Focus on… Canada

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At Moscow 2013, Canada had their best ever world championship medal haul, and won as many medals, five, as they did at the four champs between 2005 and 2011. SPIKES spoke to Athletics Canada’s High Performance Director Scott MacDonald to find out how they did it.

1. World-class athletes

It sounds obvious, but the development of Canada’s elite athletes has been a patient process. They won just one solitary track and field medal at both the Daegu 2011 World Championships and at the London 2012 Olympics, but High Performance Director Scott MacDonald reckons the new generation of athletes put in some “nice performances” at the London Games.

“We had a lot of up-and-coming first-time Olympians perform very well, and that was encouraging because you could tell they were hungry for more,” says MacDonald.

“Dylan Armstrong finished fifth, but had been on the scene for a while. Damian Warner was fifth in the decathlon, Brianne Theisen made a bigger jump as she was tenth [in the heptathlon] in London. Even the men’s 4x100m team [who won bronze in Moscow] had won a relay medal in London for a few minutes, until they were disqualified for a lane violation.

"These were all athletes we had an eye on in the countdown to London, and we really saw their potential. I don’t want to say we planned or expected five medals in Moscow, but I knew we had chances in these areas. What these athletes have done [in Moscow] is make the next step up.”

2. Smarter training

Athletics Canada has worked much harder on developing a closer collaboration between their staff members and the athletes’ personal coaches over the past 12 months. According to MacDonald, this set up has worked particularly well in terms of the development of Canada’s world medal winning multi-eventers Brianne Theisen Eaton and Damian Warner.

“We set up a training camp in California with Brianne and Damian, in which their personal coaches worked with our coaches and a chiropractor for a week or two. It was really hands on and worked really well,” says MacDonald.

Brianne Theisen Eaton agrees that the camp, and the support given to her by Athletics Canada in the countdown to Moscow, was of great significance:

“They [Athletics Canada] are making better decisions for the athletes’ sake, and this is reflecting in their performances,” she says. “If I needed medical support they would fly someone down to help me. That was a really big thing for me.”

3. Centralisation

Scott insists that one of the great challenges facing Athletics Canada has been knitting together athletes across a huge geographical distance. Yet he believes creating central hubs for athletes has helped contribute towards rising standards.

“We have tried to centralise athletes a little more,” says MacDonald. “This is not easy to do because you are talking about uprooting people from their homes. We have tried to create the centres around a world-class coach.

"So in Kamloops we have our national throws centre led by Dr [Anatoliy] Bondarchuk [former coach to world hammer record holder Yuriy Sedykh and current coach to 2013 world bronze medallist Dylan Armstrong].

"His résumé speaks for itself, so we try to have as many good athletes as we can around those top coaches. We have a sprint centre in Toronto, and three of the four guys who attained the IAAF standard for the men’s steeplechase train together in Guelph, Ontario.

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Oh Canada: Damian Warner on his way to a world bronze medal in the decathlon.

4. Atmosphere

Another area Athletics Canada has tried to foster is creating a sense of team. This, MacDonald insists, cannot just be created in the two-week period of a major championship, but throughout the year. 

"Winning medals and making finals is not easy and the way we have approached this in the past was to focus the top-end people as much as we can,” he says. “I’m not saying it is wrong, but it creates a divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.

"We have tried to bring it together more by supporting the likes of Brianne and Damian, but also introducing some younger athletes to work together with them which can help them learn from the best.

"We also started to combine some Olympic development camps with high performance athletes. We teach [everyone attending]: they are all high performance athletes, it is just some people are at a different spot in their development than others."

5. Improved competition

Another big challenge facing Canadian athletes is to gain enough quality competition to aid development. In such a vast nation – in which not-inexpensive flights from one side to the other can take five or six hours – consistent competitive opportunities are a challenge.

To overcome the problem, Athletics Canada introduced a new six-strong domestic league, with events in Vancouver, Victoria and Edmonton in the west of the country and Toronto, Moncton and Halifax in the east. It has enjoyed unexpected success.

“To create national-class competition was the intent, but some events have grown really quickly, to the point where the Vancouver and Edmonton meets are now among the top 30 competitions in the world.

"What this series allows our athletes to do, is instead of heading straight off to Europe after national championships, they can get in a couple of domestic meets first.

"We’ve had some individuals really develop through the series. We’ve had some women’s 800m runners around the two minute mark and four Canadian women made the IAAF World Championships standard for the 1500m. We are really starting to see the depth build.”

6. A new mentality

Canadians haven’t always had the reputation for being the most ruthless of sporting competitors, yet that attitude is changing.

“Sometimes as Canadians we are a bit too apologetic about wanting to win,” he says. “The one place that isn’t the case is in the hockey rinks across the country. If we don’t win an Olympic gold medal in hockey then they have a summit to talk about what happened.

"I also feel the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics [where Canada topped the medal podium on the back of its ‘Own The Podium’ strategy] has changed that perspective.

"That is where we were unapologetic about wanting to be the best in the world of wanting to kick ass. I don’t think Canadian people are necessarily that type of people, but we are getting there."

Canada’s Moscow 2013 roll call

1. Brianne Theisen Eaton: heptathlon silver, PB
2. Dylan Armstrong: men’s shot put bronze
3. Derek Drouin: men’s high jump bronze, NR
4. Damian Warner: decathlon bronze, PB
5. Gavin Smellie, Aaron Brown, Dontae Richards-Kwok and Justyn Warner: men’s 4x100m relay bronze