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Canadian swimmer Ryan Cochrane practices at the aquatic centre before the start of the 2012 Olympics Games at Olympic Park in London, England. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Canadian swimmer Ryan Cochrane practices at the aquatic centre before the start of the 2012 Olympics Games at Olympic Park in London, England. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

London 2012

How Own the Podium changed everything for Canada's Olympic athletes Add to ...

If you listen closely here in London, you can hear it, and for the first time, it’s coming from the top Canadian athletes.

“Finally.”

Finally, they’re saying, we’re on par with the best of the best, we have enough funding and we are confident we can win at the Olympics.

Many will also tell you Own The Podium deserves much of the credit.

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Created in 2004 as part of the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, OTP was originally intended to boost Canada’s fortunes at those Games.

Success in Vancouver (a record 14 gold medals) helped push for the continuation of the program, which has directed $36-million a year in federal funding – up from $12-million a year leading into Beijing – to summer athletes over the past four years.

That money is targeted at specific sports and high-performance athletes with the goal of winning medals, which in turn has led to the Canadian Olympic Committee setting a lofty target of finishing among the top 12 countries in total medals at the London Games.

According to OTP head Anne Merklinger, every athlete or team that has won a medal so far in London received funding through the program.

“We’ve seen [the payoff] already with two medals in diving and … in rowing, our category 1 sports,” Merklinger said, referring to sports that receive the most funding. “That speaks directly to what Own The Podium is trying to do.”

Here is a closer look at how OTP has used this new funding to help five of Canada’s Olympians prepare for the Summer Games:

David Calder, rowing

No summer sport has had as much funding as rowing the past four years. Hoping its crews can win as many as four or five medals, OTP has dedicated roughly 15 per cent of its sport-specific funding ($16-million) to its high-performance rowers, which is $5-million more than any other summer sport.

According to Calder, who won silver in the coxless pair in Beijing and is competing in his fourth Games in London, the level of support the teams are receiving is unprecedented.

“Own The Podium has been unbelievable for us,” Calder said. “It makes sure we have the cutting-edge science and the access to top sports physiologists across the country. …

“This sort of regimented, studied structure [of how to prepare and recover] didn’t exist four years ago. So can you imagine what happened 12 years ago? We were on our own to figure out how to prepare. Now we just know.”

Calder said this in-depth analysis of the rowing teams in the years before the Games was the main area of considerable change, but the athletes have also been helped by the addition of equipment they use immediately after races such as ice tubs, lactic-acid tests and cool-down machines.

“This brings us level with what the other major countries have had for the last two to four Olympics,” he said.

Dylan Armstrong, shot put

Putting a shot in the snow isn’t an ideal way to perfect the art. But prior to receiving OTP funding, Armstrong had to shovel off snow and deice his throwing circle as he trained in his sometimes frigid hometown of Kamloops.

In the lead-up to London, however, he and coach Anatoly Bondarchuk spent time in the winter throwing in Arizona, where a community college has given him space.

That change has been a significant part of what has allowed Armstrong to join the world’s elite. Over the past four years, he has gone from throwing a personal best (and national record) 21.04 metres in Beijing to routinely surpassing the throw of 21.51 metres that won gold in 2008.

Last year alone, he had the world’s longest throw (22.21), won silver in the world championships, and took the overall Diamond League title.

In addition to the ability to train year-round, Armstrong has used OTP to gain access to medical services and massage therapy to prevent and treat injuries, including an elbow issue he had a few months before the Games.

“Everything’s changed now with Own The Podium,” Armstrong’s mother, Judy, said. “I mean, it’s wonderful. Dylan’s been able to do what he needed to do to compete as a world-class athlete.

“Without it he just wouldn’t be able to do this. I’m so grateful that he’s had the opportunity to be helped out by Own The Podium. They’ve certainly done the right thing in my eyes by having that program.”

Alexandre Despatie, diving

In preparing for his fourth Olympics, Despatie has benefited from assistance from both the sports charity B2Ten and Own the Podium, with a few side benefits for his teammates.

Mitch Geller, technical director for Diving Canada, said OTP’s approach is particularly valuable because “it’s not a cookie-cutter approach.”

So if Despatie needs funding for a training camp abroad, it’s no problem. For divers who don’t live near Montreal’s national training centre, there are funds for coaches to go to them.

But more than anything, Geller said, OTP has helped his organization keep up in the technological arms race, including paying for a sophisticated high-speed digital camera system that allows coaches to analyze a dive from board to entry on a deck-side high-definition screen.

It has also allowed Diving Canada to acquire data-management software so the biomechanical data from practice and competition dives can be matched with performance.

“It’s a bit like diving Moneyball,” Geller said. “I think we can say we’re out ahead of other countries with this stuff.”

Ryan Cochrane, swimming

Much like Canada’s rowers, Cochrane’s Olympic preparation involved a team of biomechanists, physiologists, sports trainers and psychologists.

The lanky long-distance swimmer from Victoria was pinched, prodded and poked every day through every training session. Skin-fold measurements were taken, blood levels recorded. Nothing was left to chance.

Allan Wrigley, the biomechanist at Victoria’s Canadian Sport Centre Pacific, spent months breaking down Cochrane’s races, comparing them with world record holder Sun Yang of China, then determining precisely how many strokes Cochrane needed to beat his rival in the 1,500-metre freestyle.

“Consistently, when Ryan is going 1.71 metres per second, he’s usually holding around a 40-stroke cycle per minute,” Wrigley said. “He’s usually holding 2.5 metres per stroke. If you do the math on that, that equals 1.71 metres per second. That works out to be no more than 35 strokes per lap. For Ryan, his size and the way he swims, we know he needs to hold down 35 or under to have a nice, strong and efficient stroke to hold enough water.”

In addition to enhancing the amount of technical support Cochrane received, OTP funding also included the gold medal meal program, which ensures athletes not only eat the right food but at the right times to optimize performance.

Cochrane said he liked knowing everything was being done to help him win a medal.

Karen Cockburn, trampoline

The lion’s share of OTP funding for Canada’s gymnasts goes to three trampolinists: Karen Cockburn, Jason Burnett and Rosie MacLennan, all contenders for the podium in London. They spend about a quarter of it on sports science and sports medicine.

The trio uses specialists in areas such as Pilates, ballet, performance psychology, and strength and conditioning to train for an explosive 20-second event in which every degree of movement is vital to scoring.

They also consult a sport biomechanist who films their routines with high-speed cameras so they can fine-tune details. The biomechanist also uses Dartfish video software to overlay a performance of a Canadian athlete with one of a competing trampolinist on the same screen, to compare frame by frame.

“The difference between then and now is actually hilarious,” Cockburn said of how their funding has changed. “Back before Sydney [in 2000], we had no massage specialists. The athletes just massaged each other. We had no medical staff. We paid for everything ourselves.

“My husband and I drew up our own weight program and said, ‘I think this would work.’ It was just us and our coach … but now we have all this extra stuff. Total 180. I’m a little spoiled now.”

With reports from Allan Maki, Rachel Brady and Sean Gordon

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