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Winter’s wonder kids: 9 to watch in '09

Posted: Wednesday, December 31, 2008 | 11:47 AM

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It’s always a blast to forecast and prognosticate about the coming year in sport. Often our predictions reflect what we hope for in terms of a particular team’s finish, indeed the possibility of a championship that might finally be delivered.

But, in North America this need not be the private preserve of professional team sports. It should extend to what we can tell about the future of individual athletes too.

And so, as we look ahead to the pre-Olympic winter in Canada, let’s get out the crystal ball to gaze beyond the boards of our favourite hockey rink or football field. Let’s have a look at those who might render a little glory for the Maple Leaf in Vancouver/Whistler when the home Olympics roll around.

Here are the names of nine Canadian athletes to watch in the deepening winter of 2009. They are all under the age of 30 and you might reasonably expect that they have a chance to represent our country in 2010. As sure as you were born, they will become national heroes if and when they step on the podium in just over a year from now. It makes sense that we should get to know their names before they get to the winner’s circle, lest we look a little bit like bandwagon jumpers.

In no particular order they are …

1) Patrick Chan - figure skating

This 18-year-old phenomenon from Toronto is approaching his prime and when he’s on his game there is nobody better in the men’s figure skating world. He’s bright and articulate and skates with a maturity and grace rarely seen. The winner of two Grand Prix titles this season, Chan stumbled slightly at the final in Korea, but it was surely a blip. He has stated that everything leading to the world championships in Los Angeles is to be used as a tool to get better. I wouldn’t want to bet against him.

2) Robbie Dixon - alpine skiing

At 23, Dixon is the youngest member of the cadre of Canadian Cowboys who are challenging for the podium every time they enter a speed race on the World Cup circuit. He hasn’t been there yet, but he’s getting close. Last year he was fifth at Kitzbuhel, Austria, and fourth in Norway, both in super-G races. This season Dixon has been consistently in the top 20 in three disciplines. It’s just a matter of time for the kid who grew up on the Olympic course at Whistler. Besides, he’s built like a brick outhouse and is physically reminiscent of great speed racers like Didier Cuche of Switzerland and the legendary Austrian Hermann Maier.

3) Brad Gushue - curling

The Olympic champion from the 2006 Torino Games is only 28. And he’s retooled his rink to make up for losing Russ Howard, the voice of experience who played second in Italy. After a less than stellar campaign last year, Gushue made peace with lead Jamie Korab and brought in Ryan Fry, a good shot maker from Manitoba, who had played for Jeff Stoughton. Along with Mark Nichols who throws big takeout weight, they are young and motivated. Gushue has been in contention at both Grand Slam events this season and his young team grew up knowing that the Olympic gold medal is now the greatest prize in curling.

4) Helen Upperton - bobsleigh

Upperton is the oldest of the group and at 29 and will be 30 by the time the Olympics come to Canada. But she’s become experienced and competitive since finishing fourth in Torino. Steady hands as the pilot of Canada 1, she’s backed up by two great brakewomen who alternate, Heather Moyse of Summerside, P.E.I. and Edmonton’s Jenny Ciochetti. Upperton has won five World Cup titles including two in the current season, the latest being in Igles, Austria.

5) Joannie Rochette - figure skating

Hard to believe that Joannie Rochette is only 22-years-old and has already been the Canadian champion four times. Watching her this year, one gets the feeling she’s ready to breakthrough. She has the look and a new found confidence that took her to Grand Prix titles in Canada and France. At the final in Seoul, she blew the short program but came back with vigour to be third in the free skate. “I can’t wait to the Olympics at home and what will be the best moment of my skating journey,” she told me. There’s just something about Joannie Rochette that makes you believe she can do it.

6) Christine Nesbitt - speed skating

Here’s a 23-year-old speed skater who was born in Melbourne, Australia, but who sharpened her blades on the rinks of London, Ont. A silver medallist in the team event in Torino, Nesbitt has since developed into the dominant figure at 1,000 metres. To date in the current World Cup season, she’s won three gold medals at that distance as well as the Canadian title at the new Olympic Oval in Richmond, B.C. Nesbitt excels at her specialty and will be at her prime at the Games in just over a year from now.

7) Devon Kershaw - cross-country skiing

Here is an athlete who is still maturing in a sport where you have to go the distance to be successful. Cross-country skiing is about endurance and experience. Kershaw recently was on the podium in a classical race at a World Cup event Germany. He can also sprint. The native of Sudbury, Ont., had Canada in first place after the first leg of the men’s relay at the last Olympics and was full value for his effort. Kershaw has a chance to become the first Canadian male to win an Olympic medal in his sport.

8) Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir - figure skating

Here are young skaters who are enormous talents. Virtue and Moir are 19 and 21, respectively, and last season were the silver medallists in the ice dance at the world championships. The 2006 world junior victors have yet to skate competitively this season because Virtue is getting over an injury from overexertion. But as rival and training partner Charlie White of the U.S. says, “…they’ll have no problem at all at the worlds.” Virtue and Moir have been together for nearly a dozen years. They know each other and they know how to make the most of their abilities.

9) Emily Brydon - alpine skiing

This one is a hunch. Emily Brydon is 28-years-old and has been to two Olympics already. But with the passing years she has grown in stature. Seven times she’s been on the World Cup podium and last season she broke through with a super-G victory in St. Mortiz. This season she has come back to consistently be the top Canadian woman in speed events week in week out. And here’s the thing about Emily Brydon, she may be the nicest person in the world. An advocate of the international humanitarian organization, Right to Play, and the prime mover of her own foundation which helps kids in need, Brydon is an exemplary Canadian. She deserves every bit of our respect and our support.

These are all young athletes and this list is not meant to be exclusive. The group is however full of potential. They are the children of harsh Canadian winters and hail from all over the frozen land. It’s best to know them now because when it comes to the Olympics they’ll be the people we point to as examples of the vast capabilities of our youth.

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