UK Athletics snares Canada's Eriksson

Peter Eriksson, Athletics Canada's 2008 coach of the year, was named head coach for Britain's Paralympic team — a full-time position that eluded him back home.

Peter Eriksson, Athletics Canada's 2008 coach of the year, was named head coach for Britain's Paralympic team — a full-time position that eluded him back home.

The 56-year-old Swedish native has been a personal coach to Canadian Paralympic icon Chantal Petitclerc for the past 18 years.

Eriksson has been a leader in Canadian Paralympics for decades and helped athletes win a host of Paralympic medals.

More recently, the Ottawa resident had been working with Sport Canada's Road To Excellence program as a high performance consultant.

Eriksson will move to Birmingham, England in January, 2009 and begin his new position in February. His prime objective will be to prepare British athletes for Paralympic medal results at the 2012 London Games.

"It's kind of disappointing that I can't work at home, but on the other hand, the U.K. job is a great opportunity," said Eriksson.

"They have the right mentality. I think they have great leadership in the organization and they are focusing on the medal count and performance. Having said that, you can't miss an opportunity like this no matter how much you like your own country. It's the opportunity of a lifetime."

It's no secret that Eriksson had issues with the lack of integration between the Paralympics and Olympics in Canada, and was also critical of the funding available. UK Athletics has earmarked $12.2 million for Paralympic athletics in the four years leading up to London.

Eriksson said he likes the manner in which UK Athletics has integrated Paralympic and Olympic athletes into its planning and looks forward to working with British Olympic head coach Charles van Commenee, a recently hired Dutchman.

The recently retired Petitclerc returned from the Beijing Paralympics with five gold medals — a feat that earned her the prestigious Lou Marsh Award as Canada's top athlete.

The Quebec native praised Eriksson for helping her compete in five Paralympic Games.

"I know he will be able to bring all his expertise to the U.K. program," she said. "It's going to very positive for them and for Peter. And the timing is very good. He has just finished a Paralympic cycle and this was my last Games.

"Peter was thrilled to have the opportunity for a new challenge and I know that he has the qualities and leadership to face that new challenge."

Four years ago, Eriksson earned Canadian coach of the year honours after his athletes dominated the Athens Paralympic Games.

Petitclerc won five gold medals (100 metres, 200, 400, 800 and 1,500) while setting world records in four of those events.

The US Paralympic Committee then quickly hired Eriksson as its head coach.

Until that time, he had always taken unpaid leaves of absence from his job as a software programmer to pursue his coaching passion.

Petitclerc chose her words carefully when asked if the loss of Eriksson would be problematic for Canadian Paralympic athletics.

"I think it's too bad for young athletes and younger coaches, because Peter has the expertise with younger athletes like myself who started with Peter when I was very young. We've been through five Paralympic Games. I am not too sure how to answer this and stay politically correct.

"Well, I think it's mostly representative of amateur sport in Canada. It's very difficult for very qualified coaches to get paid for what they do. It's very sad when you think Peter is the most decorated Paralympic or Olympic coach [in this country]. It's certainly a sign of something, a symptom of something not going well in our sports system."

Petitclerc recalls a meeting she had with Eriksson at his Ottawa home last July. The pair were plotting their approach to the Beijing Paralympic Games and deciding on what events she should enter.

"The scenario was that I would do three events — 200, 400 and 800 — because I could win these events," she revealed. "The other option was to challenge ourselves and try to win five gold medals again.

"We talked about it and what was the smartest thing. After a while, Peter went quiet. He was just staring at me. Then we started laughing and he said 'Who are we kidding? Of course we are going to go for five golds.' This moment was very important to me because I knew if he thought I could do it, I could do it."

Joanne Mortimore, Athletics Canada's CEO, appeared unperturbed by Eriksson's departure. She claims that Eriksson never expressed an interest in the Paralympic coaching position when it was advertised in 2005.

"Peter is still contributing to the Canadian system by coaching Canadian athletes," she told, "My understanding he is still going to be coaching some Canadian athletes [just] not through the national federation necessarily.  He will still be connected through the Road to Excellence program.

"We did advertise for a head coach and Peter never showed any real interest in applying for it. That would have been shortly after [the] Athens [Paralympics] in 2005. We never had any formal discussion."

For his part, Eriksson said the Canadian job was advertised around the time he had already agreed to a contract with the US Paralympic team, and was loathe to break the agreement.

As for coaching Canadian athletes, he points out that Kelly Smith, Chantal Petitclerc and Clayton Gerein are all retired. Another of his long-term athletes — Jeff Adams —  appears unsure of his future in athletics.

"I will retire myself from them," Eriksson said with a laugh. "I can't be coaching Canadian athletes when I am working for UK Athletics."