Chantal Petitclerc DETERMINATION ON WHEELS
From boxing and diving to wrestling and riding, this Summer Games team may be the country’s best yet
Abandoned buildings hold an immeasurable charm for children, but they can also hide danger, as Chantal Petitclerc can attest. Petitclerc was 13 when she and a friend were exploring a deserted farm in Saint-Marc-des-Carrières, a 30-minute drive outside of Quebec City. Suddenly, a barn door ripped loose from its rusted hinges. “It just fell on me,” recalls Petitclerc, now 26, who has only a vague memory of the event. The facts are these: she was pinned, her spinal cord irreparably damaged, her legs paralyzed.
This week Petitclerc— a second-place finisher in the 800-m wheelchair competition at last year’s world championships in Göteborg, Sweden—will parade beside the rest of Canada’s Olympians in Atlanta. Wheelchair racing has been an Olympic demonstration sport since 1984. It is the only such sport in Atlanta— the women racing 800 m, the
men 1,500. “It’s kind of ridiculous that it’s still a demonstration sport,” says Petitclerc, noting that in the past, demonstration events were either granted full medal status after two Games, or dropped. She notes that wheelchair racing is “one of the only sports for handicapped people that could be open to non-handicapped athletes.” A wheelchair, she says, is only a piece of equipment. “Ultimately, just about anyone can buy one and try competing.”
Less than three months after her accident, Petitclerc was back in school, where she took up swimming in gym class. At the Ste-Foy junior college, a coach asked her to try track. She started competing at 18 and has taken off since. Meanwhile, she has also been studying for a degree in Canadian history at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. When in Quebec, she hosts televised draws for a provincial lottery. She is viewed, Petitclerc says, as “a person who’s just doing her job and who just happens to be in a wheelchair.” With more prime-time exposure, competitors like Petitclerc I may some day be seen simply I as athletes.
Michael Smith THE ROAD BACK
Michael Smith keeps hanging tough. In 1992 in Barcelona, he was widely regarded not only as the favorite to win decathlon gold but as the savior of Canadian athletics after Ben Johnson’s drug disgrace four years earlier. A hamstring injury, however, forced Smith to withdraw from competition. “I was pretty numb for about two or three weeks,” he says. “It was the roughest time I went through.” Things did not get any easier a year later when he pulled out of the world track and field championships in Stuttgart, Germany, after fouling out in the second event, the long jump. Now 28, Canada’s greatest decathlete has put himself in position to do what he thought he would do in Barcelona—win an Olympic medal. Smith is currently ranked third in the world and has just come off an impressive win and a personal-best score at a meet in Götzis, Austria. “I have a lot of confidence right now,” he says. “I’m feeling healthy and
Renn Crichlow PADDLE POWER
Renn Crichlow is astonishingly good. Not only is the 27-year-old from Nepean, Ont., among the top half-dozen kayakers in the world, he is also a medical student at the Harvard University School of Medicine who has overcome severe asthma to compete on the world stage. Atlanta will be his third Olympics, one he is looking forward to after his disappointing performance in Barcelona. After winning gold in the 500-m event at the 1991 world championships, Crichlow was widely expected to reach the Olympic podium the next year. Instead, he failed to qualify for the final. Part of the problem—with Crichlow racing on the last days of the Games—was that just about every other athlete was busy partying. The racket kept him from sleeping well. “Any time you can’t get quality rest, it’s a factor,” he says. “I’m not going to use that as an excuse, but let me say this: if you’re serious about competing in the Olympic Games,
you shouldn’t stay in the Olympic Village.” This time, Crichlow and his teammates have opted for quieter digs closer to where they will race in Gainesville, Ga. As in Barcelona, Crichlow has momentum going in, having come in third in the 200-m event at the world championships in Duisburg, Germany, last year. With that accomplished, he has concentrated on staying healthy—with somewhat limited success. Earlier in the year, Crichlow was training in Australia, where he picked up a respiratory infection. “I couldn’t shake it for about 10 weeks,” he says. “It wasn’t before the beginning of April that I started to feel really healthy and was able to push 100 per cent”
The antibiotics have helped, as have the six different drugs he takes to control his asthma. But he has long experience at coping. He compensates for his asthma by warming up differently than his competitors, opting for a more intense and fairly long workout. Otherwise, he says, “the huge volumes of air can precipitate an attack.” Does he have to be in better shape than his opposition? “I wouldn’t say I have to be in better shape,” says Crichlow “But racing takes a bit more out of me than it does other people.”
Götzis was reflective of that.” It has been a long climb back for the native of Kenora, Ont. In 1994, Smith moved from Toronto to Calgary and started training full time with a new coach, Les Gramantick. The new atmosphere rejuvenated Smith. His strength improved and slowly his confidence— and top results—returned as well. He won gold at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria and placed third at the world championships in Sweden last year. Now, after his impressive win at Götzis, he is again bearing the weight of expectations—but this time feels better able to carry it. “You can sum it up in one word, it’s maturity,” says Smith. ‘You always have to push yourself to the edge and that’s when you get the most out of yourself. I know I’ll do my best and I truly believe on any given day I can be among the best few guys in the world.” He will face stiff competition in Atlanta from America’s Dan O’Brien and Eduard Hamalainen of Belarus. But in his quest to mount the Olympic podium, Smith reminds himself of a heartening fact: the last three gold medalists also won at Götzis that year.
Guivi Sissaouri WRESTLING FOR RESPECT
Montreal boasts two of the Canadian team’s best-known Olympians, sprinter Bruny Surin and synchronized swimmer Sylvie Fréchette. But the city is also home to other medal hopefuls, including a 25-yearold wrestler named Guivi Sissaouri who used
to compete for the Soviet Union and is considered one of the most dynamic athletes in his sport. “He is a competitor,” says one of his coaches, Victor Zilbermann. “With him the pressure brings out the best. He’s like a good actor: the bigger his audience, the more exciting it is for him.”
In 1991, Sissaouri won his first Soviet championship and placed second at the world championship. But that fall, when civil war broke out in his homeland of Georgia, he applied for his im-
migration papers while training for the Olympics in Montreal. In the years that followed, he trained and wrestled for Canada when he was allowed—and last June he officially became a Canadian citizen. Competing for Canada at the world championship in Atlanta last year, the 57-kg wrestler lost a controversial gold-medal match to Terry Brands of the United States when he forfeited the contest on fouls with 25 seconds left (Brands scored all of his points on cautions given by the referee). Sissaouri then captured golds in the Pan-American championship and a world cup event in Europe. But for all his success, he has won little recognition: his wrestling club last year lost its only sponsor, a Montrealarea furniture manufacturer. “Ifs a hard sport, but there’s not much respect here,” he says. “If I’m a hockey player at the same level, I’m going
to live better and have everything.”
In Atlanta, Sissaouri will face the best competitors from Cuba, Russia and the United States. And while he is confident of his abilities, he is less certain how much an Olympic medal would alter his life. “I don’t really look for big changes,” he says. “I don’t have so many people who know me. If I’m lucky maybe I’ll get [some sponsorships]. If not, what can you do?”
In an age of sports chologists and motivational gurus, Canadian Olympic boxer Mike Strange gets focused the old-fashioned way. “I have my Canadian flag on my bedroom wall,” he “Every time I go to bed and every time I wake up,
Strange had planned to turn professional after those Games, but he says the idea of hearing the same tune in Atlanta changed his mind. Now, he and heavyweight David Defiagbon of Halifax represent Canada’s best medal hopes in boxing. Strange—five feet, 10 inches and fighting in the 60-kg weight class—has won his last five tournaments. He did lose at the 1995 Pan American Games to Cuban Julio Gonzalez, who is also going to Atlanta. Strange hopes these Games will be far different than those in Barcelona, where he was stopped in his first
I see that and it gives me a boost to train.” The 25year-old fighter gara Falls, Ont., first felt the power of patriotism two years ago at the monwealth Games, listen-
ing to 0 Canada after receiving his gold medal. “I was on a total high about a month after Victoria,” he says. Representing one’s country, he adds, “is the best feeling in the whole world.”
bout. “In 1992, I was just in awe of Olympics and the big spectacle,” he says. “I was just more happy to be there than anything.” In Atlanta, Strange says, his experience—he has now fought more than 240 bouts—and his mental toughness will give him an edge. So, he adds, will his older brother. Jim Strange took over the full-time coaching duties in January, 1993—and brother Mike has not been defeated when Jim has been in his corner.
Then there is the prospect of reliving his Victoria experience on a grander scale. “The Canadian flag going up,” says Strange, “and the national anthem and not being able to hold the emotions back—you want that feeling again. And hopefully I can get it back in Atlanta.”
Sylvie Fréchette THE LAST HURRAH
In many respects, much of Sylvie Frechette’s life was on automatic pilot for the first 18 years of her athletic career. “Before Barcelona, I never stopped to think, ‘Sylvie, do you want to go the Olympics?’ ” she recalls. “I never really made a decision. That was the flow of my life. I became national champion, I went to the world championships, won, and then the Olympics. You don’t think, you just go.”
In a sense, that kind of mental intensity helped the synchronized swimmer cope with her fiancé’s suicide a scant few days before the Barcelona Games in 1992. Fréchette not only competed but performed brilliantly, only to be robbed of a gold medal as a soloist when a judge accidentally entered the wrong score. Sixteen months later, the International Olympic Committee recognized the folly of its ways and awarded her the gold. After Barcelona, Fréchette momentarily retired to launch a swimsuit line, become a bank spokesperson and host her own television show. “These are my last Olympics,”
says the now 29-year-old Fréchette. “When I came out of retirement, I decided that they were going to be fun and that they were going to be happy—whatever happens.”
There is no longer a solo event for synchro at the Olympics, so Fréchette has gone back to her roots as a team swimmer. She and her nine mates— Lisa Alexander, Janice Bremner, Karen Clark, Karen Fonteyne, Valeri HouldMarchand, Kasia Kulesza, Christine Larsen, Cari Read and Erin Woodley— are ranked second to the United States. “I really don’t know what’s going to happen,” Fréchette says, “but they better be ready because we’re going to be pretty strong.”
A more mature, reflective Fréchette will be going to the Olympics this time around. The Montreal resident has been keeping a diary so that Atlanta does not become the blur that was Barcelona.
“I’m going to be able to look back into that diary and there’s going to be emotion, there’s going to be something left out of that experience,” she says. “I don’t even have a picture of Barcelona. I have nothing because I was not there. It took 18 years of my life to get there, and when I think about it, I don’t even smile.”
Anne Montminy LEARNING THE HARD WAY
At age 8, when most children are busy skinning their knees from falls off bicycles, Anne Montminy was hurtling herself off the equivalent of a four-storey building. The Montreal native wanted to be like the older kids at the pool, where two years earlier she had started diving lessons. She begged her coach to let her try the vertiginous 10-m diving platform. He did, instructing her to simply step off. Leaning slightly forward, Montminy slammed into the water, which punched up under her rib cage, knocking the wind out of her. “I wiped out,” she says. “I landed all crooked and passed out. The coach had to go in and get me. It was a disaster.”
Fortunately, the rest of her career has been anything but. The 10-m specialist—her mother was a lifeguard (and is now a lawyer) and her father a diver (and now owns a dry-cleaning plant)—placed fourth at two international meets last year. She also took gold at the Pan American Games in Argentina. Now 21, Montminy is part of a strong Olympic diving contingent, which includes Paige Gordon of West Vancouver (10 m), Annie Pelletier of Montreal (three metres) and Eryn Bulmer of Calgary (three metres).
Montminy’s first brush with the 10-m platform underlines the dangers of a sport in which shoulder, elbow, neck and lower-back injuries are common. About three months ago, she was diagnosed with a stress fracture in
her left hand, the result of constant pounding against water. She tapes it now but it still hurts. Coping with fear and pain, she says, is all part of the process. ‘You say to yourself that it’s only water, so what if I wipe out, it’ll sting. I’ll just take a lap in the pool and it’ll go away. That’s how I rationalize it.”
This will be Montminy’s second Olympics—she placed 17th in
Barcelona. She plans to begin studying law at Université de Montréal in the fall and is weighing her options for the Sydney Olympics in the year 2000. She knows there will be more painful lessons along the way. “You have to make mistakes to learn,” Montminy says. “Unfortunately, I’m learning off the 10-m board, so my mistakes hurt a little more.”
Graham Hood BEARING THE PAIN
Olympians push their bodies to the limit—and sometimes they go too far. Graham Hood knows about that. Since his first Olympics in Barcelona, the 24-year-old Burlington, Ont., runner has had to contend with what he calls “an unbelievable amount of injuries.” Among them have been two stress fractures—one in each shin, the most recent in January—and a debilitating injury causing painful muscle cramps in one foot. To make matters worse, he recently caught a flu-like infection that left him fatigued and unable to perform well at a meet three weeks ago in England. Still, he remains upbeat about his latest affliction. “It’s better to get it now,” he says, “than two weeks from now.”
Hood will be competing in the 1,500-m race and is expected to make the finals. Qualifying times should be on the order of three minutes and 30-odd seconds. “I’m
capable of running 3:31, 3:32,” he says. “If I can do that when I get to Atlanta, anything can happen.” Working in his favor is experience. No longer an Olympic neophyte, Hood is going to Atlanta with a man-on-a-mission attitude after placing ninth in Barcelona four years ago. “At my first Olympics I was only 20 years old,” he says. “I was there just to enjoy the Olympic experience. This time, I’m going back with more focus.”
Hood recently graduated from the University of Arkansas, where he studied exercise physiology on a track scholarship. In 1994, he became the first Canadian to capture an NCAA title in the 1,500-m event. Training for Atlanta has dominated the last year of his life, but medical school is an option, he says, as are the Sydney Games in the year 2000. While Hood’s energy may have been running low on the eve of the Games, his confidence certainly has not. ‘Things have been going well, other than just a weeklong infection—that’s pretty minor,” he says. “That’s not going to affect my performance at the Games.”
Joanne Malar GREAT EXPECTATIONS
Joanne Malar left everyone in her wake at the Canadian Olympic trials in Montreal in April. She won four golds, qualified for five events in Atlanta—and put the main medal hopes of the women’s swim team squarely in her lane. The 20-year-old Hamilton native placed fourth in her specialty, the 400-m individual medley, at the World Aquatic Championships two years ago; she will likely also swim on Canada’s other medal possibility, the 4 x 200-m freestyle relay, as well as in the 4 x 100-m freestyle relay. Malar’s talent, along with her winsome personality, have already won her endorsements for swimwear, shampoo, cereal and life insurance. But Gaye Straiten, her coach at McMaster University and the Hamilton-Wentworth Aquatic Club, warns that Malar faces stiff competition in the pool. “Her best time [4:43.39 in the 400-m medley] is three seconds off the two Chinese,” says Straften. “She could beat the Canadian record by three seconds and still end up seventh.”
Straften, in fact, is anxious to play down expectations for his star pupil. At the Seoul Games eight years ago,
the medal pressure was on another Canadian, 15-yearold world-record holder Allison Higson; her fourthplace finish was a disappointment and, although she did swim for four more years, her career was effectively over after the Olympics. Speaking of Malar, Straften says: ‘What I don’t want to hear when we come back fourth is, ‘Oh gee, we only came fourth.’ No, it should be, ‘Oh good, we came fourth.’ ”
Like Higson, Malar was a teenage phenom who, at 16, finished 11th the 400-m individual medley at the Barcelona Games and, at 18, placed fourth in that event at the world championships in Rome. But while downplaying her medal chances in Atlanta, Straften does say she is peaking at the right time. And he is encouraged that the McMaster University kinesiology student saves her best swims for the big competitions. Last year, she had two gold medals at the world short-course championships in Rio de Janeiro, and two golds and three silvers at the PanAmerican Games in Mar del Plata, Argentina. So if Joanne Malar has the swim of her life in the 400-m individual medley on July 20th, Gaye Straften will be thrilled to eat his words.
Ian Millar ONE MORE TIME
For Ian Millar, the end of one successful relationship was simply a prelude to the next. Over 11 years, Millar’s name became synonymous with a chestnut gelding named Big Ben, and together they were one of the most successful show-jumping duos in the world. Play It Again, the horse Millar has ridden for the past four years and will mount at the Atlanta Olympics, may not sound as familiar, but they have placed first in seven competitions. Apart from working with a new horse, the Perth, Ont., resident also had to overcome a serious accident—last August, he was thrown during a competition, leaving him with five broken ribs, a collapsed lung and a separated shoulder. He was out two months and then picked up right where he left off. It is that consistency with different mounts and under difficult circumstances, says national team coach Michel Vaillancourt, that makes Millar such a successful competitor. “Not
only is he a good rider, he’s also a good trainer and a good horseman. He’s been able to maintain a fairly steady flow of good horses and kept them going for a long time.”
The 49-year-old Millar, who has twice won the world cup title and has 120 wins in grand prix and derbies over his 25-year career, will be competing in his seventh Olympic Games. And despite all his international success, the Olympics are one event in which Millar has not excelled. He and Big Ben were among the favorites in the past two summer Games. But they placed a disappointing 15th in Seoul and dropped out of the competition in Barcelona after crashing into a jump.
Big Ben retired in 1994 and, at 20, participates only at charity events. Millar, aboard Play It Again, joins other strong Canadian riders, including Hugh Graham and Linda Southern-Heathcott, at the horse park in Conyers, Ga., east of Atlanta. Vaillancourt is crossing his fingers. “I think he’s in really good shape,” the coach says of Millar. “He has a shot. No matter where he goes he’s always capable of winning.”