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HIGH ACHIEVERS: Slalom kayaker Maël Rivard achieves significant goal on second attempt

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Maël Rivard. Photo provided

By Martin Cleary

OLYMPIC PROSPECTS (Part 4 of 8): If at first you don’t succeed, well, take another run down the rapids.

Whitewater slalom kayaker Maël Rivard of Ottawa subscribes to that theory and it has paid huge dividends, jettisoning him onto a higher pathway in his life-long sport, one he hopes will direct him onto a future Canadian Summer Olympic Games team.

Three years ago, Rivard, now 20, attended his first RBC Training Ground testing camp in Ottawa to see if he had the right stuff to become fully supported by one of Canada’s national sport governing bodies and possibly become an Olympian.

Read More: Seven Ottawa area athletes named RBC Future Olympians

“I heard about it from others in the sport and they recommended I test it out,” Rivard said in a recent phone interview. “I saw a whole bunch of young faces and it reminded me of myself, athletes coming from different sports from all around Ottawa.

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“Maybe, I was a little nervous and didn’t know what to expect. We had a group warmup to help us relax. I did well in some tests and I was proud of my Beep test. The other tests weren’t as good.”

Rivard didn’t make the Top 100 or the exclusive Top 30 to be graded an RBC Future Olympian as several thousand athletes chased the same goal. The six-year-old RBC Training Ground is “a nation-wide talent identification program dedicated to finding and funding Canada’s future Olympians.”

After testing, the top athletes can be recruited by officials from 10 Canadian national sport associations (bobsleigh/skeleton, boxing, nordic combined, ski jumping, speed skating, freestyle skiing, cycling, rowing, rugby or canoe kayak) to join their sport or stay with their current one. The Top 30 athletes, who were selected from one hundred athletes at the national finals, are welcomed as national development team members and fully funded and supported for two years.

Entering his second RBC Training Ground assessment Feb. 1, 2020, in the areas of core speed, strength, power and endurance, Rivard was fully prepared. Unfortunately, the waiting time for the final results doubled to two years this time because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which made it difficult to conduct the various testing stages.

“I went in with some expectations of doing well across the board. I’d definitely say it worked out to try it again. The next time was better,” he added. “Now, it’s part of my very real plan. I’ll focus on the Olympic selection trials in 2023.”

He kept an open mind after the testing and was approached by a recruiter from Speed Skating Canada. But he stayed with slalom kayak because over the past few years he has been “steadily getting better and better.”

Winning an RBC Training Ground berth and joining the Canoe Kayak Canada national team couldn’t come at a better time for Rivard.

“It’s awesome to be invited to the national final and then make it happen,” continued Rivard, who has represented Canada at international races since 2017. “I was wondering how I was going to pay for my upcoming season. I expect to do a lot of racing abroad. Without the help of RBC, it would have been tough to do as much.”

Rivard, who was introduced to slalom kayaking a decade ago at a summer camp and races for the Ottawa River Runners Whitewater Club, trains mainly on the Pumphouse/Tailrace course in Ottawa’s LeBreton Flats area. But he knows he has to train in Europe to become an Olympian. The top international courses are all artificially constructed and are more demanding than the Pumphouse course.

Rivard is in his final semester leading to a four-year Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Ottawa and, when he finishes his exams in the spring, he plans to dedicate the next one to two years to training exclusively for the Olympics.

“It will take some pressure off and I can go into the next 12 months with no commitments,” added Rivard, who said his immediate goal is making the 2024 Paris Olympic team, but, if it doesn’t happen, he’ll push forward for the 2028 Games in Los Angeles.

Rivard also has been fortunate to pursue his Olympic journey with his sister Beatrice Olson and Ottawa River Runners teammate Mark Zielonka. Olson and Zielonka also were named to the RBC Training Ground Top 30 and will follow their Olympic dreams in Canoe Kayak Canada’s discipline of slalom.

“It’s very cool timing. It’s cool that we did it at the same time and we went all the way to the end,” he said. “She (Beatrice) is inspiring and … all three of us are in the same training group. We must be doing something right.”

Rivard described himself as level-headed, determined, analytical and a perfectionist in an RBC Training Ground interview. Those characteristics have helped form his athlete model.

“Kayaking has brought discipline, routine and experiences of all sorts to my life. Learning to show up every day, to put in the effort, managing short-, medium- and long-term goals, pushing beyond my limits, learning to rest even if it’s tempting not to, adapting to new environments or regulations and so many other lessons have come from my journey,” he explained.

“As much as some days can be difficult, kayaking has been incredibly rewarding. It’s also a lot of fun. The speed, the adrenaline, the precision needed: it takes complete focus and it’s very stimulating. Slalom is an endless set of puzzles that we’re always trying to figure out. How do we do this combination faster, how do we use less energy, (achieve) more water power?”

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 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 “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at

Martin can be reached by e-mail at and on Twitter @martincleary.

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