Athletics Canada introduces head coach Peter Eriksson
Coached in Canada for nearly 20 years
Peter Eriksson was coaching Great Britain's track and field team at last summer's London Olympics, but the former longtime Canadian Paralympic coach couldn't help but keep an eye on Canada.
"Absolutely. You cannot stop doing that because I'm Canadian," Eriksson said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press. "In Great Britain they always said I was a Swede, but I haven't lived in Sweden for 25 years. I watched the Canadians in London because I know most of the athletes."
Now the coach who's probably best known on this side of the ocean for guiding Chantal Petitclerc to 10 gold medals over two Paralympic Games, is back working in Canada. Eriksson was officially introduced as head coach of Athletics Canada's Olympic and Paralympic program Wednesday, two months after the 60-year-old stepped down as head coach of British Athletics.
"It was for family reasons, that's the reason I quit the position there," said Eriksson, whose wife and four daughters — aged 11 to 18 — live in Ottawa. "I couldn't be away for another four or five years, it was time to go home.
"I knew for quite a while Athetics Canada was interested, but there was no commitment to do it. And it was all about finishing off what I was doing first before you commit to the rest."
Eriksson, a former national team speedskater in Sweden, coached in Canada for nearly 20 years, earning coach of the year honours at the 2005 Canadian Sport Awards for guiding Petitclerc to five gold medals at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. Petitclerc repeated that feat four years later in Beijing, earning Eriksson Athletics Canada's coach of the year honours.
Eriksson was part of the exodus of Canadian coaches to the UK before the London Olympics. Canadian track coaches Kevin Tyler and Derek Evely, and triathlon coach Joel Filliol, who guided Simon Whitfield to a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Games, were all scooped up by the British prior to the London Games.
Athletics Canada CEO Rob Guy said they cast a global net in hiring for the position, but wanted an integrated coach who could lead both the Olympic and Paralympic teams. Eriksson said he believes Canada will be the only country in the world with an integrated coach.
"We're very pleased to have him back in Canada, very accomplished in what he does," said Guy, who noted Athletics Canada formally interviewed four candidates.
Eriksson said he's changed as a coach for his time spent in England.
"I think I learned more in these four years than I learned in the last 25 years. Easily," he said. "I think it's been a big difference, I think I leaned to look at others, to learn from others. It was a great learning experience also because athletics is such a high profile sport in the UK, it's always written about, it's always on TV, plus they have really good coaches in the system, so I learned from working with them."
Ahtletics Canada cleaned house in January, firing head coach Alex Gardiner and chief high performance officer Martin Goulet following Canada's disappointing performance in London that saw Derek Drouin win the team's only medal — a bronze in high jump.
Eriksson was at the track watching the high jump that night — British athlete Robert Grabarz tied Drouin for bronze.
Drouin represents good young potential that Eriksson sees in a Canadian program that includes two strong young multi-event athletes in Damian Warner and Brianne Theisen. He also mentioned throwers, sprinters and women's middle-distance runners. Canada recorded 12 top-12 finishes in London and eight athletes finished in the top-eight — the majority of them were 25 or younger.
"I always thought we had a lot of potential in the country and we always underperformed," Eriksson said. "I think as a nation we should do better.
"I think we have good coaches, I think we have good potential, you see all the kids doing well in the NCAA, they could really become something, we just have to nurture that and turn it into medal performances, not just medal potentials. We have a lot of medal potentials, but how much do we convert into medal performance?"
"It's a whole slew of good athletes coming up, now we have to create the best environment for them in order to get there."
Just three years out from the 2016 Rio Olympics, Eriksson said he believes he and his staff can turn around Canada's team in time.
"I think you can, with the younger talent pool and some of the older established athletes, you just have to making sure you optimize their environment," Eriksson said on a conference call Wednesday. "I think there's great potential of reaching that even in the short time that we have leading up to the Games. I'm confident with that."
Eriksson, who will be based in Ottawa where his family has lived since 1991, said his first order of business will be meeting all the athletes and coaches at next months world championships in Moscow.
Athletics Canada is also in the middle of a review by Sport Performance Management, and Eriksson said the outcome of that "will guide us a little better to what we need to do."
While Eriksson was a speedskater, he said his first love was track and field.
"My friends were in athletics, I was in athletics, I wasn't good at it but I was always there running, jumping. . . It's always been athletics for me," he said. "I did run the 100 and did long jump, but I wasn't good at it.
"When somebody asked me before I said: I made the sand pit, but that was about it," he said, laughing.
He got into Paralympic coaching by coincidence when he met a wheelchair athlete while still in university.
"We talked about training and planning for training and he asked me about coaching," Eriksson said. "I said 'I don't really know anything about wheelchair racing, but I can come and look.' So I did, and that's how it started."
He took the UK Paralympic team from 18th at the 2008 world championships to top three in 2011.