Olympian van Koeverden seeks political gold in Lisa Raitt's Ontario riding

Former cabinet minister and party leadership candidate Lisa Raitt is in a tough fight in her Milton, Ont. riding against star candidate and Olympic gold medallist Adam van Koeverden. Will his Olympic star power be enough to unseat this political giant?

Raitt won by only five per cent in 2015 election

Liberal candidate and Olympic gold medalist Adam van Koeverden campaigns at the Milton GO Transit station. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

It's cold and just after dawn at the Milton, Ont. Go Train station platform, where a man dressed casually in jeans and a denim jacket introduces himself to the commuters rushing toward the awaiting train.

"Hi. My name is Adam. I'm running to be your next MP," he says.

"Yes, I know who you are," says one commuter.

Some take his political flyer and continue on, others stop to chat for a minute or two, while a few ask him to pose for a selfie.

"Adam" happens to be Adam van Koeverden, the four-time Olympic medal winner (including gold) in sprint kayaking, Canada's flag-bearer at the Olympic Games in Athens and Beijing and holder of eight world championship medals.

Biggest star candidate

When it comes to so-called star candidates, van Koeverden is arguably the biggest in this election. The Liberals hope he can translate some of that star power and competitive know-how into another gold-medal performance, this time by taking out a political giant in this riding, about 60 kilometres west of Toronto.

His opponent is the incumbent MP Lisa Raitt, a former Conservative cabinet minister and party leadership contender, and currently deputy leader of the Conservative Party.

A win here by the Liberals would not only grab a seat that has been traditionally Conservative. It would be an important victory in the coveted 905 area — and also knock out a political veteran in the bargain.

In 2015, Raitt only won the riding by five per cent over her Liberal challenger, Azim Rizvee, suggesting the Liberals believe that the added star power van Koeverden brings may just be enough to defeat Raitt.

Indeed, van Koeverden's nomination sparked some controversy, with Rizvee claiming that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau pushed him to resign so that van Koeverden could run.

Liberals hope to defeat Conservative incumbent Lisa Raitt, who won the riding by only five per cent in the 2015 federal election. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

A spokesman for the Liberals had previously told CBC News that the Milton nomination was held in accordance with the party's nomination rules.

But van Koeverden downplays his fame as an Olympian and the advantage it might give him in the campaign.

"It's who I am. I can't disconnect it from who I am and it demonstrates a capacity for hard work. I keep telling people I enjoyed representing Canadians at the Olympics and I want to continue representing Canadians in a different capacity. 

"I lead with issues, I lead with the record. I lead with my plans for Milton. And if somebody wants to talk about the Olympics, then I'm happy to chat about it. But it doesn't come up at most times."

Raitt herself believes she has the advantage over the rookie campaigner.

She points out that her children have grown up in the community, and that when she knocks on doors she finds a hockey or soccer coach she knows, or someone who went to school with her kids — a personal connection.

"This isn't being arrogant at all," she says in a CBC phone interview. "But I do think that I have a higher profile in my riding — as their MP for 11 years and with being a mom in the area — than the guy who did wonderful on the world stage winning gold medals but isn't from Milton.

"He's not in our sports hall of fame. He's never been celebrated as a hometown hero."

Racing against an Olympic hero

Van Koeverden grew up in nearby Oakville. But is it odd for Raitt to take on someone that she, like millions of Canadians, was cheering on in the Olympics?

"It's even better," she says, laughing. "It was [the Conservative government's] program Own the Podium that helped him."

Raitt says she doesn't really see politics as competition against someone else — that it's more about competing with yourself to go out every day and find the votes.

On that point, van Koeverden agrees, comparing it to paddling in his own lane in the Olympics.

"I'm running for my neighbours in Milton, not particularly against anyone."

The Liberals hope van Koeverden can translate some of his Olympic star power and competitive know-how into another gold-medal performance, this time by taking out Lisa Raitt, a political giant in this Milton, Ont. riding, about 60 kilometres west of Toronto. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

That's not to say the campaign hasn't had its moments of testiness. Last September, van Koeverden drew a sharp rebuke from Raitt after he tweeted about the over 30 "incredible public schools in Milton."

"I'm proud to stand with the Liberal government that sees our public education system as a strength, not as a place where parents put their children because they're too busy — the way Andrew Scheer & the Conservatives do."

Raitt saw this as a personal shot, and fired back.

"In 11 years I have NEVER had any candidate in any race question my parenting because I am a Conservative. To say that I am furious is an understatement. Leave my kids out of this," she tweeted.

Political inexperience

Asked about van Koeverden's tweet, Raitt chalked it up to political inexperience and suggested it wasn't the product of malice.

But van Koeverden insists that his tweet was not an attack on Raitt. Instead, he said he was just arguing that the Conservatives were offering tax breaks for wealthy families who send their children to private schools and that the policy ultimately degrades and undermines the public school system.

"Look, I'm not making anything personal."

Van Koeverden also rejects the notion that he's some rookie. "I'm not as new as people think."

Van Koeverden's Olympic career should not be completely discounted, says Milton resident Josh Van Dreumel. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

He cites his work in two federal government working groups on gender based violence and gender inclusion in sports, his role as chair and vice chair of Team Canada's Athletes' Commission and other work for charities and NGOs.

Still, he says, winning won't be easy.

"I don't do easy things. I didn't take it on because I thought it would be easy. I took it on because I know it would be worth it."

For some undecided voters in Milton, however, having a star candidate in their riding isn't enough to move their vote.

Bringing in a star candidtae is just a 'last ditch effort to gain a vote,' says Mike Labencki. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

"I just think it's a last ditch effort to gain a vote. Bring in somebody famous," says Mike Labencki.

Van Koeverden's Olympic career, however, should not be completely discounted, says Milton resident Josh Van Dreumel.

"It's clear he has conviction, he's a hard worker. So that says a lot about his character. As far as my vote goes, I would say it's more about what he's going to do for Milton."

About the Author

Mark Gollom


Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

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