The Next Qua­dren­nial

Triathlon Magazine Canada - - TRANSITION - BY KEVIN MACK­IN­NON

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.”



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