SPORTS

ALL FOR ONE

The team-first attitude makes this squad a standout

JONATHON GATEHOUSE August 25 2008
SPORTS

ALL FOR ONE

The team-first attitude makes this squad a standout

JONATHON GATEHOUSE August 25 2008

ALL FOR ONE

SPORTS

The team-first attitude makes this squad a standout

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

BEIJING 2008

In early April, the members of Canada’s national swim team gathered in a conference room at a Montreal hotel for an Olympic reality check. Mark Tewksbury, the last Canadian to strike gold in the pool, 16 years ago in Barcelona, spent a half-hour preparing them for the challenges and pressures of the biggest stage in sports. He warned the group of 15 men and 12 women—22 of them raw rookies—about the inevitable chaos and craziness, recalling his first Games in Seoul in 1988, when the white peace doves landed on the lip of the cauldron just as the Olympic flame ignited, becoming instant barbecue. He told them how Speedo shipped a bunch of too-small swimsuits, forcing the team to share the eight that fit. (“You expect the greatest thing ever and you have to share someone else’s bathing suit. Nasty,” he says.) And he shared the tale of how he was almost disqualified in the moments before his final in Spain, for showing up on the pool deck draped in his lucky, but not officially sanctioned, Coca-Cola towel.

Then he gave them an unexpected gift.

Pulling the ratty, red terry cloth from his bag, he fished out a pair of scissors, and told Canada’s Beijing squad to cut themselves a piece of history. “To be completely honest I was sitting there going ‘NOOOO!!!’,” says Victoria’s Rick Say, the team’s senior statesman, now competing in his third Games. “This is part of the Olympics for 1992, and part of his memories.” But whatever their misgivings, they all took strips to carry with them to China. And it appears that there might be some Barcelona magic left in them still.

By the mid-mark of the Olympic swim meet, Canadians were well on their way to exorcising the ghost of their dismal 2004 performance in Athens, swimming into six finals, and shattering more than a dozen national records. Julia Wilkinson, a 21-yearold from Stratford, Ont., set two as she bulled her way to a seventh place finish in the finals of the women’s 200-m individual medley. Clutching a small strip of Tewksbury’s towel in her hand, she shared her new-found confidence with the media. “This is Canada, and we can swim fast and we deserve to be here. We are all feeding off each other and we are so happy to be here,” she says. “It’s awesome.” Mike Brown, who keeps his piece in his swim bag, moved into the 200-m breaststroke final with the second-fastest time, less than twotenths of a second behind world record holder Kosuke Kitajima of Japan. Brian Johns, who

fashioned his towel scrap into a wristband, kicked off the Games with a seventh-place finish in the 400-m individual medley. The Canadian men’s 4 x 200-m relay team of Colin Russell, Johns, Brent Hayden and Andrew Hurd, came fifth, just nine-tenths of a second off the podium. Johns said later, “In Athens we were bystanders. Here we’re showing we belong on the stage.” And in one of the greatest races in Olympic history, the men’s 4 x 100-m freestyle relay battle between the U.S.A. and France, the Canadian team of Hayden, Joel Greenshields, Russell and Rick Say finished a respectable sixth.

But in a swim “competition” that might more accurately be described as Michael Phelpsapalooza (he has now won more golds than any other Olympian ever), such results underscore how far Canada still has to go before it again reaches the top of the podium. In the 4 x 100 relay, the Canucks swam 3:12.26, beating the pre-Beijing world record. But the Americans churned through the pool in 3:08.24, nipping the French at the wall by eight one-hundredths of a second. And the Australians took bronze with a time of 3:09.91. The Canadians are getting faster, but are still nowhere near fast enough.

Pierre Lafontaine, Swimming Canada’s perpetually upbeat CEO and national coach, admits there is a long way to go. But the type-A-plus personality—in 2005, when he was lured back home from Australia to take up his current position, he spent the long flight drawing up a list of the 100 things he loves about sports in Canada—will happily bend your ear about the distance already covered. “You have to win the little things, before you can win the big things,” he says.

“We need to have a team that is so strong, so together, that everyone is genuinely happy for the success of each other.”

The difference between Beijing and Athens-just three finals, only two swimmers posting personal bests, and a medal shutout for the first time in 40 years—is already plain to see. The gloom and infighting of four years ago has been replaced by optimism and a growing sense of giddy pride. At the spectacular glowing “Water Cube,” Canadians are wearing broad smiles, rather that tight frowns, in the starting blocks. And those who aren’t swimming sit together in the stands, cheering lustily. (Lafontaine, who sits with them and leads the chants, was already hoarse by the end of the second day of competition.) ‘On past national teams, a lot of people were happy with just showing up, getting the tracksuit, having good times and getting the tattoos,” explains Brent Hayden, who came into the Olympics the reigning world champion

in the 100 m, broke his Canadian record, but missed the final by .13 seconds. “Now we’ve really instilled on the younger people that is not enough, you have to race hard, swim fast and perform well. And it’s that mentality that really has this team swimming well.”

Esprit de corps, a Lafontaine obsession, has been carefully nurtured; no small challenge on a squad that ranges in age from 15—Newmarket, Ont., backstroker Lindsay Seemann—to 29-year-old Say. At a mini-camp in Vancouver in May, the team watched DVDs of the first three Indiana Jones films before heading out en masse to catch the latest instalment, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Over the two weeks spent in Singapore, just prior to the start of the Beijing Games, they held team dinners, and drew up a list of 10 allimportant goals, with commands like “give

hugs” and “never let someone eat alone” given as much importance as improved results. Here in Beijing, Lafontaine has instituted a daily awards session to recognize the type of victories not commemorated by Olympic medals. Mike Brown, who swam a personal best in the 100-m breaststroke but didn’t advance to the semis, was given the “on fire” prize, a pair of flame-decorated sunglasses. The women’s 4 x 100-m freestyle relay team— Wilkinson, Erica Morningstar, Genevieve Saumur and Audrey Lacroix—who came eighth in the final, but shaved almost three seconds off the Canadian record, got the “eraser award,” giant Beijing 2008 pencils. But the most sought-after prize is a single, plain red T-shirt that is handed out to the swimmer with the greatest improvement in times and world ranking.

The team-first attitude is even evident among friends and family. In the stands, Wilkinson’s mother, Mary, holds aloft a large

THE BIGGEST IMPROVEMENT IS BETWEEN THE EARS. `A HAPPY TEAM IS A FAST TEAM.'

‘Canada V’s” sign, changing the Velcro-backed name to reflect whomever is swimming in the race. “I was really surprised. She’s not a crafty person,” says Julia. Perhaps, but surely in the other sense of the word. Mary, a Grade 8 English teacher, sticks the word “China” on the sign whenever she’s passing through security to enter the venue.

There are, of course, other reasons why Beijing is shaping up to be the fastest swim

meet in history, for example the much-hyped new generation of swimsuits—in particular the Speedo LZR Racer, which tightly compresses the body’s bumps, curves and jiggly bits, reduces drag and adds buoyancy. In the first three mornings of finals (nightly prime time in North American) eight world records were broken, some seemingly beyond repair. (More than two dozen records fell between the introduction of the LZR in February and the beginning of the Games.) The pool at the “Water Cube,” a metre deeper than past Olympics, is faster, say swimmers, because the larger volume of water absorbs their kicks and strokes, and reduces chop. Lafontaine, who has previously guided 12 U.S. and Australian swimmers to the podium, doesn’t discount those factors, but says things like better nutrition, improved training techniques and biomechanics are playing a big part as well. And when it comes to the Canadians, the biggest improvement, he says, is between the ears. “A happy team is a fast team.”

Beijing is proving that Canada does have young swimmers with promise, potential mainstays of what the coach promises will be a far more competitive London 2012 squad. Wilkinson is 21, Erica Morningstar, Jillian Tyler and Stephanie Horner are all 19, and Savannah King just 16. But on the men’s side, swimmers like Hayden and Brown are already in their mid-20s. And only four now 20 or younger, Ryan Cochrane, Joel Greenshields, Jake Tapp and Mathieu Bois, will have Olympic experience. More to the point, Canada doesn’t seem to have a monster like Phelps, Australia’s now-retired Ian Thorpe, or Katie Hoff of the U.S., or even anyone who can challenge such a class of swimmers, coming up through the system.

A change in outlook, however, can be a powerful motivator. For Canadian swimming, the most significant moment of the Games may prove to be Hayden’s decision to pull out of the 200-m freestyle semifinals—he qualified third in the heats, swimming faster than Phelps—in order to conserve his strength for the 4 x 100-m relay race. “Ultimately it came down to sacrificing my individual performance to help the team,” he says. It was an act of leadership that was noticed and absorbed by his teammates. And it came from the guy who was first in line for a piece of Tewksbury’s lucky towel. M