OLYMPIC PROSPECTS SERIES STORIES:
By Martin Cleary
OLYMPIC PROSPECTS PART 1: The Olympics are all around us.
Five months ago at the Tokyo Summer Games, after a full-year COVID-19 pandemic pause, Canada flexed its muscles and golden athletes like decathlete Damian Warner, swimmer Maggie MacNeil, sprinter Andre De Grasse and the members of the women’s rowing eight highlighted our Olympic conversation.
And look, the Winter version of the all-encompassing Olympic Games are just around the corner as Canada’s best skiers, skaters and sliders strive for their best-ever performances, hoping for a truly satisfying result, medal or no medal.
Did you know the first Canadian to win a medal at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics will achieve a significant milestone for the country? Whether it’s gold, silver or bronze, that medal will be the 200th earned by a Canadian in the history of the Winter Games.
While the Tokyo Summer Olympic memories are fading and anticipation grows for the Beijing Winter Games, there’s another group of athletes working just as hard to make the grade for upcoming Olympics. They are the future wave, working in the background, learning the ropes and motivated by a chance to step into the five-ring circus.
For the next eight publication days beginning today, HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition will tell the stories of seven Ottawa and area athletes, who are considered Olympic prospects in summer and winter sports. We know that because they were selected after extensive physical testing and were named to the Top 30 in the RBC Training Ground, “a nation-wide talent identification program dedicated to finding and funding Canada’s future Olympians.”
More than 4,000 athletes (ages 14-24) were tested in the areas of core speed, strength, power and endurance and watched by coaches and high-performance recruiters from 10 Canadian sport governing bodies. A year late in the making, because of the restrictions of the pandemic, the field was narrowed to the Top 100 finalists.
In the previous six years, the finalists would have gathered at a national final for a second round of testing to determine the Top 30 athletes, who would be welcomed onto the national team by the sport that recruited them and funded for a two-year period to kick start their Olympic dream.
Ottawa and area athletes fared the best of any city in the country, with seven promoted to become RBC Future Olympians. Two athletes entered the RBC Training Ground process competing in one sport (artistic gymnastics and basketball) and exited in an entirely different one (freestyle skiing aerials and rowing respectively), while the other five proved to themselves and their recruiters that they are in the right sport (slalom or sprint canoe kayak) and plan to follow that pathway to the Olympics.
The RBC Training Ground has a high success rate as more than 1,400 athletes have been selected as potential Olympic athletes and many in a sport they had never considered. Looking back on the recent Tokyo Olympics, four RBC Training Ground graduates won medals – Kelsey Mitchell, sprint track cycling, gold medal; Avalon Wasteneys, women’s rowing eight, gold; Lauriane Genest, sprint track cycling, bronze; and Jerome Blake, athletics men’s 4×100-metre relay, bronze.
The Canadian roster for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which is being announced sport-by-sport by the Canadian Olympic Committee, also could have some athletes who were greatly influenced by RBC Training Ground – freestyle skiing aerialist Marion Thenault, bobsleigh’s Sara Villani and bobsleigh’s Mike Evelyn of Ottawa.
Here are the seven Ottawa and area athletes who have made the grade and shown potential for upcoming Olympic Games:
· Kylar Rathwell: A former provincial artistic gymnast, she has been recruited to be an aerialist in freestyle skiing;
· Riley Richardson: An Ottawa Elite and provincial-level basketball player, she caught the eye of Rowing Canada;
· Maël Rivard: The national U23 slalom canoe kayak athlete and 2021 world championship competitor will remain with his sport;
· Evie McDonald: An Ontario sprint canoe team member, she had two sixth-place results in junior at the 2021 world championships and will remain in her sport;
· Mark Zielonka: A member of the Ottawa River Runners, he raced at the 2019 and 2021 world slalom canoe kayak championships in junior and U23 respectively and will remain in his sport;
· Maren Bradley: An Ontario sprint kayak team member, she won a bronze in women’s junior K4 500 metres at the 2019 world junior championships and will remain in her sport;
· Béatrice Olson: She competed at the 2021 world junior slalom canoe kayak championships, reached the junior C1 semifinals and will remain in her sport.
Two years ago, RBC Training Ground started its latest recruiting campaign in January, 2020. The in-person testing events, including one in Ottawa, were only half completed because of the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Testing resumed in October, 2020, but it was virtual. Athletes from the cancelled sites and other athletes from outside the larger urban cities had a chance to show their potential.
In early 2021, national sports organizations invited several athletes that caught their attention to be assessed using sport-specific testing. The sports submitted their selections for the Top 100 national finalists in October. Instead of the Top 100 travelling to one site for the finals in November, the RBC Training Ground brought the final testing to the athletes.
Small testing sites were created in six Canadian cities and athletes were given appointments and assessed one at a time. The Ottawa and area athletes were tested in either Montreal or Toronto.
Earlier this month, the various national sport bodies selected the athletes they saw as future Olympians and brought them into their national-team development systems. They will receive funding for coaching, transportation, travel, equipment and nutrition for two years and a long-term commitment to develop to their maximum potential.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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