Field of Play: Canada Games & great expectations | Sports | CBC Sports CBC Sports - Sochi 2014

OlympicsField of Play: Canada Games & great expectations

Posted: Wednesday, July 31, 2013 | 05:35 PM

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Canada's Ryan Cochrane prepares to compete in the final of the men's 400-metre freestyle event at the FINA World Championships in Barcelona on July 28, 2013. (Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images) Canada's Ryan Cochrane prepares to compete in the final of the men's 400-metre freestyle event at the FINA World Championships in Barcelona on July 28, 2013. (Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images)

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Two-time Olympic medallist Ryan Cochrane, like so many other great Canadian athletes, learned to live up to the great expectations at the Canada Games, writes Scott Russell.   

Canada's big fish was just out of the pool in Spain having handily qualified for the 800-metre freestyle final at the 2013 world aquatics championships in Barcelona.

But two-time Olympic medallist Ryan Cochrane was more than willing to talk about testing the waters at the Canada Games in Regina a full eight years ago.

"I have only good memories," he said. "All the best athletes in the country in your age group are in one place at one time and that doesn't happen very often. They are something that, as a young athlete, you look forward to for a very long time and expectations are very high."

The Victoria native has evolved into Canada's best swimmer, maybe he'll become the country's most accomplished aquatic athlete of all time.

As a 16-year-old competing for Team B.C. at the 2005 Canada Games in Saskatchewan's capital, he won five medals including gold in both the 800 and 1,500 freestyle races, which have turned out to be his specialties at the international level.

"Expectations were very high for me in 2005 and I had some good performances but didn't achieve all of my goals," he said. "That's where I learned that expectation is something you have to deal with."

For the most part Cochrane has delivered.

He's won two Olympic medals in the 1,500 freestyle, bronze in Beijing in 2008 and four years later silver in London.  He took two Commonwealth championships from New Delhi in 2010 and now has five world championship medals to his credit after claiming bronze in the 800 freestyle at this year's FINA summit in Spain. At time of writing Cochrane was in position to make it an even half dozen world championship medals. He'll swim as one of the favourites in the 1,500 as the event comes to a close.

The point is this. Cochrane, like so many other great Canadian athletes, learned to live up to those great expectations at the Canada Games.  

This year's edition is in Sherbrooke, Que., from Aug. 2-17 and more than 4,200 up-and-comers in 20 sports will compete for their provinces and territories, getting their first taste of what it's like to perform on a big stage.

"There is a place for the Canada Games to help us further become the sporting nation we want to be," said Sue Hylland, president and CEO of the Canada Games Council. "They become a defining moment in an athlete's development pathway when they realize the effort, training and commitment required to succeed and be the best in Canada."

Hylland herself was part of Quebec's basketball team that won gold at the 1979 Games in Brandon, Man.  Since the first Canada Games in Quebec City in 1967, more than 100,000 aspiring athletes have starred at winter and summer editions alternating every two years.

sp-300-steve-nash.jpgBasketball great Steve Nash won bronze for B.C. in Kamloops in 1993, diving's Alexandre Despatie was 12 when he served notice he'd be a force on the high tower at the 1997 Brandon Summer Games; Jenn Heil won freestyle moguls gold for her native Alberta in Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador in 1999; and Sidney Crosby was a hockey star for Nova Scotia at the 2003 Canada Games in Bathurst, N.B.

"Sport is unifying and the Canada Games are a unifying event," Hylland stressed on the eve of the opening ceremony in Sherbrooke. "The more Canadians can see, read or hear about the Canada Games the more they'll be inspired to get engaged in sport."

Over the years, the Canada Games have helped to build sports infrastructure in small and medium-sized centres around the country. From Cape Breton, N.S. and London, Ont., to Whitehorse, Yukon and everywhere in between. Communities continue to benefit from better access to recreational and fitness facilities left behind by the Games.

From a high performance perspective, the legacy of the Canada Games is less tangible but perhaps more telling. It's at this unique, multi-sport gathering that the stars of the future first test their mettle.

"We try to create an environment in a multi-sport setting just like at the Olympics whereby the standards and services delivered to the athletes gives them the opportunity to achieve their best," reckoned Hylland.

Cochrane is proof positive the Canada Games concept works.

"Even though swimming is, for the most part, an individual sport you are doing it for something bigger than yourself," he said. "Americans do this really well and they learn it at the collegiate level then translate it in Olympic competition. The Canada Games help Canadian athletes get that meaning. To know that you swim alone but have your entire provincial team counting on your performance is very valuable." 

And what of the pressure to repeat his world championship medal performance in the 1500 final which is yet to come?

"Expectations are driving me every day," he said.

"The Canada Games were my first taste of having real goals and facing the weight of those expectations."

In other words Cochrane, one of international swimming's brightest lights, first learned to navigate the waters of the big pond at the Canada Games.

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