Olympics Summer

Crawling to keep up

Rick Say had just completed an outstanding final leg of the men's 4x200-metre freestyle race at the 2004 Athens Olympics, but the swimmer's angst was evident.

4 years after the Athens debacle, Swimming Canada works to pick up the pieces

B.C. native Rick Say was disgusted with Canada's performance in the men's 4x200-metre freestyle event four years ago. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press))


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Rick Say had just completed an outstanding final leg of the men's 4x200-metre freestyle race at the 2004 Athens Olympics, but the swimmer's angst was evident.

Despite breaking a Canadian record in the relay, the B.C. native, along with teammates Brent Hayden, Andrew Hurd and Brian Johns, managed only a fifth-place performance.

As Say waited patiently to be interviewed by CBC Sports' Scott Oake following the race, the other three team members expressed disappointment only in the result, not the effort. Expecting to hear similar remarks, Oake and the rest of the nation were stunned at Say's comments.

"I was trying to make up for the mistakes our team made earlier in the race," he began. "I'm pissed off. It's my job as a leader on this team to get these guys up and get them ready for this race, and obviously I let them down. It's unacceptable. This is crap."

Say may just have been venting for not living up to his expectations, but he unwittingly sparked a debate among analysts and the media, propelling Swimming Canada to make a significant change in how its program was run.

Four years ago, Canadian swimmers recorded only five personal-best times in 40 races. Athens also represented the worst showing by a Canadian swim team in 52 years, and marked the first time in 40 years that the nation was shut out of the medals.

Costs sink swimming after glory years
In the 1980s and early '90s, Canada had such swimming stars as Alex Baumann, Victor Davis, Ann Ottenbrite and Mark Tewksbury, who all won gold medals over an eight-year span. After Tewksbury captured his Olympic title at the 1992 Barcelona Games, the program began to slide, with athletes earning a total of four medals in the next two Olympics.
Mark Tewksbury was the last Canadian to win an Olympic gold medal in the pool. ((Hans Deryk/Canadian Press))

"The sport became almost too expensive," said CBC swimming analyst Byron MacDonald.

"The problem with that was pool costs started to go up, travel started to get expensive and the government funding went down. You put all those things together and you couldn't attract the top coaches. In the '70s and '80s, we had some of the best coaches in the world and what happened was they left or retired, and we couldn't replace them."

Determined to stop the downward spiral, Swimming Canada made a significant change at the top in an attempt to revive its dormant program. Shortly following the Athens debacle, head coach Dave Johnson was released, taking most of the blame for his team's dismal performance. A four-member committee, including Tewksbury, went on a lengthy search for Johnson's successor.

In March 2005, the committee appointed Pierre Lafontaine as Swimming Canada's new CEO and head coach. As well as his wealth of experience, the Quebec native was the head coach of the powerful Australian Institute of Sport, where he led four swimmers to the podium in Athens.

"He was fantastic on deck coach and he built some excellent swimming programs," said Tewksbury. "But he was also so excited about the possibility of coming back to Canada and he just stood out amongst all the other candidates."

New CEO/coach like duck to water
Lafontaine had little time to get his feet wet. His first order of business was to get Canada prepared for the 2005 world aquatics championships in Montreal. Unlike Athens, the Canadian team earned five medals.
Though Brent Hayden is a world champion, he will be hard-pressed to reach the podium in the 100 freestyle. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

Canada displayed more promise two years later in Melbourne after Hayden and Italian Filippo Magnini were awarded gold medals in the 100-metre freestyle. The Mission, B.C., native's victory was the first by a Canadian at a world championship since Davis stood atop the podium in 1986.

"There's been tremendous improvement," said Lafontaine. "Last year alone we won four gold medals at the World University Games and 10 as a group. We won at every major international event, including the Pan Am Games and the world championships. Winning is becoming a habit and kids want to win for Canada."

Yet even though the team has vastly improved, Canada's medal hopes in the pool for Beijing remain with one person — Hayden. This is due largely to an inexperienced women's team — Lafontaine anticipated this problem when he took the job — and a men's side not considered strong enough to compete against the best in the world. 

Though he is a world champion, Hayden will be hard-pressed to reach the podium in the 100 freestyle because his personal-best time of 48.30 seconds only places him as the ninth fastest swimmers in 2008. His best chance at a medal comes with 4x200 freestyle team, an event where Canada won a bronze in Melbourne.

Funds to develop talent coming after Beijing
Regardless, the program appears headed in the right direction. With Baumann returning as executive director of the Road to Excellence program, Swimming Canada will receive some of the government funding earmarked over the next four years for Canada's Summer Olympics program.
Swimming Canada boss Pierre Lafontaine, right, has the program heading in the right direction. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Regrettably, most of the money won't kick in until after Beijing, meaning fans shouldn't expect podium finishes this season. But the funding will help develop more swimmers at the junior level, something Lafontaine has already begun work on.

Based on Lafontaine's changes, MacDonald expects the Canadian program - particularly the men's — to at least be competitive in the chase for more medals at the 2012 London Games.

"Hassan Abdel-Khalik is only 16 and is a very talented young man," he said. "Matthew Swanston is 17 and another swimmer who has a bright future. It's been a long time since the program has had one great swimmer that people can rely on. I'm not sure if these youngsters can carry the load, but it's a good start."

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