Peaks and valleys

The breathtaking peaks of the Coastal Mountains and the undulating valleys near Whistler are a suitable metaphor as Canadians count down to the opening of the Olympic Winter Games one year from now.

Expeditions Canadian athletes embark upon now can shape their Olympic outlook

The breathtaking peaks of the Coastal Mountains and the undulating valleys near Whistler are a suitable metaphor as Canadians count down to the opening of the Olympic Winter Games one year from now.

Athletes are like explorers, overcoming obstacles, reaching goals and doing it day after day, week after week, month after month. As the Olympians prepare for the arrival of the world next February, the expeditions they embark upon now can shape their outlook, and ours, as the torch draws nearer to British Columbia.

Within the last week, Canadian skiers, skaters and racers have found success time and again. Twenty eight medals, more than half of them gold, at various World Cup and World Championship events. A motherlode of precious metal mined deep into a season that for a time had possessed more valleys than peaks for the country's winter sport warriors.

There was Jon Kucera's startling victory in the men's downhill at the World Alpine Championships in Val D'Iser, France, a Crazy Canuckian-like dash that astounded him as much anyone who saw it.

Then there was 17 year-old Patrick Chan. His preternatural poise combined with an impish grin, spinning, twirling and jumping to gold at the Four Continents Competition. Might he be skating's version of "The Next One?"

In all, podium finishes in five disciplines. The kind of performance the Canadian Olympic Committee envisioned when it pronounced four years ago that the objective for 2010 was to see the home team atop the medal standings for the first time in the history of the Winter Games.

The credit for this momentum-building week likely flows back to the "Own The Podium" program, a five-year, $120-million initiative backed by public and private money. Investments in coaching, support staff, technology and training were deemed to be essential if Canada was to be the host with the most.

Whether it was bringing a full-time therapist on the road, designing a brand new bobsleigh, hiring a veteran leader with a successful track record, the first consideration was given to creating an environment in which the athletes could focus solely on their task — be the best.

The evidence that this paradigm shift was starting to take hold could be seen in Torino in 2006. Canada finished third overall with 24 medals and posted more than a dozen fourth place finishes. The dream that this country could be the greatest winter sport nation on the planet looked real.

Canadians often let cynicism get the better of them when times are good. It can't last they say, we are peaking too soon. Understandable nerves really.

As a CBC Sports commentator in the late 90's, I covered Canada's freestyle ski team, an absolute powerhouse.  At the 1997 World Championships in Nagano, on the same mountain where the Olympics would be held a year later, the Canadians, led by the renowned Quebec Air Force, dominated. Seven medals in all, including two gold. The prospects for 1998 seemed unlimited.

At the Games themselves, nothing. Not a single medal. Jean-Luc Brassard, the defending Olympic moguls champion, crumbled under the weight of expectation and the fatigue of being flag-bearer the day before he competed. A turn of events, by the way, that led to a new system to determine that honour.

We are a decade removed from disappointments like that. In fact, failing to meet expectations no longer seems to chase our elite athletes around the globe like bad credit. As the country witnessed over the past several days, Canadian athletes have made the steady climb from the barren valleys of frustration to the shining peaks of victory, where others respect, perhaps even fear, those who wear the Maple Leaf on the ice and snow.

Questions remain however. After taking a year off to undergo knee surgery and rehabilitation, can speed skater Cindy Klassen find the form that made her a medal-making machine in Italy? Will the freestyle skiers and short track speed skaters achieve the same production that they are now achieving? Can Canadians make inroads in medal-rich sports such as cross-country skiing where Europeans are exceptional?

For now, "Own The Podium" is nothing more than a slogan. It may become a chant heard in a rink, or it may turn into an empty reminder of what might have been. Perhaps more than any other Olympic nation, Canada's confidence will endure more than its share of peaks and valleys for the next 12 months.