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Canadian Gladiators in Rome

Posted: Tuesday, July 21, 2009 | 10:35 AM

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The Roman summer is searing hot.

The Colosseum, which was opened in the year 80 AD, stands against the azure blue sky as a testament to the ancient rite of human competition.

Not far down the road, modern gladiators of the water are continuing a tradition in the "Eternal City."

Following the opening of the Colosseum there commenced 100 consecutive days of games and struggle. While the 13th FINA world aquatics championships are a mere 15 days in duration, you can still revel in the spirit of the athletic pursuit.

With every piercing dive into the deep, shimmering waters of Stadio del Nuoto there arises a roar from the appreciative crowd. The synchronized swimming women are adorned in costumes which speak of a more lavish time. Their watery dances to a fanfare of music seem fitting for the exotic Italian setting.

Meantime at the water polo tournament the bathing caps of the players resemble helmets and the grappling, which goes on underneath the surface of the field of play, is desperate. It's like a life and death struggle with every possession of the ball and an observer fears that each attacker will be drowned if he or she is not vigilant or fails to pass off at just the right moment.

It is exhilarating to be in the home of the gladiators and in the magnificent Olympic city of 1960.

And Canada is making headway.

Already there have been medals in diving and synchronized swimming and the promise of more to come as the championships progress. The Canadians have not failed to make a final to date and across the board the young men and women who sport the Maple Leaf are exceedingly competitive.

And these modern aquatic gladiators for Canada are merely water babies with lots of room to grow as the 2012 Olympics in London are still a full three years away.

Here's an example. At 24 years of age Alex Despatie is the senior Canadian male diver and with two Olympic and seven World championship medals on his resume he may be just approaching his prime.

Jennifer Abel on the three-metre springboard is only 17, as is 10-metre contender Riley McCormick - they are making an impact right alongside the impressive Chinese.

"Anytime you play even with the Olympic bronze medallists it's a good sign," said Patrick Oaten the coach of the women's water polo team that tied Australia 6-6 in its opening match. "This is a good team and it's getting better. Australia had a player with 200 international matches on side. Our most experienced player has only 34."

Indeed, the youth is ubiquitous for Canada and it will again be on display when the swimmers dive into the water. Ryan Cochrane, the Olympic medallist is only just 20 while 15-year-old Amanda Reason comes to Rome having broken a World record at the trials in Montreal.

All of these youthful combatants have given Debbie Muir of the Canadian Olympic Committee and the "Own the Podium" program, cause for hope.

"We are so on track for London 2012," Muir gushed after Riley McCormick had convincingly secured a place in the 10-metre platform final. "In aquatics we're getting back to where we were in the late 1980's and early 90's – capable of delivering a bunch of medals at the World Championships and the Olympics.

Good news.

But it's more than just production that seems to be returning to the Canadian camp. The developing gladiators have recaptured a certain swagger in the process.

"It used to be that we didn't expect too much. We hoped but we didn't expect," Muir reckoned. "Now the expectations are very high and they should be."

That speaks to the spirit of ancient Rome.

There's a saying that pervades this sublime city: "La dolce vita." It means - the sweet life. So far the young Canadian gladiators are soaking it up under the sizzling Roman sun in the shadow of the glorious Colosseum.

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