Building a better Olympian mind – Part 4

His mother, Beam Bokrossy, and his younger brother, Luke–wearing the flag as a cape, with a maple leaf painted onto his partially shaved chest–stand nearby. Bokrossy, who says she takes more pride in what Adam has done with his celebrity, lending his profile and time to charities like Right to Play, thinks Canadians are sometimes unrealistic.

Alex Baumann

“Back home everyone was counting on it being a sure thing, counting on two golds,” she says. “But every race is a race. Sometimes it’s somebody else’s turn.” Her toenails are painted gold, and decorated with small, red maple leafs.

Alex Baumann sympathizes. A double gold medallist in Los Angeles, he says he struggled throughout his swimming career with the notion that the best he could ever personally do was to meet the high expectations of others. But as the executive director of Road to Excellence, the COC effort to improve Canada’s performance in the Summer Games, his job is to demand world, not just personal, bests. “I think that attitude adjustment and that cultural change is starting to happen, but we still have a long way to go,” he says. “In the end we have to make some hard decisions. We are focused on excellence. We are focused on getting on that podium.”

This fall, the sports federations will submit their budget plans for the next Olympic cycle and make their pitches for a share of the new funding–$24 million a year by 2010–earmarked to boost Canada’s medal haul at London 2012 and beyond.

The stakes are high. Canoe-Kayak Canada, for example, saw its annual budget double to $2 million after van Koeverden’s Athens success. Performances in Beijing do count, says Baumann, but not as much as potential. “If there is true medal potential going into 2012, we’ll take a look at funding those sports. We have to take a look at what athletes they have in the system, what coaches they have, and what’s the structure? Can they produce in a four-year time frame?”

It will be a tall order. Canada can’t match the type of investment Great Britain made to capture 19 golds and a total of 47 medals–a state lottery provided US $440 million in the run-up to Beijing, and will hand over $1.1 billion more before the London Games. Chinese Gold Medal

Nor are we interested in emulating a Chinese system that produced 51 golds and 100 medals. Cao Lei, who won one of those golds in 75-kg weightlifting, was only told of her mother’s June death shortly before the Games. Chen Ying didn’t learn her mother has breast cancer, until after she won 25-m pistol shooting gold. And Chen Roulin, the 15-year-old who beat Heymans, admits to feeling the pressure to maintain her svelte 30 kg (66 lb.) figure–she was ordered to skip dinner for a year–instead of growing like a normal diver. (Heymans is at least a foot taller and listed at 62 kg or 132 lb.)

But we will be ruthless in our own way. In the new reality of Canadian sports, a Ryan Cochrane, the 19-year-old winner of a Hail Mary bronze in men’s 1,500-m swimming, is worth more than a Carol Huynh, the engaging gold medal wrestler from Hazehon, B.C., who at 28, is unlikely to return to the mat four years from now.

Cochrane was so far off most people’s radar screen that the COC seems to be stretching it by now including his stirring 14-minute-and-42-second battle with the Australian great Grant Hackett, on their list of 2008 “conversions.”

But Randy Bennett, his coach, says he has known that the Victoria swimmer had that special something for years. When Ryan was just 13, Bennett lost patience with his antics one day in practice and ordered him to swim “80 one-hundreds at I minute 15.” It’s an even scarier phrase once decoded–it works out to eight kilometres in an hour and 45 minutes. Bennett admits it was a ridiculous punishment, especially for a boy. Although what sticks in his mind was Cochrane’s reaction. “He finished the set, he got out of the pool, and he flipped me the bird and walked out,” says Bennett. “And I knew he was stubborn, and that’s what makes him great.”

Four years from now, Canada is counting on that kind of warrior spirit. Whitfield already says he will be back. So will van Koeverden. It’s harder to say with the divers. And if the country is to meet Baumann’s ambitious goals, others will have to come forward in track, rowing and in the pool. Cochrane, however, is a sure thing, says his coach. “The greatest thing with Ryan is he’s the one that set the tone. He’s the guy that talks about being best in the world. He’s the one who ensures that we focus on that every day.”