Olympic dreams

Do you think you have what it takes to be an Olympian? So does Training Ground. That’s why the program is coming to the Yukon on May 11, to test athletes between the ages of 14 and 25.

“We developed Training Ground from Podium Search in B.C.,” said Kurt Innes, director of talent development for the Canadian Sport Institute, which came up with Podium Search – a standardized fitness testing program that puts athletes through a series of basic field tests in order to identify future elite athletes. It was tweaked for a national audience when Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) found out about it a few years ago.

“RBC liked what we were doing,” said Innes. “I met with one of the VPs and had a quick conversation about how they would like to have a national program.”

Enter Training Ground, established in 2016. After that initial conversation between Innes and RBC, there were four field testing days in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Halifax. By 2017, it had mushroomed to 30 field testing days. Each year, roughly 30 athletes are identified by Training Ground as potential future Olympians and offered funding and resources to support their participation in training camps, competitions away from home and new gear and equipment. 

Since 2016, nearly 6,000 athletes have been tested, with over $1.3 million in funding supporting more than 80 athletes. This year marks the first time the event has come to the territories, though Innes said the hope is to visit the Northwest Territories and Nunavut next year as well.

“As the tech lead of the program I’m always trying to stay ahead of where we can go next,” he said. “I’m aware of the culture of excellence that exists in the Yukon Territory.”

He cited Olympic athletes including Jeane Lassen and Zach Bell, as well as the facilities at the Canada Games Centre.

“You have it all there,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we could bring the program up there.”

And what can aspiring athletes expect on May 11? Registered athletes (registration is free and can be done online at RBCTrainingGround.ca) will be measured for height, weight and arm span. After that, they’ll complete a 20-minute warm-up before being tested on speed (via sprints), power (via vertical jump) and strength (via isometric mid-thigh pull.) They’ll also be tested on endurance by way of the beep test. 

This takes place in front of officials from the Canadian Olympic Committee and national sport organizations including Canada Snowboard, Speed Skating Athletics Canada, Canoe Kayak Canada, Cycling Canada, Rowing Canada, Rugby Canada, and Freestyle Ski Canada. Innes said he doesn’t want to see that scare off athletes who don’t think of themselves as Olympic material, or who don’t see themselves as competing in any of the above-mentioned sports.

“There is an elite slant to it but I would hate for that message to deter local athletes from coming to participate,” he said. “Every athlete should come and take part. They all get a kind of report card that shows them where they are (in terms of speed, power, strength and endurance).”

Not only that, he said, the testing isn’t specific to the sports you’re already doing, so the results might lead you in a new direction as an athlete. Innes said he first met Bell in 2003 when Bell was wrestling. He was a good wrestler, but not quite good enough to go to the Olympics with the sport. But Bell wanted to go to the Olympics for something. Innes said cycling was identified as a strong sport for Bell, after he went through testing similar to Training Ground.

Bell went on to compete in track cycling at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. 
One of the current athletes identified by Training Ground has a similar story, said Innes. Kelsey Mitchell was a soccer player at the University of Alberta when she was tested by Training Ground in 2017. Coaches were impressed by her performance on a stationary bike and she was chosen as a supported athlete. Mitchell is now a 2020 Olympic hopeful, having come in sixth in the women’s sprint at the Hong Kong World Cup in early 2019.

“We want every athlete to come and take part,” said Innes. “Come and see where you fit as an individual.”

Training Ground takes place at the Canada Games Centre on May 11 from 9 a.m. to noon.

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