the airport, hid in a washroom—and, just before takeoff, dashed onto the plane.
Now 25, he is settled in Halifax. He trained under Gordon and Gordon’s son Wayne, completed Grade 12, worked as a bouncer, and met a woman with whom he became engaged. He could not compete for Canada or Nige-
ria and missed two world championships and the 1994 Commonwealth Games (fighting for Nigeria, he had won the 1990 Commonwealth gold in New Zealand). As the Canadian Olympic trials approached late last year, the 198-lb. fighter still did not have the citizenship papers he would need. His heavy training schedule, he says, also meant his fiancée felt neglected and left him. Defiagbon was despondent. “I was a big mess,” he says. “I wasn’t training and I didn’t know where I was going.”
Finally, on Jan. 12, two weeks before he would fight for a spot on the team, his fast-tracked application came through and he was sworn in as a Canadian citizen. He went on to win his match, and five weeks later, to prevail in a qualifying tournament for the Atlanta Games. This will be Defiagbon’s second Olympics—he lost a first round bout in Barcelona—and, after all the turmoil, he feels prepared. “Competing for Canada is like a dream come true,” he says. “I’ve been to the Games before and this time I don’t want to go as a cheerleader, I want to go as a winner.”
Somehow, Jean-Paul and Jean-Marie Banos of Montreal have avoided the pitfalls of sibling rivalry. They are Canada’s best fencers—Jean-Marie, 34, ranks second nationally only to his 35-year-old brother—and, instead of clawing for the upper hand, the two often train together, counselling each other on their respective strengths and weaknesses. “Our matches are always very close and fought with a lot of respect for the other,” JeanPaul says. “No matter who wins, we always shake hands.” Being brothers, adds Jean-Marie, “acts as a force in our favor—when things aren’t going well, he knows how to tell me what adjustments I have to make.”
The brothers emigrated with their family from the tiny French
village of Lavelanet in 1971. Two years later, they left Montreal for Chibougamou, 700 km to the north, where their father worked for a mining company and a sawmill. It was there that the Banos boys—first Jean-Marie, then Jean-Paul—joined a fencing club and excelled. After high school, the family moved back to the Montreal area and, in 1978, Jean-Paul made the national team, followed two years later by Jean-Marie. Qualifying rounds for Atlanta are under way, and the brothers will know by June whether Jean-Paul will be going to his fourth Olympics, and Jean-Marie his third. Neither has ever won an Olympic medal.
For the Banos boys, life outside competitive fencing is full of... more fencing. Jean-Paul, whose common-law wife, Sonia Lafrance, is a teacher, serves as technical director for the Quebec Fencing Federation. Jean-Marie, married to the former top
When Peggy Casey started to go blind nine years ago, it opened a world few could have imagined. Before, she was a grandmother nearing retirement who barely participated in recreational sport; now, she is a competitor who talks of how to hone her “killer attitude." And if asked how she feels about her climb to the top of her sport—she placed one spot out of the medals at last year’s world championships in blind lawn bowling—she uses one word: shock. “It never occurred to me that I would be involved in sport as a blind senior,” says the 68-year-old native of Richmond, B.C. “But I had seen so many seniors who got older and older and just let life pass them by—I wasn’t going to let that happen.” Casey, who lives with her husband, Pearse, started lawn bowling six years ago and played competitively in her second year. And this summer in Atlanta, she will likely be the oldest Canadian Paralympic athlete—and perhaps the oldest
from any country. But the mother of six hardly fits the profile of an elite athlete. After marrying and bringing up her children, Casey worked at a steel manufacturing company in Vancouver, leaving the firm after 14 years when she became legally blind in 1989. Casey suffers from macular degeneration, or hemorrhaging of part of the retina, giving her very slight peripheral vision: she sees some shapes, but no details— and has no central vision. (She bowls with the assistance of a sighted director, who calls out the location of balls.)
Before she took up lawn bowling, the only sport she had played—and that rarely—was tennis. But a year after throwing her first take-out, she won the 1991 B.C. women’s single championship. Then last year, she captured her first Canadian singles title. And today, she knows she is good enough to represent Canada at the Paralympics. “It's been a story full of surprises,” Casey says. “Still, it’s kind of nice for the grandchildren to be able to tell their friends, ‘Nana is going to the Paralympics.’ ”
In one day, I cannot do all three things—baby, work and training'
fencer in the United States, Caitlin Bilodeau, is a phys-ed teacher at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf and runs a fencing club where he coaches some of Canada’s top competitors in the under-17 and under-20 classes. As brothers, “our goal in Canada has been to finish one-two, which we’ve tried to do for 10 to 15 years,” Jean-Marie says. “Now, we’re trying the same kind of thing internationally.” No matter how they do against the competition, the Banos brothers know they can count on each other.
It is not as though Joanne and Bill Abbott have a lot of spare time.
They have four children to raise—
Bill, 14, twins Cam and Chris, 12, and Katie, 9. And they have two careers.
Joanne is a chartered accountant with a home-based business in Sarnia,
Ont., while husband Bill followed in his father’s footsteps and builds Olympic-class sailboats, shipping them to clients around the world.
Small wonder that competitive yachting is just about the only “quality time” the Abbotts have as a couple. “We really enjoy being together and sailing,” Joanne says,
“and when a lot of our competition is complaining that they’re really getting tired of the routine, for us it’s our time to be together.”
The Abbotts, both 41, have been sailing together since they were teenagers. They competed at various levels until Joanne opted to stay home with the children while studying to be an
accountant. About three years ago, the couple formed a team with Brad Boston, now 21, who comes from a family of sail makers in neighboring Point Edward. The trio is ranked 12th in the yachting world in what is called the soling class, in which teams of three race 27-foot-long, single-masted boats. What makes the Abbotts’ story unique is not just that they are married but that Joanne is competing at all in a sport dominated by men. “It was a bit of a battle for Joanne to gain acceptance,” says Bill, the team’s skipper. “But everybody respects results. She’s one of the gang.”
Crucial to their success as they try to qualify for the Olympics over the next two weeks is the couple’s ability « to separate their personal lives from S their racing. “Our relationship on the I water is very professional,” Bill says, g “I admire Joanne for that because S there’s no doubt that she could I probably pull rank on me, you might say, but never has. It’s always been strictly sailing.” The question now is whether it will be clear sailing all the way to Atlanta.
In Canadian circles, she has earned the reputation of being unstoppable—and no wonder. Not only is Ottawa’s Lijuan Geng rated North America’s top table-tennis player, but she cemented that standing at a most unlikely time. In January, 1995, Geng gave birth—by caesarean section—to her first child, James Ross Pintea. So the table-tennis world could have been forgiven for wondering what business Geng had two months later even showing up in Mar del Plata, Argentina, ready to play in the PanAmerican Games. She quickly answered that one. Geng not only competed, she dominated, taking gold in the singles, doubles, mixed doubles and team events. “That was very hard—I wasn’t in good condition, but I tried,” says the 33-year-old Geng, who left her native China for Canada in 1989. “I played great after only two months. It was excellent. I didn’t expect that I could win.”
But win she did, in large part because she had trained—if in a someta what limited capacity—during her I pregnancy. “I just played a few balls,” w she says, “whatever I could do, simple s things.” Inevitably, she grew larger and slower, and was increasingly unable to “make the big plays,” she says. “My hand could move very fast, but not my legs.” She stopped training at six months.
Today, Geng is focusing on Atlanta, her first Olympiad. She has qualified for the Games by virtue of her international standing. She is sixth in the world, trailing five Chinese players, only three of whom can go to the Olympics. Geng trains in two-hour ses-
sions, five times a week. She and her husband, Horatio Pintea, 33, also own and operate two fast-food restaurants in Ottawa. Asked what she does there, Geng pauses briefly and laughs: “I do everything.” Even with what seems like boundless energy, Geng recognizes that motherhood, sports and business are too much for any one day. “If I go to work, then I’m tired, I cannot train so well,” she says. “If I don’t go to work, I stay home with my baby, but in one day I cannot do all three things—baby and work and training.” Unstoppable, maybe, but not unreasonable.
Like many teenagers, Tony Alexander enjoys skating, both on-ice and in-line. And he takes pride in being able to outrun some of his classmates in Amherstburg, Ont. But unlike most teens, the Grade 11 student at General Amherst High School has accomplished those physical feats despite cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that has weakened his right side and left him with a slight limp. Skating aside, over the past nine years Alexander has developed his prowess as a swimmer and budding Paralympian. At 16, he holds Canadian freestyle records in the 50-m and 100-m events, and is likely to qualify for Atlanta at a Paralympic meet this month in Nepean, Ont.
Alexander was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was 2. Later, his physiotherapist suggested swimming to stay fit, so at age 7 Alexander dove in. Now, besides freestyle, he competes in the backstroke, breaststroke and individual medley—meaning he is in the pool 10 hours every week, plus hours more of dry-land training to build strength and stamina. When not training, he does what teens usually do: play pool,
hang out, go to school. “I kind of like automotive mechanics,” he says, “but I doubt I’ll be doing that in the future. I just like that right now.”
Swimming has taught Alexander valuable lessons. “I’ve learned to set goals and achieve them,” he says. “I’ve learned to take positive criticism. It basically teaches you stuff in life that you wouldn’t think it does. You can compare swimming to almost anything—including a job, if you had to.” He wants to go to community college after high school—though “I have no clue what I’ll be going into yet.” In the meantime—between school, training and swimming his way to Atlanta—Alexander is trying to do one other thing: enjoy being 16 years old. “I’ve got my own driver’s licence and everything,” he says with what seems a swagger in his voice. “I just hop in the car and go where I need to go.”
Most people would be thrilled with half of what Michelle Sawatzky has accomplished. Not only is the 25-year-old Winnipegger the starting setter for the Canadian women's volleyball team, she is also an accomplished pianist. For five years, she took music lessons at the University of Manitoba, practised piano five hours a day, often followed by three hours of volleyball drills for the university team. Her days would sometimes run from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friends cautioned that she would have to give up one discipline, but “I just plugged through and did both,” Sawatzky says. She made the national volleyball team in the spring of 1993. That fall, she embarked on a 12-concert tour of Western Canada as a solo pianist. With the Atlanta Games approaching, however, Sawatzky finally had to focus on volleyball, and stopped scheduling most piano performances. “I also know that once the Olympics are over,” she says, “I’ll have the rest of my life to do music.”
At a little more than five feet, six inches tall, Sawatzky almost did not make it onto the Canadian team. She was told she was too short. “That fuelled my fire,” says Sawatzky, whose international competition often hovers at or above the six-foot mark. Undeterred, she bore down and not only made the team but, in March, helped Canada to an Olympic-qualifying win over the Dominican Republic. “It’s something I never thought I could do,” she says of her international play, “and a lot of people told me I couldn’t do. It’s really satisfying.”
Despite her recent focus on volleyball, Sawatzky still manages to teach piano every Wednesday to 10 students in her home town of Steinbach, about an hour's drive southeast of Winnipeg. She is also expanding her musical horizons by singing jazz. Once the Olympics are over, she plans to continue teaching while trying to remake her name as a concert pianist. “I'll start telling people, ‘OK, I’m not doing that volleyball thing any more.’ ” What she will be doing is her own thing, and no doubt doing it well.