Anne Merklinger has worn a multitude of hats. Thursday, she wore a crown.
The 53-year-old Ottawa sports leader was named chief executive officer of Own the Podium, one of the most powerful positions in sport in the country.
She came to the job as a former national team swimmer, a two-time Ontario curling finalist as a skip, a canoe-kayak executive who sent 11 boats to Olympic finals at Athens in 2004 and a three-year summer sport director at OTP.
As an athlete and executive, she holds the hammer on what it takes to win, says John Furlong, chairman of the OTP board of directors. OTP is the federally funded body that has a mandate to turn World Cup and world championship medals into Olympic medals. The elite sports finishing project selectively doles out about $70-million a year to summer and winter Olympic athletes on the verge of becoming medalists.
Furlong said Merklinger has the savvy to direct Canada to at least a 12th-place finish in total medals at the Olympics this summer in London. As a former athlete, Merklinger is "tough … particularly tough on herself. She holds herself accountable for all the decisions being made," he said as he introduced Merklinger as the replacement for Alex Baumann, the swim icon who will take a similar administrative position in New Zealand.
Merklinger knows the hard-headedness it takes to be a Canadian amateur athlete, the financial struggles most endure and the politics it takes to get money to them, he said.
"I promise. I will not let you down," she said.
Merklinger wasted no time on niceties Thursday, going straight for the numbers. If Canada expects to be 12th in London – a position taken by Canadian Olympic officials, Own the Podium, the federal government and other sport partners – it can be. "They're aspirational goals," she said. "We were 14th in Beijing with 18 medals. We're within reach. We got 19 medals in World Cups and world championships in 2011 and it will take between 22 and 24 medals to be 12th, or thereabouts," she said.
Merklinger looked further. Canada was second in the world at fourth- and fifth-place finishes in 2011. OTP looks carefully at them. "It's within reach," she said.
She added top athletes need world class coaches, technical leaders, training and competition sites and world-class sport services.
"We don't have to look further that February and March of 2010 to see the impact [winning makes]to this country," she said, referring to the Winter Olympics on home soil in Vancouver.
In addition to her work with Own the Podium, Merklinger brings 20 years of executive management experience with national sport organizations, including CanoeKayak Canada, the Commission for Inclusion of Athletes with a Disability and the Canadian Federation of Sport Organizations for the Disabled. Merklinger is also on the board of directors of Special Olympics Canada.
Merklinger was a member of Canada's national swim team from 1977 through 81.
Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut called Merklinger "a true leader and utmost expert of Canadian sport." Henry Storgaard, CEO of the Canadian Paralympic Committee, said Merklinger's expertise would help Canada toward its "goal of becoming the world's leading Paralympic nation."
J.D. Miller, chief strategist of the privately-funded B2ten Group, which is another form of Olympic finishing school, said "Anne has doggedly pursued the participation of the private sector as another leg on which to build Canadian sport excellence. … In these times of economic uncertainty, Anne's purposeful approach to high performance is well suited to underpin success."
When Baumann resigned, executive search company Odgers Berndtson went looking for suitable replacements. Merklinger, winter sport director Ken Read and operations director Joanne Mortimore jointly ran OTP after Baumann's departure. Read, a former national team skier, said he was not a candidate for the job of CEO.
Merklinger is the third person named to the job after Baumann and gold medal rower Roger Jackson.
Guay returns to scene of world championship
Erik Guay of Mont-Tremblant, Que., placed seventh in World Cup downhill training Thursday as he returned to the Kandahar course at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, where he won a world championship last year.
The 30-year-old said he came into the season, which does not feature a world championship or Olympics, ready to take on ice-hard slopes, but has found them soft. This comes in a season in which he's been working on his back health. Back injuries and twinges have hampered him in recent years.
"But I was fourth in Bormio and eighth at Wengen, which is the best I've ever done," he said, referring to World Cup events this season in Italy and Switzerland. "Now I'm looking for the extra gear."
He said training has been consistent with race days and that he's looking for podium finishes in the rest of the season.
He has taken four of his 15 career World Cup podiums in Garmisch, including two victories. It's also the place where he secured the Crystal Globe in super giant slalom in 2010.
Guay finished the bumpy, snow-softened course in 1 minute 58.72 seconds. Hannes Reichelt of Austria was fastest at 1:57.62. The downhill race is Saturday, followed by a super G Sunday.