It takes ruthlessness, grit, even a brush with defeat to win. What Canada has learned in Beijing.
Eight years later, standing sweating under the hot Chinese sun, Simon Whitfield looks down at the silver medal that dangles from his neck and shakes his head at the memory: the young pup of 25, rolling along toward the finish of the Sydney triathlon, pain-free and seemingly without effort, so intoxicated
by the moment that he felt obliged to share something with the man he was about to beat out for the gold. “I turned to [Stephan] Vuckovic, the German, and said ‘We’re leading the Olympic Games,’ ” recalls Whitfield. “I actually said that out loud.”
On this day he’s sporting a shiner—courtesy of a collision at the final swim buoy that knocked loose his goggles and left him to
navigate the homeward leg blind. His legs and back are starting to ache from the 40-km bike ride. And what was said this time, as the racer from Victoria tore off his sun visor and started an all-out sprint to the finish of the 10-km run, was far less family friendly.
In three Games, Whitfield has sampled the full range of Olympic experiences. In 2000, he was the surprise victor, rated such a long shot that only two Canadian journalists bothered to go out and watch the race live. In Athens, he was a favourite who failed to deliver, finishing 11th, joining the large herd ofTeam Canada goats. But in Beijing, Whitfield was the best thing of all—an inspiration. An athlete who, in very un-Canadian fashion, expressed not just a hope, but an overwhelming desire to return to the podium. Someone who took all necessary steps to get there, using teammate Colin Jenkins as a domestique to stay in position during the swim and bike—and becoming the first to admit to employing that strategy in a triathlon. A man who spurned all doubts and excuses, overcoming the searing heat by dumping bottles of water on his head and willing himself to believe that he had done enough training to survive. The fierce competitor who in the final kilometres twice clawed his way back into contention, then started sprinting 800 m from the finish, intent not just on winning, but on punishing his rivals. The path to Olympic success, says Whitfield, is relatively straightforward—“Be relentless. Get obsessed. Stay obsessed”—and harder than hell to follow. “Any time I want to back off in training and not do that next set, I think, if I’m not doing it, someone else is.”
Canada’s final tally of 18 medals in Beijing-three gold, nine silver, and six bronzeties this country’s record in Barcelona as its second-best showing ever in a non-boycotted Summer Games. (In Atlanta, the total was 22. Los Angeles, where the Soviets and their allies stayed home, provided 44-) An accomplishment that’s all the more noteworthy given that this team seemed destined for disaster, getting shut out during the first seven days of competition. After years of futility, there was finally promise in the pool and on the track, as well as a first-ever individual equestrian gold, by Eric Lamaze. But the statistic that will keep the Summer Olympians warm during the next 18 months, as Canadians lavish attention and money on the hopefuls for Vancouver 2010, is what officials blandly term the “conversion rate.” In Beijing, 67 per cent of the 27 individuals and teams rated as legitimate Canadian contenders actually reached the podium. Four years
WE CAN’T MATCH THE U.K.’S FUNDING—$1.1 BILLION BEFORE THE 2012 LONDON GAMES
ago in Athens, where the team collected just 12 medals, the figure was 34 per cent. It’s a six-medal improvement, but more crucially, a difference in who is winning them—these are the athletes that the Canadian sports system has focused its resources on. The competitors who are living up to the country’s— and their own—high expectations.
It would be a stretch to call Emilie Heymans emotional. Whatever sorrow, stress, or joy the Brassard, Que., diver feels is normally kept well under wraps. But in the 10-m platform competition in Athens, when she launched into her final dive with a gold medal in her grasp, and surfaced in fourth place, seven points off the podium, the facade cracked. Eyes downcast, she stood before a thicket of reporters and delivered a brutal self-assessment. “I choked,” she said.
In Beijing, the icily cool Heymans was back, barely cracking a smile, even as she stood on the podium to receive her silver. Performing before a raucous and largely local crowd at the Water Cube—Chinese divers have long dominated the international scene— the 27-year-old made no concessions to the pressure. And this time, with everything on the line, Heymans delivered an almost flawless fifth and final dive, scoring 88.00 points for an inward 3V2 somersault, and rising to the top of the leader board. It was only a perfect dive by China’s Chen Ruolin—earning four 10s from the judges and 100.30 points—that snatched away the gold. Heymans wasn’t keen to talk about the
difference between losing Athens gold and winning Beijing silver. “I’ve grown a lot since then, a lot of things have changed. I was really able to stay focused on what I had to do,” was about as close as she came. But her coaches repeatedly referenced the “rebuilding” that was needed to salvage not only her self-esteem, but her love of the sport. “I know there was a lot of soul searching and lot of wondering if she was going to keep at it,” says Mitch Geller, the high-performance director of Diving Canada. “And I think we were a little fortunate. If Athens had paid off, I’m not sure we would have seen her here.” It’s only an hour after that last dive, when a reporter points out to Heymans that she has joined an elite club, as one of only five Canadians to reach the podium in three consecutive Summer Games (she earned synchro 10-m diving silver in Sydney, and a three-metre synchro bronze in Athens) that the mask slips. “Everybody will know your name,” he insists. “Maybe,” she replies with a giggle.
Two nights before, it had been Alexandre Despatie’s turn to defy the odds. In 2004, he was thought to have a shot at three medals, but emerged with just one, a silver in the
three-metre springboard. The end result was the same in Beijing—he finished 40 points behind China’s He Chong, capturing another springboard second—but this time there was an air of triumph rather than disappointment. This past spring, Despatie broke his foot in a poolside accident. The injury kept him away from the diving board for seven weeks, and he missed all of the regular pre-Olympic tuneup competitions. “My silver medal is gold to me, after all of the bad things that happened,” he says. “I dove for me.”
It was left to Sylvie Bernier, the team’s chef de mission in Beijing and the last Canadian, indeed the only Canadian, to win a diving gold (Los Angeles, 1984), to explain to people back home the scale of both Emilie and Alexandre’s accomplishments. “To have China and Canada up there next to each other on the podium is exceptional. China is normally so far out in front. I think we’re quietly catching up,” she says, still dripping wet from being pushed into the pool during the post-Heymans celebrations. “There’s a lot of pressure at the Games. Honestly, it’s the most pressure ever in the life of an athlete. And the most distractions. The whole world is watching.”
The Canadian Olympic Committee and its sporting federations have gone to great lengths in recent years to try and insulate their top athletes from those stresses. In the wake of the Athens debacle, non-performing and faint-hope sports saw their funding cut, and the resources reallocated to more promising events. The Olympic entourage of the favoured teams has grown to include on-site physiotherapists, masseuses, nutritionists and sports psychologists. Canada Olympic House—this time a restaurant near the main green—has become an exclusive refuge for athletes and their families. (Donovan Bailey, winner of two sprinting golds in 1996, was reportedly turned away at the door. And when COH held press conferences for medal winners, the media were asked to use a public bathroom in the adjoining park.) The menu for the gold-medal winning men’s eight rowers was planned out months in advance, and a container of equipment including rowing machines, exercise bikes and physiotherapy mats was shipped to their hotel. The canoeists and kayakers, who competed at Shunyi Park, an hour outside of Beijing, had a couple of common rooms at their hotel, complete with big screen TVs tuned to the CBC feed, and a poker table. The head of the federation even made a run into the city to fill the paddlers’ orders for souvenirs.
None of that, however, guarantees a medal-
ONE CHINESE STAR WASN’T TOLD OF HER MOTHER’S CANCER TILL AFTER SHE WON
winning performance. And even the most confident athlete can come up short when it really matters. Adam van Koeverden, winner of a gold and bronze in Athens, was a heavy favourite to defend his 500-m kayak Olympic championship, and add another in the 1000-m. A dominant force on the World Cup circuit, he had lost just one race all season, finishing third. But in the 1000-m tilt, van Koeverden started strong, and then faltered badly in the final 250 m, falling to eighth place. Crushed and humiliated, the 26-yearold stood before the media and asked for the nation’s forgiveness. “I hate watching athletes apologize after poor performances, but now I know why they do it,” he says, eyes fixed firmly on his paddle. “Because there was a lot of pressure on me and that pressure amounted to expectations back home. I always talk about how Canadian athletes can be inspiring and motivating and I didn’t contribute to that.”
Twenty-four hours later, after five cold showers, innumerable pep talks from his teammates, and a night spent tossing and turning, van Koeverden won silver in the Kl-500-m. It was a redemption of sorts. “When I got out of bed, I wrote down things that I wanted to be today. I said I wanted to be strong, confidant, triumphant, and the last one was Adam— to be myself—because I wasn’t yesterday.”
His mother, Beata Bokrossy, and his younger brother, Luke—wearing the flag as a cape, with a maple leaf painted onto his partially shaved chest—stand nearby. Bokrossy, who says she takes more pride in what Adam has done with his celebrity, lending his profile and time to charities like Right to Play, thinks Canadians are sometimes unrealistic. “Back home everyone was counting on it being a sure thing, counting on two golds,” she says. “But every race is a race. Sometimes it’s somebody else’s turn.” Her toenails are painted gold, and decorated with small, red maple leafs.
Alex Baumann sympathizes. A double gold medallist in Los Angeles, he says he struggled throughout his swimming career with the notion that the best he could ever personally do was to meet the high expectations of others. But as the executive director of Road to Excellence, the COC effort to improve Canada’s
performance in the Summer Games, his job is to demand world, not just personal, bests. “I think that attitude adjustment and that cultural change is starting to happen, but we still have a long way to go,” he says. “In the end we have to make some hard decisions. We are focused on excellence. We are focused on getting on that podium.” This fall, the sports federations will submit their budget plans for the next Olympic cycle and make their pitches for a share of the new funding— $24 million a year by 2010—earmarked to boost Canada’s medal haul at London 2012 and beyond. The stakes are high. Canoe-Kayak Canada, for example, saw its annual budget double to $2 million after van Koeverden’s Athens success. Performances in Beijing do count, says Baumann, but not as much as potential. “If there is true medal potential going into 2012, we’ll take a look at funding those sports. We have to take a look at what athletes they have in the system, what coaches they have, and what’s the structure? Can they produce in a four-year time frame?”
It will be a tall order. Canada can’t match the type of investment Great Britain made to capture 19 golds and a total of 47 medals—a state lottery provided US $440 million in the run-up to Beijing, and will hand over $1.1 billion more before the London Games. Nor are we interested in emulating a Chinese system that produced 51 golds and 100 medals. Cao Lei, who won one of those golds in
75-kg weightlifting, was only told of her mother’s June death shortly before the Games. Chen Ying didn’t learn her mother has breast cancer, until after she won 25-m pistol shooting gold. And Chen Roulin, the 15-year-old who beat Heymans, admits to feeling the pressure to maintain her svelte 30 kg (66 lb.) figure—she was ordered to skip dinner for a year—instead of growing like a normal diver. (Heymans is at least a foot taller and listed at 62 kg or 132 lb.)
But we will be ruthless in our own way. In the new reality of Canadian sports, a Ryan Cochrane, the 19-year-old winner of a Hail Mary bronze in men’s 1,500-m swimming, is worth more than a Carol Huynh, the engaging gold medal wrestler from Hazelton, B.C., who at 28, is unlikely to return to the mat four years from now. Cochrane was so far off most people’s radar screen that the COC seems to be stretching it by now including his stirring 14-minute-and-42-second battle with the Australian great Grant Hackett, on their list of 2008 “conversions.” But Randy Bennett, his coach, says he has known that the Victoria swimmer had that special something for years. When Ryan was just 13, Bennett lost patience with his antics one day in practice and ordered him to swim “80 onehundreds at 1 minute 15.” It’s an even scarier phrase once decoded—it works out to eight kilometres in an hour and 45 minutes. Bennett admits it was a ridiculous punishment, especially for a boy. Although what sticks in his mind was Cochrane’s reaction. “He finished the set, he got out of the pool, and he flipped me the bird and walked out,” says Bennett. “And I knew he was stubborn, and that’s what makes him great.”
Four years from now, Canada is counting on that kind of warrior spirit. Whitfield already says he will be back. So will van Koeverden. It’s harder to say with the divers. And if the country is to meet Baumann’s ambitious goals, others will have to come forward in track, rowing and in the pool. Cochrane, however, is a sure thing, says his coach. “The greatest thing with Ryan is he’s the one that set the tone. He’s the guy that talks about being best in the world. He’s the one who ensures that we focus on that every day.” Nl
BOBBING KIWI TIRES OF HIS TASTE OF THE SEA
The first few bungee jumps were head first, but Auckland resident Mike Heard grew tired of getting his head soaked. He set a world record for the most bungee jumps in a day and, after opting to go feet first, made 103 jumps off the city’s Auckland harbour bridge in just 10 hours. “I was going in too deep,” Heard said of his initial head-first approach. “It’s not nice coming up like a big fish with your sinuses full of saltwater.”
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