The Next Quadrennial
The 2016 Olympics in Rio was the first time that Simon Whitfield didn’t suit up in the triathlon for team Canada. For four successive Olympiads the Canadian triathlon community had basked in Whitfield’s limelight – the surprise gold in Sydney, the “disappointing” 11th in Athens, the incredible sprint-from-behind silver in Beijing and the heartbreaking crash in London. Then, in 2016, we were Whitfield-less.
While we’ve had spurts of non-whitfield success on the international level over the last 16 years, in many ways our national program rode his shirt tails. Own the Podium provided over $3 million in support to triathlon after Whitfield’s silver medal in Beijing during the four years leading up to the 2012 games. In 2017 that number will drop to just $200,000.
All this comes as no surprise to many who have been watching the Canadian triathlon scene over the years. “Where’s the next Simon?” was an oft-heard question posed by enthusiasts. While we’ve enjoyed lots of international success at the Ironman and other long distance races over the years, we haven’t seen the same kind of success at the ITU and Olympic level.
So, I wasn’t really surprised when Eugene Liang said the words that so many of us had thought, but were scared to utter: “We bumped into medals in the 2000s.” Liang was named Triathlon Canada’s high peformance director last fall. For over a decade he worked for Swim Canada – he was part of the team staff at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics. He’s not in any way being critical when he talks about “bumping” into medals – he prefaced that comment by saying that many felt that Swim Canada had done the same in the ’70s and ’80s before it was really able to build the solid program that stunned the world in Rio last summer. “I did a critical review of the entire [triathlon] program over the last eight to 12 years – stats, philosophies, etc,” Liang says. “It was a critical analysis of what’s been happening. We’re a young sport. We were an Olympic sport in 2000. If you were to compare it to swimming, it’s similar to when we burst on to the scene in the ’70s in swimming. If you talk to swim coaches, the way they coached in the ’70s and ’80s is completely different from the way they do now. They say that they bumped into medals.” So, while the sport here in Canada was enjoying the success of Whitfield’s medals, we weren’t putting in place the systems that would enable us to enjoy more success at the Olympic level. “We stayed afloat, but now in the sport, we realize that we don’t have a lot of the systems in play,” Liang continues. “Our sport education system is bleak, at best, our level of experienced coaches is minimal. Because of the way the system was built, the coaches are not long-term coaches, they are small business owners who dabble in high-performance coaching.” Liang has set out two main goals for his program over the next few years: developing better coaching systems and “having our athletes race at an appropriate level.” “We’ve had a history of pushing our athletes to early,” he says. “That’s what we thought was right – if I use the analogy of ‘bumping into medals,’ we thought that by exposing our athletes to higher levels of competition, without actually examining the fundamental skills that they have, that they would just rise to that level. That is a pretty shortsighted mentality. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, [we realize that] athlete development takes years.”
It starts from the top
Last fall Triathlon Canada put itself through a major shakeup. Liang was hired and the Triathlon Canada board of directors decided to hire a new CEO. Kim Van Bruggen, like Liang, was in Victoria, where Triathlon Canada is based. Formerly the president and CEO of Acumen Communications Group, she brings a very business-oriented perspective to the position.
Van Bruggen and Liang are sitting in a conference room in the Tri Can headquarters, talking to me about where we’re going for the next four years. For Van Bruggen the first step has been to improve the business side of things in the Triathlon Canada structure.
“I think what I’ve been saying all along is that you can’t inspire excellence if you don’t display it organizationally,” she says. “[It starts with] the fundamentals … things like a strong strategic plan, with performance indicators that we can measure. It’s about ensuring transparency and accountability in everything we are doing. And it is about ensuring a strong brand and corporate culture.”
In surveys done shortly after she came on board, Van Bruggen got some very clear messages from Triathlon Canada members:
“They want us to lead, they want us to align the country and they want transparency from us,” she says. “To me they want to be able to see themselves in the organization and in the work that we do.”
An age group triathlete herself, Van Bruggen seems to be all-too-aware of the importance of the delicate balance her position requires – providing world-class results at the international events while also taking care of the thousands who simply love to participate in the sport. And, thanks to her communications background, she’s already working on creating a “brand” that triathletes of all levels can associate with.
“Age groupers are integral to this whole picture,” she says. “I really see the age group athletes as forming the base and foundation of what we’re calling the Triathlon Canada Nation, if you will.”
Trickle down effect
Both Van Bruggen and Liang are also quick to point out how high-performance development can benefit athletes of all levels. Van Bruggen is looking to create some Triathlon Canada presence at some major long-distance events to ensure that both age groupers and elites who might not be part of the ITU stream feel they’re included in this new Triathlon Canada Nation. Liang stresses the importance of coaching development and how that helps everyone involved in the sport, too. “The thing that I’ve noticed in triathlon is that people don’t understand how much high performance does affect the age group programming,” he says. “For example, the coaching excellence programs that we’re going to create are going to trickle down to all athletes.”
It’s not about the cash
Neither Liang and Van Bruggen will complain about the amount of funding they’re dealing with. While they would no-doubt welcome more money to the program, both have a very refreshing outlook on where things are at:
“When you’re in a low-funded environment, innovation kicks in pretty quickly,” Liang says. “The coaches who have stuck around, Jonno Hall and Carolyn Murray – they have gone to a pared down coaching program that underpins any high-performance program.”
“Do the fundamentals well, do that all the time,” he continues. “When you have that dialled in, that’s where the funding really starts to kick in. It helps on the sports performance side, the tech, the innovation.”
Tokyo and beyond
With his swim background, Liang is quick to point out that Triathlon Canada is very much in a “rebuild” phase right now – exactly the same phase he saw Swimming Canada go through between 2000 and 2004. For him, 2020 will be a “stop-gap metric to see where we’re actually going.”
That’s not the case for Paratriathlon, though, “a completely different scenario because we have Stefan Daniel in the pipe and other athletes who might step up over the next few years.”
So what can we expect in our highperformance programs? Don’t expect Van Bruggen or Liang to look to copy other country’s programs.
“I am very Canadian-centric,” Liang says. “I think that any national sport organization (NSO) that has tried to mimic another federation in terms of high performance has gone wrong. I think the ones that are successful are the ones that understand the nuances of the Canadian system, our coaching systems, our funding system, our political system.”
“We can learn a lot from their systems,” Van Bruggen continues. “You take what you need, but you never copy. We can’t be Triathlon Australia, we can’t be USA Triathlon.”
That Canada-centric focus will encourage athletes to work within the system, too.
“I am a strong believer that if you don’t foster Canadian coaches then you don’t foster Canadian athletes,” Liang says. “This idea that we need to have our athletes be coached by people in Australia, or the U.S., or Spain doesn’t fly with me. It hasn’t worked for numerous sports … and it certainly didn’t work for us. I believe in the coaches that we have in play.”
I’ve kept both Van Bruggen and Liang on the line far longer than the half-hour they had allotted for the conversation, but they don’t seem to mind. Both seem passionate about the opportunities ahead – and they see them as just that, opportunities. Ones that can be capitalized on by using “resourcefulness and innovation.”
It didn’t hurt to “bump into those medals,” but the plan is that the next ones won’t come by accident.
“They want us to lead, they want us to align the country and they want transparency from us” “The coaching excellence programs that we’re going to create are going to trickle down to all athletes.”
KIM VAN BRUGGEN