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Field of Play: Getting to know Team Canada

Never meet a champion for the first time in the winner's circle, says Scott Russell, in his latest Field of Play blog that details the task of getting to know the members of Team Canada that will represent the country at this summer's Pan Am and Parapanam Games.

Generous, eager, articulate just some of athletes' qualities

Canada's Diving Fab IV includes top left, Roseline Filion, top right, Meaghan Benfeito, bottom left, Pamela Ware and bottom right, Jennifer Abel, bound for stardom at the 2015 Pan Am Games and beyond. (Scott Russell/CBC Sports)

There's an old adage that those of us in the sports business endeavour to live by. 

It goes something like this…

"Never meet a champion for the first time in the winner's circle.  Instead try to know what makes them champions in the first place."

When you cover amateur, high performance, Olympic-style sport, it's a gargantuan task to say the least. 

Consider the fact that there are than 700 athletes who will represent Canada at the upcoming Pan American and Parapanam Games in Toronto this summer.   That's more players than in the entire National Hockey League any given season.  And at this edition of the Games there will also be 41 other countries for a total of about 7500 athletes.

The Canadian team for TO2015 will be roughly twice the size it was at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 and more than three times as large as the home contingent for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver/Whistler.

That's a lot of potential champions to get to know.

Enlightening interviews

Still, the past months have been extremely rewarding and the process of encountering and interviewing myriad athletes has been more than enlightening. 

We've been able to sit down with synchronized swimmers, boxers, track and field stars, beach volleyball players, track cyclists, wheelchair basketball players, swimmers and bright future hopes known as CIBC Team Next.  We've spent significant moments with about 200 athletes and barely scratched the surface.  

Unfailingly, the athletes are generous with their time, eager, ambitious and articulate.  Just the kind of people you would hope to wear the Maple Leaf and represent our country at the highest level of international competition.

The latest interviews brought us into contact with the divers and the martial artists from the sport of Taekwondo. 

Inevitably, when you talk with athletes, as opposed to waiting to talk about them at some later date in a judgmental sort of way, you learn the things that make them tick and the unique journeys that have led them to their various fields of play.

Desire to succeed

For some, like diver Roseline Filion, who along with Meaghan Benfeito forms the longest standing partnership in Canadian sport, there is a desire to succeed in spite of doubters.

"I was told I didn't have what it takes to get to the Olympics," Filion shrugs.  "I stood on the platform in 2008 (Beijing) and thought that those people who said I couldn't were wrong because here I am."

Filion went on to win a bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympics and has, along with Benfeito, been Commonwealth Games champion.  She has also ascended the world championship podium on many occasions all the way back to 2005 when she was an unheralded teenager.  Along with Pamela Ware and Jennifer Abel, Benfeito and Filion form an exceptional generation of Canadian female divers known as the Fab IV and are anticipated to produce not only at TO2015 but against the highly touted Chinese at the next Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. They are also aware they're expected to be role models.

'It's good to play sports'

"We know our job is to perform but we also feel a need to motivate the young ones," says Benfeito.  "We are promoting diving but also healthy, active, living," Filion hastens to add.  "In other words we are here to say that it's good to play sports."

The same is true of the Taekwondo athletes. 

A Korean martial art/combat sport which dates back to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, it has produced two Canadian medals including Dominique Bosshart's 2000 bronze and Karine Sergerie's 2008 Beijing silver.

On the current team, Yvette Yong a 100-pound mite and communications specialist in the Canadian Naval Reserve at HMCS York, has risen to be the best in the world.

"I started out as nothing as every athlete does," Yong smiles.  "But now as World number one I feel the pressure.  I just need to remember I'm number one for a reason.  I must know a thing or two about what I'm doing."

On the other end of the scale is Jasmine Vokey, a 160-pound Newfoundlander who fights in the heavyweight division while juggling a career in the military as an officer with the 2nd Artillery Regiment in Montreal.  Her flowing blonde locks and carefully applied makeup belie a fierce competitor.

"My teammates call me 'Killer Barbie' and at times it's a bit embarrassing," Vokey chuckles.  "I'm a friendly giant.  I'm not the most intimidating person until I get in the ring.  Then I completely change."

It is, in every way, our own voyage of discovery as we continue to meet these members of Team Canada on the way to TO2015 and beyond. 

Each of them is worth getting to know because they have fascinating stories to tell.


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