Here's the thing about sport. It's all about playing a kid's game.
For some, that reality evolves into something different over time, whether it's the chance to play professional hockey or box at the Olympics.
Still, the essence of sport is learning to compete. It's about playing a game, engaging in an art form passed down from generation to generation. It's about big kids teaching little kids the ropes, attending class and graduating from the school of hard knocks.
"Who better than those who have been in sport their entire lives to help share that knowledge with the next generation of high-performance athletes?" asked Jasmine Northcott, the executive director of AthletesCAN, an advocacy group for Canada's aspiring sports men and women.
Along with CIBC, the corporate sponsor that's kicking in $2 million, AthletesCAN is forming Team Next, which will see 67 young athletes hopeful of representing Canada on the world stage receive not only financial assistance, but also formal mentoring from six accomplished stars.
For each young athlete, it amounts to a $5,000 grant for each of the next three years, plus the chance to connect with Olympic triathlon champion Simon Whitfield, soccer star Kara Lang, world champion boxer Mary Spencer, wheelchair phenom Josh Cassidy, Olympic champion sprinter Bruny Surin or kayaker Mark de Jonge, who won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Games.
"We're building leaders," Northcott noted as she looked out on the pitch to see Lang hoofing soccer balls with a bunch of youngsters.
"You need to build the whole individual so they can succeed on and off the field of play. Then when they're done competing, we want them to stay in sport and become coaches, officials, administrators and leaders."
"It's always been a part of the process, but it needed formalizing," offered Whitfield as he helped a youngster onto a bike in a makeshift transition zone.
"The Olympics is everything for many aspiring athletes and this is about learning to deal with that reality and put it into context. This is about how to understand what an incredible opportunity it is to represent your country and do what you love to do, but [how] you also have to come to grips with all the pressures and expectations there will be."
To that end, the Team Next mentors will engage the developing athletes and discuss things like balancing education and training, personal finances, planning for a life after sport as well as dealing with becoming a public personality and the increasing demands of the media, both conventional and social.
"As a 15-year-old, I had 18 to 20 positive role models and mentors -- they were my teammates on the national squad," said Lang, herself attempting a comeback with a view to being ready for the FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada in 2015.
Lang retired at the age of 24 because of a series of knee injuries. And although she's had plenty of success as a broadcaster, she felt she still had something to contribute on the soccer pitch. To that end, she answered the call of national coach John Herdman and has been painstakingly working with the staff of B2TEN in Montreal in order to return to form.
The hope is that she can come close to the kind of play which made her a teenaged standout at the FIFA U-19 women's worlds in Edmonton in 2002 and the subsequent women's World Cup in the United States.
"I've had to learn patience and try not to rush back to play before I'm ready," Lang said. "It's a skill I'll keep with me when I make my second retirement from sport.
"This is about more than handing a cheque to kids," she figured. "It's about more than financing.
"It's about acquiring the skills you need to live this kind of life."
"It's about being prepared for anything," Spencer said as she shadowboxed and sparred with a couple of smaller pugilists.
Spencer was a highly touted, gold-medal hope last summer in London, but she lost her first bout and has had to recover not only her winning form, but also her pride.
"I didn't realize how fortunate I was," she said. "Having life-skill conversations with mentors helps you with anything that sport can throw at you and sometimes even to make the best of disappointments that you inevitably encounter along the way."
Watching this all unfold in a grassy park in the middle of downtown Toronto, it's easy to get the picture.
It's not a complicated formula for success: a girl in an Ontario softball cap and another wearing a volleyball uniform gawk at Lang as they lazily chat about sport; a little boy cheers with Whitfield after a perfect penalty kick; Spencer expertly laces up a smaller child's boxing gloves just so.
This is timeless. This is about having someone to look up to on the field of play.
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