First-time Canadian Olympians get ready to take sport's ultimate test
They Might Be Giants
First-time Canadian Olympians get ready to take sport's ultimate test
Few Olympic champions ever win in their first trip to the Games. Most athletes struggle with the crushing pressure that goes with competing in the every-four-years event before they can hope to take their places atop the podium. Still, what they learn from their initial Olympic experiences can lay the foundation for future glory. As a result, Canadian team officials at the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, next month will be monitoring their rookies for telling signs of latent greatness—poise under pressure, a personal best, or an unexpected top 10.
The athletes profiled on these pages, all highly ranked internationally, are among the dozens of first-timers who will be wearing the Maple Leaf in Sydney. They are not household names, but that could soon change.
Alexander Jeltkov is big for a gymnast. In disciplines such as the rings, his five-foot, 10-inch, 165-lb. frame actually impedes his chances for success. Not so on the horizontal bars. The 22year-old finished second in the event last fall at the world championships inTianjin, China, making him Canada's best hope for a gymnastics medal in Sydney. Jeltkov, who moved with his family to Montreal in 1993 from Soviet Georgia, quickly impressed Canadian coaches with his physical abilities and quick thinking. The latter attribute was apparent in China, where he missed a manoeuvre during his routine on the horizontal bars that might have dropped him out of the competition. But he made up for it by adding a more complicated move that he had practised but never performed in competition-a back somersault with a half turn over the bar. He will need all of his talents to reach his goals in Sydney. “Obviously, I’d like to win a medal,” he says, “but most of all, I just want to perform my best. Hopefully, that will be enough to win a medal.”
By winning last year’s world junior championships in both the time trial and the 65-km road race, Lachine, Que.-native Genevieve Jeanson instantly became an athlete to watch. This season, the 18-year-old quickly dispelled any doubts about whether she could make the transition from the junior ranks to the big leagues. She won an April race in Belgium and currently sits in fifth place overall on the World Cup circuit. The highlight of her year, though, came last month at the Canadian championships in Peterborough, Ont., where she clinched an Olympic team berth for both the road and time-trial events in Sydney. “This is a very exciting moment for me,” Jeanson said after the nationals. “I was pretty nervous before the race, but I was able to control myself.” Though still young by the standards of her sport, Jeanson said her Olympic dream was a long time coming. “I made a firm decision when I was 15,1 would put everything I had into the sport and that I would one day go to the Olympics.” And so she will.
Claire Carver-Dias and Fanny Létourneau
In a sport that rewards mirror images, the secret behind the success of synchronized swimmers Fanny Létourneau and Claire Carver-Dias is, in fact, their differences. The 21-year-old Létourneau, from Montreal, is a self-confessed “perfectionist” who sweats the details, whereas Carver-Dias, Létourneau says, is “more into the look of the performance.” Thanks in partto those traits-and a lot of hard training-the pair will go to Sydney ranked fourth in the world. “We complement each other,” says Carver-Dias, 23. “And we have a lot of drive.”
Theirs has been a relatively meteoric rise. Carver-Dias, of Mississauga, Ont., lost her original duet partner, Estella Warren, when Warren opted for what has become a huge career as a model and actress. Nationalteam coach Sheilagh Croxon saw enough
similarities in Létourneau’s swimming style to suggest her as Warren's replacement. CarverDias had to trust her coach-“AII I remembered of Fanny was that she was quiet and young,”she says.Thatwas in February, 1998; now, they are best friends. “It has been easy to get along,” says Létourneau. “Besides,” adds Carver-Dias, "we both want the same thing-a medal at the Olympics.”
Going into 2000, the biggest event of high-jumper Kwaku Boateng’s year was not supposed to be the Summer Games.The 26-year-old Montrealer and his wife were expecting their first child on March 14, but son Kwaidan arrived in December, 1999, nearly four months early. Thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, little Kwaidan has grown from less than a pound to a robust 14 lb., while his dad has been leaping to new heights. Boateng, a native of Ghana, had a personal best of 2.29 m going into this season, well below the world record of 2.45 m. But he cleared 2.34 m at the World Games in June, tying the third-best jump of the year worldwide and establishing him as a medal contender in Sydney. “It was a surprise to me,” he says of his newfound consistency. “I was not expecting to jump so high this early in the season.”
Boateng, who was at a meet in Norway last week with fellow highjumper Mark Boswell, the current Canadian champion, says his inexperience could hurt him in Sydney. But his enthusiasm seems boundless. “It’s my first time, and I’m having so much fun even before the Olympics begin,” he says. “I can’t wait to get there.”
Swimming has taken Mike Mintenko away from his family home in Moose Jaw, Sask., for most of the last six years. The hulking butterfly specialist first went to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas on an athletic scholarship. After graduating, he moved to Vancouver to train at the Pacific Dolphins Swim Club under national team boss Dave Johnson. All the while, his competition schedule has taken him around the world, but it hasn’t separated him from his roots. “It’s great to experience
all of this, go to all these places,” he says. “And it’s just as great going back to Moose Jaw and sharing it with the people at home.” Mintenko, 24, is excited about his next major trip, particularly since July 16 in a meet in Los Angeles, where he twice broke the Canadian 100-m butterfly record. “That was a big day for me,” he says. “I had had that as a goal all year.” He is less forthcoming about his Olympic aspirations. “I’m not putting any pressure on myself to win,” he says. “But at the same time, I want to go there and achieve something, for myself and for my country.”
North Vancouver diver Blythe Hartley comes by her althleticism honestly-her dad, Michael, was a member of Canada’s Olympic four-man bobsleigh team in 1972. But even with that background, the talented 18-year-old admits she’s unsure what to expect in Sydney. “So I’m just trying to go in and do my best,” she says, “and then see what happens.” In 1999, her best was good enough to win the oneand 10-metre events at the world junior diving championships in Czech Republic. “She’s really a solid up-and-comer," says national team head coach Mitch Geller, “and a very good three-metre diver.” Team officials, who would be pleased if Hartley finished in the top 10 in the three-metre springboard event in Sydney, figure she and her training partner in Calgary, team veteran Eryn Bulmer, could contend fora medal in the threemetre synchronized competition-the two finished second at two recent international meets. Hartley modestly downplays those expectations“It happens so quickly and you can make a mistake so easily,” she says. But she adds: “We do have the potential to do well.”
James Deacon with Brenda Branswell in Montreal and Susan McClelland in Toronto
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