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COC President Tricia Smith succeeds by playing by the rules

COC president Tricia Smith takes a hard line against doping. ‘I respect my competitors,’ she says. ‘That’s why I don’t dope. That’s why I don’t cheat. Maybe I’m simple. But sport is simple.’

DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

In the midst of her Olympic rowing career, Tricia Smith completed law school. She articled during her final year of competition.

By the sounds of it, she felt no particular calling to the bar. She's just the sort of person who needs to be doing at least two things at once.

So what was it about the legal profession that drew you?

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Smith thinks for a bit.

"I just like to know the rules," she says.

Smith, 60, now occupies the most important sporting post in the country: president of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Her tenure began in turmoil, cleaning up the mess left behind after her predecessor, Marcel Aubut, was ousted for sexual impropriety. She has since quietly overseen an overhaul at the COC, coinciding with a historic run of Olympic success. It's the CV of a visionary leader – and were she a louder person, we'd hear more about it.

But the best way to think of Smith is the way she thinks of herself – as someone who believes in rules. Even if you write the rules, you must follow them.

She was raised poor near the beach in Vancouver's Spanish Banks, one of five children. She lights up when telling those stories – about how no one in the Smith household made toast without asking around for other takers, so as not to use the toaster for just one piece of bread; or of how the family drove around mountains rather than over them in order to save gas. She still remembers exactly how much it cost for a family of seven to ski Silver Star resort at Christmas: $150. They had a motto in the Smith household: "You put your priorities where your priorities should be."

Every one of those seven was a sportsperson. Her mother, Patricia, played on the national basketball team. Her sister, Shannon, won a bronze in swimming at the Montreal Olympics. But that was not the point.

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"I never thought of myself as an athlete," says Smith, a silver medalist at the 1984 Games. "It was just something we did as a family."

Looking after all of Canada's elite athletes is an extension of those recollections – "part of this is wanting to share that."

Those memories have been crystallized by uncommon misfortune. Smith's mother died young after developing early-onset dementia. Her father lost the use of his legs after a failed back surgery.

Her eldest brother, Jeff, also a lawyer, was killed in a motorcycle accident in his early 30s. Seven years later, her other brother, Dean, died in an avalanche while skiing in Whistler.

Smith recounts all this like she's trying to get you through it – not herself. Even tragedy contained a lesson in the Smith family.

"Because of the way we were brought up, I have always felt fortunate for the family I had, for the time that I had them," she says. "Obviously, I miss them, but it was an amazing family to grow up in."

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After rowing, she joined a Vancouver-based risk management firm. She still works there – she has to: Her COC job is a volunteer position. She takes an unpaid leave to go to every Games.

She is also a new member of the IOC and a vice-president of FISA, the international rowing federation. That's four jobs. After taking the IOC position, she was pleasantly surprised to learn it pays a per diem. It's the first board she's been on that does that.

"My father said to me once: 'Tricia, why don't you get on a board that pays money,' And I said: 'There are boards that pay money?'"

Smith has always been the sort of person who does too much very well for little material benefit. Again, that was never the point.

She got back into sport as an administrator only a few years after leaving it as a competitor. She first ran for COC president in 2009 and lost to the better-connected and flashier Aubut.

When that ran spectacularly aground, Smith provided the steady hand that prevented the vessel from tipping over. She implemented a review she once likened to "truth and reconciliation." What she discovered sounds prescient, given the current moment.

"What we learned is that you can't just have a policy," she says. "You have to have a policy that's accessible, that people know about, and a policy that works when the president's at fault."

In discussing those bad days, she avoids saying Aubut's name. He is only "the president."

She promised a "culture change," and two years on says the organization is "on a good path" in that regard.

While managing the local fire, she turned herself to a broader Olympic conflagration: doping.

As another rule, Smith does not get exercised in conversation. She has two modes: lawyerly (clipped, careful, driven by talking points) and personal (warm, lyrical, speaking in italics). But on the subject of drugs, you can hear her frustration. Few amateur athletics officials of her rank and pedigree have been so consistently hardline in their outlook.

"I respect my competitors. That's why I don't dope. That's why I don't cheat," Smith says. "Maybe I'm simple. But sport is simple. What's the first thing you ask when you get out on the field to play something new? 'Okay, what are the rules?' That's the beauty of it – it's simple."

Given how the world works, she sounds a bit Pollyanna here, is well aware of it and repeatedly points it out to you – "Again, maybe I'm simple …" It's a rhetorical gambit that works remarkably well at deflecting cynicism.

"Sometimes, I get cynical too," she says. "It's hard because you see all these forces trying to take advantage of this beautiful, wonderful thing. When something is beautiful, it attracts all sorts. I see it now that I'm in [the IOC]. There are people who aren't doing it for the right reasons. It's about ego. It's about power. Those are the challenges."

She's talking about all of it – state-sponsored doping, backroom deals, blind eyes, the easy platitudes. How do you beat that?

"Follow the rules," Smith says. Then she laughs.

Did anyone ever offer you drugs when you were rowing?

"No. Neither in my sport career nor at any parties I went to," she says, delighted at her unworldliness as a kid. "You hear about it later – 'Did you see all the drugs at the party?' I never did. I thank my parents for that as well. They gave us the gift of expectations."

She lives in Vancouver in a house her family built – "it's the only way I could afford it" – with a niece, a nephew and a mutt named Tanu that someone adopted without telling her while she was away on a work trip. When she got back, she noticed that all the carpets were pulled up and asked, "Did we get a dog?"

Her home is a way station for young relatives, and that's the way she likes it – the more the merrier.

We're five weeks from the beginning of the Pyeongchang Olympics. When you start asking about expectations, number of medals and the security preparations, Smith slips into lawyer mode.

"We're contending for No. 1."

"We never like to talk about numbers."

"We're liaising with security officials and feel good, as we always do."

But there's room in the bunker for me, right?

"Yeah, yeah, you'll be in there," she deadpans, pivoting back to the personal.

Mostly, she just wants to be there, to feel it again. Many of her public utterances – and there aren't many away from a Games – wind back to the way it felt to walk into a stadium during the opening ceremony. She did that four times.

"I love being a part of a team," Smith says. It's a sentence that doesn't read like much on the page, but when she says it, you really feel it. You get why she does this. It's a balm for skepticism and, in some small way, for a youth you never had but she did.

In early November, Smith was in Prague for more Olympic meetings. One of her hosts invited her for an early morning row on the Vltava River.

Smith hadn't been on the water in a while. She assumed this would be pleasure paddling – "the leaves are turning, go under the Charles Bridge, it'll be fun."

When she got to the dock, she was the only woman on hand. Her rowing partners included two current world champions.

They pulled out in an eight-man boat, shot off at competition pace and did not stop. Smith knew she'd pay for it the next morning but didn't want to be the one who quit first.

The point of this story as Smith tells it is to poke fun at herself – at her age, her fitness, at how small she felt among these giants and aren't athletes just better these days?

But in the midst of the telling, she stops laughing for a second and goes serious.

"I'm in a boat with those guys. That's the beauty of inclusion," Smith says in a dreamy voice. "Just to be in a boat with those guys and remember what it was like."

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