Canada No Longer in the Shadows

SPIKES MAGAZINE

Canada's time in the athletics shade is over: at the 2015 World Championships, the maple-leafed marvels won a total of eight medals, including two golds, their best return EVER. Here are ten reasons behind their outstanding Beijing haul.

1. Broadened base

For many years Athletics Canada operated a strategy that targeted certain event groups; throws, hurdles, combined events and relays. Yet after Canada returned from London 2012 with Derek Drouin's high jump bronze their only athletics medal – the same number as Botswana, Guatemala and Iran – this approach was scrapped.

“We found the strategy wasn’t working and we weren’t winning as many medals as we hoped for,” says Rob Guy, the CEO of Athletics Canada. “The system was extremely unpopular with athletes as many of our top athletes weren’t getting any funding support, so we broadened our scope.”

2. Training centre overhaul

Post-London, Athletics Canada switched their funding model to suit the athletes. Previously, Canada boasted seven high performance training centres, but few of the country’s key athletes were based at them, so they received little in the way of funding.

The training centres were closed down and replaced by two hubs, one in the west and one in the east of Canada, where athletes and coaches can access a full range of support services. With fewer training centre costs, extra cash has allowed the likes of high jump world champion Derek Drouin and heptathlon silver medallist Brianne Theisen-Eaton to be given the necessary support.

As PanAm 20km race walking champion Evan Dunfee explains: “They realised Canada is too big a country to centralise athletes, and now they have given the funding to the athletes to use themselves.”

3. Great coach

Regarded as one of the world’s leading high performance coaches, Swedish-born Peter Eriksson’s appointment to the role of head coach of Athletics Canada in the summer of 2013 was a huge boost. Former coach to a raft of Canada’s leading wheelchair racers, including Paralympic legend Chantal Petitclerc, and a former head coach of both the Paralympic and able-bodied programmes in the UK, the former speedskater has made a seismic impact.

“He’s been really important,” explains Guy,“in that he’s brought a real high performance attitude to the programme. The athletes too have reacted very favourably to Peter, which is great. If you have medal potential, he is prepared to invest in you.”

A nerveless Bishop won silver in a super tight 800m; only 0.15 secs separated the top three

4. Enhanced support service use

Athletics Canada has long had strong athlete supports services, including nutritionists, physiologists, doctors, physiotherapists and sports psychologists. The new model didn't change that network of support; it enabled athletes to make better use of it.

In paticular, Coach Eriksson believes great gains have been made more recently in helping athletes to access sports psychology services.

“There had been sporadic use [of sports psychologists] in the past, but now we have three full-time psychologists, and what this has done is allow the athletes to focus on the right things,” he explains. “Now when the pressure is on they know how to deal with it. You saw that at the World Championships when Melissa Bishop knew exactly what to do in a high pressure race.”

Bishop, in her first world champs final, won 800m silver. She had run a national record 1:57.52 in the semi.

5. Integrated personal coaches

Athletics Canada has made a big effort to reach out to the athletes’ personal coaches. Guy acknowledges they are “key to an athlete’s success”, and Eriksson has made effort to integrate them into the set up.

“We opened the door to them and said you are welcome to come [to major championships],” says Eriksson, with every effort to cover travel costs that allow them to support their athletes in the big arenas. “This open door policy allows for more unity. The staff coaches and personal coaches can work more easily together, and this allows for a more comfortable environment for an athlete competing at a major championship.”

Canada's medal haul since the turn of the century. At Edmonton 2001 – a home championships – they failed to win a single medal.

6. Raw talent

It goes without saying that Canada's current crop of athletes are outstandingly talented, led by the likes of Drouin, Theisen-Eaton and world pole vault gold medallist Shawn Barber. Eriksson is understandably excited with the hardware at his disposal.

“When I first took on the job I noticed a lot of talented young athletes in the system,” the head coach explains. “I think there is more to come. We have a very strong group of women’s 800m runners running 2:01 and better.”

That's not just hot air: Canada boasts ten women inside the world's top 150 for the 800m in 2015. The bronze won by the men's 4x100m provides further evidence of the talent in certain areas.

Eriksson is keen to point out that there's bredth as well as depth. He adds: “We are doing interesting things in so many different events; jumps, endurance sprints, pole vault, and we have never done that before.”

7. Set the bar high

Canadians are no longer happy to play the role as World Championship tourists. They want to compete and are not satisfied with second best.

Drouin, whose high jump world title comes hot on the heels of PanAm ('15) and Commonwealth ('14) golds, admits: “The real shift has been we no longer go into meets feeling happy to be there. We believe we all have as good a chance as anyone else of making finals or being on the podium.

This is a point backed up by Dunfee, who finished 12th in the 20km walk at the recent world champs.

“Everyone is going there with high expectations,” he adds.  “A handful of guys expect to medal, which is infectious and rubs off on the rest of the squad.”

8. Training camp shuffle

Training camps for the various event groupings have long been organised by Athletics Canada, but only recently have the federation allowed for greater flexibility in terms of when and where to hold the camps. This enables athletes to receive better support.

Dunfee explains that, in the past, altitude training camps were organised routinely each April in Flagstaff. Yet he says this wasn't necessarily the best fit for many athletes. This year a three-week endurance training camp was held in St Moritz, Switzerland, just prior to the Pan American Games. It proved far more popular. 

“This camp was run at the time to help me reach peak performance,” he says. “It helped a tonne.”

Team Canada's 2015 world champs medallists 

9. Kids collegiate

It may have been frowned upon in the past, but Theisen-Eaton has little doubt the leading Canadians such as Drouin, Barber and sprinter Andre de Grasse have benefited from going through the ultra-competitive NCAA system. Theisen-Eaton herself attended track-mad University of Oregon, and she admits the collegiate system exposes athletes to much a higher level of competition than they would experience in Canada, and this prepares them for bigger tests ahead.

“A former Canadian multi-events coach Les Gramantik told me when I was lining up for my first World Championship in 2009 ‘you won’t get too star struck because you have competed at NCAAs’.”

De Grasse clinched an NCAA sprint double this year, clocking an astonishing (though windy) 9.75 in the 100m and 19.58 in the 200m. On both occassions he beat American Trayvon Bromell, the man with whom he tied for bronze in the 100m in Beijing. Between all that the 21-year-old notched the double in the PanAms. Some summer.

10. We are family

Inspired by the likes of Drouin, Theisen-Eaton and world decathlon silver medallist Damian Warner, who have taken a keen interest in all the athletic disciplines within the programme, race walker Dunfee believes there is a real team ethos across the whole Canadian squad.

“Brianne is always asking questions about race walking, and during the World Championships we had Canadian throwers watching the 20km walk, which we then reciprocated by watching the throwers,” he says. “I've met so many athletes who have very little interest in any event beyond their own, but this Canadian group are genuine fans of the sport.”

Theisen-Eaton believes the team feels like “a family”.

“There is no-one on the team I don’t get along with and everyone is really supportive of one another,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve experienced that as part of a team before. It is so special and this has contributed to the team’s