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The podium and "The Pod": A summer to simmer for Canada's 2010 hopefuls

Posted: Tuesday, May 5, 2009 | 01:59 PM

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Steve Podborski has seen it all.

As a downhill demon he’s been in the jaws of the dragon at Kitzbuhel and twice escaped to win. He’s been Ken Read’s understudy at the Olympics and captured the prize - a bronze medal - that the other, perhaps more famous “Crazy Canuck,” couldn’t.

Podborski is now one of the leaders of a team that is expected to deliver a landmark performance at home in 2010. A lot has changed and so has he. Still, Steve Podborski relishes his role as the assistant chef de mission for Canada at the upcoming Olympic festival. Maybe it’s because he knows what it’s like to be in their shoes.

“I was one of them once,” Podborski said from Vancouver on the occasion of the Olympic Excellence Series, which brought together 95 medal hopefuls for the 2010 Games.

“I was a world class complainer and now I’m back in the fold because I want to be part of the solution and to make it so that the current athletes have a whole lot less to complain about than I did.”

Drawing inspiration

So it is that Podborski and others spoke to the cream of the crop, the athletes who count themselves in the top five of all of the winter sports, about the triumph and the tragedy and everything that can happen when things get cooking in the Olympic crucible.

“You don’t need it, but you should have it if you want to win,” Podborski reckoned. “They are, after all, people. And there is a huge range of what they need to be successful.”

Part of what the modern generation of Canadian athletes need is a set of definitive role models to fashion themselves after.

And so in Vancouver, the Olympic city of their dreams, they heard from Ray Zahab an ultra-marathon runner who has trekked across the Sahara and also from Hercules Inlet all the way to the South Pole. They listened to the story of Sylvie Frechette, who survived the suicide of her fiancé four days before the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and went on to capture a belated synchronized swimming gold medal. And they were exposed to the personal odyssey of Norwegian speed skating legend Johann Olav Koss whose greatest achievement goes well beyond the four gold medals he won, all the way to the humanitarian organization he founded called Right to Play, which delivers the power of sport to the children of AIDS-ravaged Africa.

“I myself am riveted by this stuff,” Podbroski said. “But some of the athletes have been around awhile and have heard it all before. Still, if it’s one story of hope that reaches them – then we’ve done our job.”

Indeed there is a massive job to be done.

When Steve Podborski competed at the Olympic Games in 1980 at Lake Placid, New York, the entire Canadian team consisted of 59 athletes and the sum total of their winnings was two medals - his bronze in the downhill and the silver by speed skater Gaetan Boucher.

“If you want to have the audacious goal that we have, which is to be number one at home then you need to have all the support in the world,” Podborski said. “You have to take care of all the details so that you can own the situation when you get there.”

Supporting expectations

The goal for the more than 200 athletes this time around is, simply put, to win 30 medals in Vancouver/Whistler in 2010. The fickle Canadian public will judge the entire Olympic experience on whether or not they deliver on the promise. These are great expectations. There is little room for error and time is running out.

It’s good to know that a winner like Steve Podborski is on side.

“I am delighted to be here,” he said in signing off. “There is a huge range of need. To be the best in the world is a lot to ask.”

It is a lot to ask and there is a summer for the winter warriors to simmer before they come to the boil at the home Olympics. The good news is, “Pod” is one guy who knows his way to the podium.

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