Program aims to turn athletes into Olympians

By Lindsay Tate

When Mathieu Leblanc joined an the Ottawa Inline Skating Club last June, he didn’t know it, but he was embarking on a journey that would see his Olympic dreams born and dashed in less than a year.

Leblanc, a student at École Secondaire Louis Riel, grew up skating and playing hockey.

It wasn’t until this past June, however, that he began skating competitively when he joined the club.

After only four months of racing, an Olympic recruiter approached Leblanc at a skate marathon on Labour Day weekend.

“I was shocked,” Leblanc says. “I started telling everyone, ‘Oh my God, I could be in the Olympics.’”

Leblanc was invited to take part in the first stage of an elite training program called Own The Podium – 2010.

The program is designed to take athletes from other sports and turn them into medalists for Canada’s 2010 Winter Olympic team.

The recruiter said he thought Leblanc showed potential as a speed skater.

Although he had never tried the sport before, the 17-year-old Ottawa native flew to Calgary to try out for a spot on the 2010 Canadian Olympic speed skating team.

Once there, Leblanc endured five days of testing and training with coaches and specialists at the Calgary Olympic Oval.

“We took our first steps on the ice, some of the best ice in the world,” Leblanc says. “And they basically said, ‘show us what you can do.’”

Leblanc says the training was the most intense experience of his life.

“It was very hard,” he says. “But it was okay, I mean, I was trying out for the Olympics.”

The techniques used in both sports are similar so Leblanc caught on quickly.

Many in-line skaters make the transition successfully, says Barry Publow, national team coach for Roller Sports Canada.

Publow says the potential connection between the two sports hasn’t been maximized. But this program is a big step in the right direction.

“I think it is something that has to be exploited to the fullest,” he says.

“The ice skating community has begun to realize that the talent pool of in-line skaters is something they should look at seriously.”

The ultimate goal of the program is for Canada to win 35 medals and finish first overall in the medal count at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, says Jacques Thibault, who recruits for Own The Podium – 2010.

“If we want to be the first nation, we need more people,” he says.

“Right now, we’re looking for people with the talent and potential to be Olympians, no matter what sport they come from.”

The goal of the program is to transform ex-hockey players or in-line skaters into speed skaters, football players into bobsledders, or gymnasts into freestyle aerial skiers.

Similar programs have been successful for top Olympic nations, including the United States, China and Australia, Thibault says.

“Canada, we’re a nation of skaters. We’re going to try to use that advantage to dominate the skating sports, especially speed skating.”

Soon after returning home from Calgary, Leblanc received an email from the organizers thanking him for participating.

He hadn’t made it past the first stage of the program.

Leblanc was upset but says he would watch to see if anyone he trained with earned a spot on the Olympic team.

He also says the setback will not stop him from returning to in-line skating and following his Olympic dreams.

“I was disappointed but still, just trying out for the Olympics, that was amazing,” he says.

“I stay positive, this was my first year in the sport, so who knows what can come next.”