After a worldwide search lasting five months, Canada’s Own the Podium program found its new chief executive officer in its own backyard.
Anne Merklinger, the organization’s director of summer sport since August 2009, was promoted from within Thursday, making her the organization’s third CEO in its seven-year history.
"Anne’s planning and the work that she laid out for the committee was, frankly, impeccable," said OTP chairman John Furlong.
The 53-year-old Ottawa native will now be charged with spearheading Canada’s effort to finish in the top 12 of the medal standings in London after a 14th place finish with 18 medals in Beijing in 2008.
Merklinger said she expects 22-25 medals will be needed this year to meet that goal.
"They’re certainly aspirational goals," she said, noting that Canadian athletes won 19 medals at world championships in 2011.
"Certainly there’s a ways to go as we continue to strive for a top-12 position," she added. "[But] it’s still within reach."
Merklinger replaces Alex Baumann, the two-time Olympic gold medallist who resigned in September 2011 and moved to New Zealand to be closer to extended family after dealing with cancer.
A two-sport star, Merklinger began her career as a swimmer on the Canadian national team, winning a silver medal at the 1979 World University Games. She then became a world-class curler, finishing third at the 1990 world championships as an alternate before skipping her own team to silver-medal finishes at the 1998 and 2000 Scott Tournament of Hearts.
This dual background made her a unique candidate, according to Furlong, who had about 100 serious applicants for the position that were whittled down to three who interviewed in Toronto last week.
"In this case, this is the first occasion where we have someone who has competed … in the summer at a very high level and competed in the winter at a very high level and know what it’s like to be under that intensive scrutiny as a top-notch athlete," he said.
While Furlong noted being a former athlete wasn't a prerequisite, it was an asset, he said. Merklinger succeeds a pair of Olympic gold medallists in Baumann and rower Roger Jackson.
She said that the competitive fire of having been an athlete allowed her to relate to athletes striving for the Olympics.
"As all athletes, I understand — and understood at the time — what it takes to be fully committed and dedicated to winning and pursuing excellence. There’s no feeling like it in the world," she said.
Own the Podium began in 2005, originally designed to help Canadian athletes top the medal count at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. In 2006, it was expanded to include summer sports as well, incorporating the Road to Excellence program. It distributes about $70 million in federal government funding.
The position of CEO requires both lobbying the federal government for money and deciding how much funding each sport federation receives. Those decisions are made based on the potential to win medals in a sport at the Olympics.
Merklinger outlined her plan to increase cooperation with the program’s partners not just financially, but also trying to get the private sector more involved in other aspects, such as professional development.
Along with winter sport director Ken Read and operations director Joanne Mortimore, Merklinger had been running the OTP program on an interim basis since Baumann resigned.
Before joining OTP, Merklinger had served as the general director of CanoeKayak Canada. She has also previously worked with the Commission for the Inclusion of Athletes with a Disability and served as a board member for Special Olympics Canada.