Less than a year before the London Summer Olympics, Alex Baumann decided that family matters trump sport – and perhaps everything else.
The chief executive officer of the Own the Podium program, which directs and helps finance Olympic sport in Canada, announced Wednesday he will step down from his position on Oct. 1.
Factors in his decision included concerns for his family after suffering a second bout of cancer earlier this year, and a job offer that “came out of the blue” to do a similar job in New Zealand.
“In that eight months, it was far more difficult for my family than on me and we realized the importance of family,” Baumann said from Ottawa. His wife, Tracey, has family in Brisbane, Australia, and along that nation’s Gold Coast.
In the next few days, Own the Podium board members will meet to discuss his successor and how to build on Baumann’s work.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed,” said John Furlong, former president of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games organizing committee and now a member of the advisory board for Own the Podium. “But I think for Alex, it’s probably a good decision for him. He’s been through a lot.”
Baumann, a double Olympic gold medalist in swimming at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, was diagnosed with prostate cancer earlier this year. After having surgery to remove his prostate gland, Baumann says he currently enjoys a clean bill of health. He still swims several times a week.
He also had surgery for testicular cancer in 1999.
A Canadian sports icon with a Maple Leaf tattooed on his chest, Baumann moved to Australia, where he eventually became the executive director of the Queensland Academy of Sport in 2002. In January of 2007, he returned to Canada with his family to take the Own the Podium position.
But a trip to Australia last month convinced Baumann he had to return, for good. He has no family left in Canada. (His father died of complications from diabetes before the Los Angeles Games, and his mother died in 2006.)
His wife’s parents, who live in Brisbane, are octogenarians, he said.
“We needed to consider getting a lot closer to her family, not only for them to support us, but for us to support them,” Baumann said.
Also, his son, Ashton, had considered moving to Australia to find a coach after his Ottawa-based coach moved to Edmonton, Baumann said. Now, both of his children will swim in the New Zealand program but compete for Canada.
Six weeks ago, a recruitment agency called Baumann to ask if he was interested in a CEO position within high-performance sport in New Zealand. Baumann initially paid little attention to the offer, but later realized Auckland, New Zealand, is only a 2 ½-hour flight from the Gold Coast. It was an opportunity “that doesn’t come along every day.”
Baumann and his family are now going through the process of selling their house and cottage and will move to New Zealand in January.
“It’s a big loss for us,” Furlong said. “He’s a solid guy and he’s done great work and I very much enjoyed working with him.”
Own the Podium has made “a real shift” since Baumann took over, Furlong said, and the former swimmer has been undaunted by making touch decisions about who receives financing and who doesn’t.
Baumann has built a strong team and is leaving the program in good shape for the London Olympics, Furlong said.
“It’s a disappointment for the system,” he said. “In our country, it’s never nice when you lose your best people to another country, but it happens.
“We’ll miss him, but it’s a good choice for his family.”