Over the Northern Border

Apr 12, 2016

Once again, a large portion of the Canadian Olympic Team is made up of swimmers who do not train within its borders… With Team Canada on the rise, led by multiple Olympic medal prospects, a look at that forever touchy issue: When it comes to fulfilling potential in the pool, should they stay or should they go? 

As usual the NCAA had a hand in picking another country’s Olympic team. Last week at the Canadian Olympic Trials in Toronto, nine U.S. universities – USC, Georgia, Cal, Missouri, Texas A&M, Minnesota, SMU, Ohio, St., and Indiana – helped qualify swimmers onto Team Canada. Georgia produced two Olympians, seniors Brittany MacLean and Chantal Van Landeghem, one of whom, MacLean, is arguably Canada’s top female medal hope.

For decades – in Canada and elsewhere – it’s been a proud, and disputed, tradition. NCAA coaches come calling anywhere in the world that there’s talent and fast times. Some programs embrace foreign athletes more than others; some (jingoistic?) coaches take an opposing view, claiming that it’s not for the NCAA (‘National’ referring to the American nationality) to help train future Olympic competitors from other countries. While that’s an unfortunate point of view, that ignores the cross-pollination and heightened competitive environments produced by a diverse cultural stew of athletes, it’s a view shared by many coaches on the other side of the border too.

Some NCAA coaches might seek to limit recruiting within U.S. borders, but plenty of club coaches in other countries think it’s a terrible idea to go there in the first place. Neither side wants the other. It’s an isolationist view that comes with some interesting stats.

In Canada, not a single individual Olympic medalist has been produced by an NCAA program. Not one, ever. Every Canadian that has stood by him or herself on an Olympic podium got there by staying ‘in house.’ Take a quick look back to the greats of Games past. Brent Hayden, Ryan Cochrane, Curtis Myden, Maryanne Limpert, Mark Tewksbury, Victor Davis, Alex Baumann, Anne Ottenbrite, Nancy Garapick, Cheryl Gibson… Every one of them trained for the Games on Canadian soil.

After winning gold, silver, and bronze at the ’84 Games, Anne Ottenbrite decided to stay on in L.A. and went to USC, but her Olympic triumphs came before she left. Alex Baumann too flirted with heading south, accepting a scholarship from Indiana to go swim with “Doc” Counsilman, before having a change of heart and returning to his longtime mentor and coach, Dr. Jeno Tihanyi, in Sudbury, Ontario. The others on that list, they all swam their entire careers in Canada.

Yet, despite that fact, every year athletes from all over make the decision to come to the States and try their luck in the NCAA. The level of competition is second to none, that much is fact. It’s also often about that reputedly more important thing – education. Get a degree from a fine American university, enjoy a training and racing environment that’s second to none, yeah, it has its merits. The weather’s probably better too. Hell, any weather’s better than winter in Calgary.

As has been proven with so many of the all-time greats – Phelps and Thorpe, et all – often times it’s the best scenario to stay with the coach and the program that knows you best, the one you’ve been with since you were a kid. That seems to be how the truly transcendent ones are made. But not all Olympians are created equal. Not even close. Even with the high standard of those Olympic Qualifying cuts, there is a world between those who ‘just’ make the team, and those in the hunt, racing for medals in prime time. It’s a bit like the difference between being in the NBA and being, well, Steph Curry. Or at least Draymond Green.

The special ones need special treatment. Sorry, but it’s true. It’s not that they ask for it. It just happens when coaches realize what they’re working with. And so, the really good ones, they tend to stay put. Their results are going to be what the rest of the team is judged on. Sure, the percentage of lifetime bests, the semi-final swims, the top eight qualifiers, those will be markers too, but let’s face it, a country’s Olympic success is mostly summarized by its medal count. There’s a lot at stake, and it makes sense that the very best are the ones most coerced to remain.

However, in Rio, Georgia’s – and Etobicoke’s – Brittany MacLean may very well put an end to that long streak of native-trained Canadian medalists. In the 400 and perhaps the 800 free, MacLean is well positioned to threaten for medals, after posting Canadian records of 4:03.84 and 8:21.40 last week, both good enough for third in the world at this point.

If and when she does, much will be read into it, but does it mean anything really? Every athlete does what appears to be in the best interest of him or her. The decisions to head to the NCAA or remain at home are among the most important these athletes will ever make in their careers. Sometimes, if subsequent results don’t live up to goals, it’s argued that the decision was the wrong one – as if the numbers of the clock are the sole determinant. But in every case, the choice is not made lightly.

The NCAA has to be particularly enticing for female swimmers, who have more scholarships available and more teams to choose from. It’s the men’s programs, so often in fear of being cut, and granted 50% less scholarships to work with, that remain an endangered species, despite the continued success of NCAA swimmers on the world stage. Still, if there’s a Canadian man on the podium in Rio not named Ryan Cochrane, it will almost certainly be Santo Condorelli – who arrives on Team Canada the same way I did – via Bolles and USC. Meaning, that native-trained trend could be put to rest among both the men and the women.

There will always be coaches and parents and nattering commentators eager to cast opinions on the choices swimmers make. It makes for interesting parlor talk, but ultimately it’s no one’s business but the athlete.

In the end, it’s up to the swimmer. If you’re on the Team and eyeing a podium in Rio, that seems to mean you’re making the right choices.

A hearty congrats to all of the 2016 Canadian Olympic Team…