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Swim like Phelps, paddle like van Koeverden Add to ...

Five mornings a week, for as long as he can recall, Jim Lyttle has rowed with a half-dozen cronies, mostly for exercise, camaraderie and an excuse to get out of bed.

Sometimes the rhythmic exercise lulls the 78-year-old into a daydream and he has to catch himself before crashing into Toronto's rocky lakeshore.

But earlier this week on Lake Ontario, Mr. Lyttle sat up straighter and thrust his legs harder than usual - mimicking Canadian rowers he had seen battling in Beijing.

For average joes in gyms, pools and parks, the Olympics are adding an extra spring to their step, zip to their swim stroke, and pull to their paddle.

Sure, they don't train every day, or have rock hard abs, or train in pools without a kiddie zone. Some compete like Mr. Lyttle, who rows against men in his age class (75 to 80), hoping to "not come last."

But during the Olympics, even the slouchiest weekend warriors say they're inspired to work harder and improve their technique - or at least get out of bed.

While Mr. Lyttle rowed, 38-year-old Tony Pascetta was attempting his fiercest front crawl in a nearby public pool.

"As a swimmer you try to copy them," says Mr. Pascetta, a massage therapist, adding it is "not a coincidence" he made it into the pool this week after watching American phenom Michael Phelps rack up another gold medal in Beijing's Water Cube.

Buzz from the Games is also creating a boom at athletic clubs across the country. Coaches and club managers say they see spikes in registration during Olympic years as people see new sports on television and decide, "Hey, I want to try that."

On Monday, the day after the women's team gymnastics kicked off in Beijing, the phone rang off the hook at the East York Gymnastics Club - about 60 calls before noon, according to frazzled administrator Carol Kerry.

The Toronto club, which has more than 3,000 gymnasts from beginner to elite, sees a 20 per cent increase in registration in years when the summer Olympics are on, says manager Verna Robertson.

Jim Lambie, head coach at the Pan Am Diving Club in Winnipeg, says he expects his learn-to-dive program to swell in the fall. "The year before the Olympics is usually our dismal year. And then, bang - it goes up again," he said.

The trend holds true for more obscure sports such as judo and fencing. The best free advertising of all? When a Canadian steps onto the podium.

After Canadian trampolinists won two bronzes in Sydney and a silver in Athens, Lindsay Kerrigan, head coach at Airborne Trampoline in Mississauga, Ont., was excited for her sport - and also relieved. Finally, she didn't have to explain to outsiders that, yes, trampoline was a sport and not a "bouncy plaything."

Canadian Fencing Academy director Kyle Foster says sword-fighting gets better promotion from films like Pirates of the Caribbean than from coverage of competitions.

But the sport has had a welcome profile boost this year, he said, since one of the feel-good stories of the Games is the return of Jujie Luan of Edmonton, who became a hero in China after winning that country's only fencing gold in 1984, and represented Canada in Beijing at age 50.

On the other hand, some sports are so offbeat that even Olympic coverage won't help.

Doug Bailey, spokesman for the Barrie Gun Club, says if he wants to watch a few minutes of air pistol on CBC, he'll have to stay up until 2 a.m.

"Shooting sports is like tiddlywinks," he sighs. "Those who are in it are really in it. And those who aren't don't know anything about it."

Of course, with all this increased athletic zeal there's another place that's more crowded come an Olympic summer.

"We do tend to see an increase in the number of [patients]... after something like the Olympics," says Darren Booth, a physiotherapist at the Acadia Sports Therapy Clinic in Wolfville, N.S.

The sudden increase in athleticism can translate into sprains and strains, he says.

Mr. Booth can relate. Inspired as a teenager by the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Mr. Booth took up running with a vengeance - and ended up with shin splints.

Meantime, people like Mr. Lyttle will continue their routines. Five days a week, he and his friends, aged 70 to 87, row in single sculls for about an hour. For another half hour they chat on the dock of the Argonauts Rowing Club.

They'll be watching this weekend when Canadian rowers vie for medals, he says.

And perhaps Monday's banter will centre on how to dip their oars more precisely.

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