Is Canadian track and field too dependent on U.S. coaching?
NCAA a more attractive option for many stars
Canada's national track and field team is enjoying an unprecedented run of success, with six medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics, eight at the 2015 IAAF world championships and five at the 2013 worlds.
However, only six of those nineteen medals can be fully attributed to Canadian coaching and training environments.
Andre De Grasse, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, Derek Drouin, Shawn Barber and members of the men's sprint relay team won the majority of these medals while based in the United States.
To be fair, the relay team has been coordinated by Canadian Glenroy Gilbert, and De Grasse has been coached, for the past year at least, by Canadian Stuart McMillan at the Altis Centre in Phoenix, Ariz.
Despite the impressive medal tally, there are growing fears that this dependence on U.S. training could hurt the future of Canadian track and field.
"I don't think there's great stability," says former national middle-distance coach Wynn Gmitroski. "Eventually things are going to wash out. It's all about a quick fix now, get the best result as quick as you can, and then things fall apart and you start all over again. The powers that be that put it into place will be long gone."
'I felt disrespected'
Three years ago, Athletics Canada shut down five high-performance centres positioned around the country in favour of servicing two training "hubs" — one in Victoria and one in Toronto. In comparison, Germany, a country about a third the size of Ontario in terms of area, has a dozen centres.
In the fallout, several coaches of global championship medalists, and with hundreds of years of combined experience, were cast aside. They include sprint hurdles coaches Anthony McCleary and Desai Williams, throws coaches Anotoliy Bondarchuk and Larry Steinke, multi-event specialist Les Gramantik, and Gmitroski.
Gramantik coached decathlete Michael Smith to bronze at the 1995 world championships, and guided heptathlete Jessica Zelinka to two Olympic Games. Recently, 2016 Olympic bronze-winning decathlete Damian Warner uprooted from his London, Ont., home to begin training with Gramantik in Calgary.
"I felt disrespected when they closed the centre here," Gramantik says. "They gave me a token opportunity: you can move to Toronto. C'mon, that's not possible. Leave my athletes here? I'm always going to have my athletes around, but for Damian to choose to come and train with me is very satisfying."
Gramantik agrees that the NCAA system is enticing for athletes coming out of high school, but thinks that upon graduation from U.S. schools they should have the option to return to a professional setting in Canada.
"We have zero control of what they do [in the U.S.]," he says. "At least in a Canadian system we have some degree of control of what our athletes do, where they go and how they compete. I do believe we have quality coaching in Canada."
Peaking at the wrong time?
Nobody knows the exact number of Canadian athletes currently involved in NCAA athletics. Gmitroski once tallied the number of middle-distance runners at more than a hundred — 90 per cent of whom, he says, are never heard from again.
While U.S. colleges are an attractive option, NCAA competition requires peaking in May and early June. That can put the interests of American schools at odds with those of Athletics Canada because international championships are generally held in August.
"The NCAA definitely is hard to fight because if a kid gets a scholarship for four years they are going to get a good level of competition," Gmitroski says. "The coaching is hit or miss depending on where they go. But they have got support for four years.
"In Canada you have got support for one year if you get carded. If you go and get injured you are basically done. It was a hard thing to work with, this on-again, off-again bandwagon funding."
'We need to have our own system'
Several Canadian athletes have gravitated to the Altis Centre after exhausting their NCAA eligibility. Altis president Kevin Tyler is a Canadian who, while based in Edmonton, coached four athletes who competed in the 2008 Olympics, including 2008 world indoor 400m champion Tyler Christopher. Prior to joining Altis he headed up coaching development in the U.K.
"I think it's very possible to develop athletes in Canada," Tyler says. "Myself, Wynn, Derek Everly, Dr. Bondarchuk, some of the programs going on in Toronto were able to demonstrate that.
"I think where you get into trouble is where you try and train in Edmonton the way you do in Arizona. It's not possible. The surface is too hard; you can't handle the volume. But there are ways to do it."
Athletics Canada recently fired head coach Peter Eriksson, and it remains to be seen if the organization will reverse direction.
Rob Guy, the CEO of the national governing body, credits the work of Gerry Dragomir and Dennis Fairall, who coached Canada-based race walker Ben Thorne and 800m runner Melissa Bishop, respectively, to medals at the 2015 world championships, as well as distance coach Dave Scott-Thomas.
"We need to make sure that Canadian coaches are learning from the best," says Guy. "That doesn't mean we are going to open more centres.
"I don't want to become completely dependent upon the NCAA and U.S.-based coaches. We need to have our own system in Canada for Canadian-developed athletes. You need to have the right balance in our model."