Cover Story / Summer 2008
Countdown to Beijing

Swimmer Colin Russell leads U of T athletes and coaches on a quest for Olympic gold


It’s not just another meet.

This August, when athletes, coaches and sports personnel gather for the opening ceremonies of the XXIX Olympiad, they will be honouring years of sacrifice and hard work. Those from U of T will also be carrying on a tradition: the university has been represented on virtually every summer, winter and Paralympic team ever fielded.

The first Canadian to win a gold medal (1900 steeplechase runner George Orton) was a U of T grad, and the U of T men’s hockey team brought home gold in 1928. Well-known medallists such as decathlete Dave Steen, swimmer Marianne Limpert, figure skater Jeffrey Buttle and high jumper Greg Joy – as well as winning coaches such as Andy Higgins and Karen Hughes – have all passed through U of T’s portals at one point or another. Will the stories that follow have similarly happy endings? Given their beginnings, it’s highly possible.

COLIN RUSSELL
Freestyle swimmer

“They may look funny – but they work!” That’s swimmer Colin Russell, discussing the new full body racing suit he may be sporting when he competes as a freestyler in Beijing. The James Bond-like garment was developed by Speedo in conjunction with NASA; since its introduction earlier this year, more than 30 new world records have been set. Will Russell set another?

It’s highly possible. In the Olympic trials this past April, Russell beat world champion (in the 100 metre) Brent Hayden to win the 200 metre freestyle event. In Beijing, he’ll also be competing in two other races – the 4×200 and 4×100 freestyle relays. “The Olympics has been a dream of mine for a long time,” says the 6’3” strawberry blond, who’s a dead ringer for Aquaman of comic-book fame. “Especially to be competing individually. As soon as I do that, I’ll have accomplished everything I set out to do.”

Talk of “magic” swimsuits obscures the incredibly hard work swimmers such as Russell, a second-year pharmacology major, actually put in. “Before I went to university it would be 20 hours a week, weights and swimming. When I went to Indiana [his first school] my training stepped up to 30 hours of weights, swimming and dry land, though that is really excessive for me. Now it’s about 18 hours.”

Russell, a native of Oshawa, Ontario, has maintained a rigorous training regimen since the age of seven, when he first started competing. And save for a six-month break caused by a dislocated elbow at age 11, he’s been remarkably injury-free – until the spring of 2006, when his shoulder started hurting at training camp. “I really don’t know why or how it happened; it was a trauma injury, it wasn’t overuse,” says Russell. The injury – a torn labrum – scared Russell, who at 23 felt he had only one shot left at the Games. Yet less than a year-and-a-half after surgery, he is bound for Beijing. “I surmounted my previous mark, and it was a big surprise to everybody,” he says.

In spite of his demanding schedule, Russell still makes time for cooking and video games, his two favourite hobbies. And this fall, he plans to swim for the Varsity Blues – though life may be very different after China. “Obviously nothing’s definite, but it’s a basic reality that we could win a medal,” he says. At which point, Speedo may come calling … to get that endorsement in writing.

ALEXANDRA ORLANDO
Rhythmic gymnast

“I’m kind of an old lady,” says Alexandra Orlando, a U of T student who will be competing in her first Olympics this year at the ripe old age of 21. Orlando is going to be representing Canada in rhythmic gymnastics at the 2008 Games.

“I’m definitely the oldest rhythmic gymnast in Canada,” says Orlando. Which is why it’s such an accomplishment for her to be currently ranked ninth in the world – a career best. Rhythmic gymnastics is demanding at any age, but the strength, control and flexibility it requires makes it a sport largely dominated by teenagers. Contestants perform four routines using different pieces of equipment: rope, hoop, ball, clubs and ribbon, and each requires a different set of skills. Orlando’s specialty is the ribbon, a long length of silk at the end of a baton.

“It’s one of the most challenging pieces of apparatus, because it’s never supposed to touch the floor, it’s never supposed to touch your body and it’s never supposed to stop moving,” she says. “It’s hard, but it’s always been my favourite.”

Orlando started gymnastics at age five, after her ballet teacher gently suggested she had a little too much energy to be a ballerina (“I was rambunctious,” says Orlando). It was love at first leap. She now trains four hours a day, six days a week at Seneca College, does additional workouts with a personal trainer and still takes ballet four times a week. That’s on top of her political science and economics studies at U of T, where she just finished her third year. “I’m fortunate to have a huge support system to help me get through it all,” she says.

With Orlando’s advanced age comes wisdom, especially useful in a sport made up mostly of hypercompetitive teenage girls. The atmosphere before a match, she says, is “a little cutthroat.” Last year, “Some girl took her hoop and whacked me really hard on the leg. Our warm-ups are actually notorious – they’re known for being brutal. On the carpet, the egos come out.”

She doesn’t worry too much about that kind of thing anymore. Instead, she’s focused on perfecting her routines. She thinks she has a shot at a medal, but she’s up against fierce competition. “I’m so excited. I’m a little freaked out,” she says. “It’s like, I’ve been working my whole life for this, and I’m going. I have my ticket. It’s just crazy to me. You can’t wipe the smile off my face. I kind of wish it was summer already.”

NEIL ROSS
Mountain biking coach

They say a good coach builds a fire within athletes, not beneath them. As coach of the Australian mountain biking team, Neil Ross oversees a group of athletes who are already pretty fiery: this sport is “one of the most painful, where ability to suffer and mental toughness are key characteristics to success,” says the affable 35-year-old. In mountain biking, “athletes have to persevere and still have the courage to attack their rivals – then see if they can almost force them to give up.”

With undergraduate degrees in biology and physical therapy and a master’s in rehabilitation science from U of T, Ross understands exactly how much the human body can take. It helps that while studying, he also participated heavily as an athlete himself: besides starting a cycling club and a weight room at St. Michael’s College, he was involved in cross-country skiing, water polo and rugby. Such activities “really contributed to my effectiveness as a coach,” he says. “I got an incredible education in Canada, and incredible experience.”

So then the question: why’s a nice Ontario boy like him coaching for Australia? “A lot of my work in Canada was directed toward trying to create positions for coaching, and much of it was about trying to find funding,” says Ross, who travelled extensively while road racing and mountain biking at the national and provincial levels. “Sadly, the Canadian system does lag somewhat behind several of our competitors. But Canada does an amazing job in coach education – it gave me the international experience that caused a nation like
Australia to want to recruit me.”

Ross says that Canada is ranked among the top five countries in the sport, proving that, with its endless supply of hills, valleys, trees and rocks, it’s definitely a great place for a mountain biker to grow up. But training in a “somewhat urban environment,” as Ross’s Australian team has, may actually help them more in dealing with Beijing’s biggest challenge: pollution. “At a test event last fall, all our athletes were able to finish, but at least half the Europeans dropped out with respiratory trouble,” Ross says. “It is a concern.”

Smog will be but one more obstacle for a coach who’s already overcome several. “I took my athletics seriously, but didn’t have the talent to go to the Olympics,” shrugs Ross. “It’s a huge milestone for a coach to be going, though – because frankly, a lot fewer coaches go than athletes!”

SARAH CHARLES and ROSANNAGH MACLENNAN
Trampolinists

Many kids have trampolines in their backyards, but not many use them the way Sarah Charles did. “I used to spend 10 hours a day on it when I was young,” says the 22-year-old Kelowna native, now in her third year as a physical education student. “My mom couldn’t get me off it, except for lunch and dinner.” All that bouncing around has finally paid off: eight years after switching to trampoline from general gymnastics, she’s off to the Olympics.

Fellow competitor Rosannagh MacLennan started a different way: at the age of nine, she and her sister began tagging along to her older brothers’ trampoline gym because her mom “couldn’t find a babysitter,” says the 19-year-old, now in her second year as a phys. ed. student. Having placed second in individual trampoline during a 2007 test event in Beijing, and third in the world during Olympic trials, she is definitely a good bet to win a medal. “Russia has the top girl in the world right now,” says MacLennan, but “Canada is a very strong country, too.”

Trampoline has only been a featured event in the last two Olympics, but Canada has won a medal each time (thanks to Karen Cockburn, MacLennan’s partner in synchronized trampoline – a non-Olympic discipline in which both are longtime world champions). It’s a thrilling sport in which competitors have to have good “air sense,” maintaining perfect body orientation while rising up to 10 metres in the air and performing manoeuvres nicknamed Killer, Thriller and Suicide. “The tricks are fairly spectacular,” MacLennan admits, with Charles adding: “Most people can’t relate to how we do them … it’s like Cirque du Soleil, but in the Olympics.”

So far, though, these athletes have no immediate plans to run away with the circus. Charles is contemplating medical school, while MacLennan hopes to compete in London in 2012 before possibly pursuing a career in sports marketing or health promotion. In the meantime, both are looking forward to the event of their lives. “It’s the greatest, most monumental sports event you can go to,” says Charles. “It’s just a totally different scale of competition.”

BYRON MACDONALD
CBC commentator

Most world-class swimmers are lucky to make it to one or two Olympic Games. This summer, Byron MacDonald will participate in his eighth – although on seven of those outings, he’s been in
the TV studio, not the pool.

MacDonald, who swam for Canada in the 1972 Olympics, is head coach of the University of Toronto swim team. But since 1984, he’s also acted as a TV commentator for CBC’s Olympic coverage, calling every swimming event. That adds up to nine straight days of work (and up to 18 hours a day) in front of the camera, explaining the races, introducing athletes and analyzing results – most of it live and unscripted.

Aquatic events are generally over in one or two minutes so MacDonald, who is also a former Canadian Olympic coach, spends much of his time on air discussing the athletes’ past performances, their personal histories and the technical challenges of the race. In order to provide that colour commentary, MacDonald keeps continually updated files with information on more than 400 swimmers from around the world. He pores over swimming magazines and unaired TV interviews from past Olympic Games, and talks to his fellow coaches. His own Olympic experience means he can also talk about the pressures of being down on the pool deck. “I’m supposed to bring that to the viewer, my experiences,” he says. “I’ve seen some young kids who don’t do that well at the Olympics because they freak out at 15,000 people cheering.”

Even after working the studio for seven Olympics, MacDonald says live television can be daunting. “The majority of the time, everything works tickety-boo,” he says. But on those rare occasions when something goes amiss – an event is suddenly cancelled, leaving a 10- minute programming gap, for instance – he and his colleagues have to think fast. All his research helps, but MacDonald still marvels at how professional broadcasters are able to jump in to carry the show. “I’m a lot better than I used to be, but I could never do what these guys do,” he says. “They’re like ducks on the water – calm on top and paddling furiously below.”

DR. GAÉTAN TARDIF
Paralympics assistant chef de mission

You might think that being a doctor at the Paralympics would present some unusual challenges – so many athletes with different physical disabilities, pushing their bodies to the limit and most using some sort of assistive device. But Dr. Gaétan Tardif, who will be assistant chef de mission for the 2008 Canadian Paralympic team, as well as the 2010 team going to Vancouver, says the medical problem he sees most often is the common cold. “You take 4,000 athletes from all over the world,” he says, “then you pack them into metal tubes in the air for a few hours, and then you mix people from 150 countries in the same cafeteria – it’s almost inevitable.”

Assistant chef de mission is a new position this year for Tardif, who is director of U of T’s physiatry division and chief medical officer at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. He previously worked as a doctor for the Canadian Paralympic team, and was its chief medical officer at the 2006 Torino Olympics and the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. As assistant chef he is taking more of a leadership role this year, co-ordinating all aspects of the mission involved with the Canadian Paralympic team of 145 athletes.

Tardif says he likes the Paralympics because it has all the high-level athleticism of the Olympics without the stadium-sized egos. In many cases, the participants have “never been treated like elite athletes before,” Tardif says. Assisting them is truly rewarding, and it’s broadened his experience as a sports physician, he says. “The Olympics is exciting, but I don’t think it’s as exciting as the Paralympics.”

Tardif says he’s especially intrigued by goalball, a sport played only by the visually impaired. Teams of three compete to throw a ball into the other team’s goal; the ball contains bells, so the players locate it by sound alone. “It’s fascinating,” says Tardif. “It’s the only sport I ever go to where there isn’t a whisper of a sound in the audience while they’re playing. It’s dead quiet until somebody scores a goal, and then everyone erupts.”

NICK THIERRY
Editor and publisher, SwimNews

Nick Thierry answers most questions about competitive swimming with numbers. Ask Thierry (BArch 1964), the editor and publisher of Canada’s SwimNews magazine, how the country’s swimmers will fare in Beijing, and he’ll tell you how each athlete ranks against the best swimmers in the world. Thierry keeps a spreadsheet showing how many Canadian swimmers have competed at every Summer Olympics since 1976, and can tell you how many records were broken at each Olympic trials since then.

Thierry thinks our prospects for Beijing are looking up. At trials in April, 27 swimmers qualified for the Olympics, breaking 11 Canadian records. That makes for the biggest team since 1992 (the last year a Canadian swimmer won Olympic gold), and the most records broken at trials since the 1980s. “The ship is turning around, there’s no question,” says Thierry, who has spent nearly 50 years in the swimming world, first as a coach, then as a statistician and editor. He’s been publishing SwimNews from his Toronto home since 1974. In more than 300 issues, he’s documented Canadian swimmers’ highs – two silver and six bronze medals at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, and their lows – the 2004 Athens Games, where they failed to win a single medal.

Thierry, who was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2001, isn’t sure how many Canadian swimmers will grace the podium this year. The team is young, and he expects the Americans and the Australians to dominate the pool. He believes Canada’s best shot for a medal is in the men’s 4×200 metre freestyle relay. Why? It’s in the numbers: “We were second at the 2005 World Championships, and third in 2007. We’re better now.”


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