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How Victoria could double-down as an Olympic town

In Victoria, young athletes and Olympians share the same paths

A local researcher says Victoria has all the necessary tools to become a world-class hotspot for developing Olympians in a way that Nashville develops music, or that Santa Clara Valley (Silicon Valley) is a hub for software businesses.

Rick Cotton is an associate professor at the University of Victoria’s Gustavson School of Business and a PhD in organization studies. As a professional Cotton consulted with major organizations and since switching to academics, Cotton has studied how small areas produce big results.

Since relocating here a few years ago Cotton, a former Syracuse University volleyball player and father of two athletic teenage boys, has become familiar with Victoria as a national athletic hub. With a little reorganization of resources, Cotton believes Victoria has the tools to create an even greater athlete culture and become an international force. One model he pointed to is Trøndelag, the powerhouse region of Norway that developed 15 medal winning athletes at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics (Norway won 23 in total).

Cotton made the comparison that Victoria could produce even more Olympians, noting Trøndelag is similar to Victoria with a population of 418,000 people, to Greater Victoria’s 367,000. This year Norway, a country of 5.3 million and 109 athletes, led the PyeongChang medal count with 39 (14 gold, 14 silver and 11 bronze). Canada sent 225 athletes that won 29 (11-8-10).

“It is often said that people in Trøndelag are born on skis,” Cotton said. “In terms of social capital, you can’t go to a store without bumping into a former Olympian, so you’ve got easily accessible role models. As for positive psychological capital, they obviously draw energy and inspiration from living among so many people who have achieved success.”

Granted, Trøndelag is far north and its weather makes skiing an accessible option to all. However, Trøndelag athletes have won medals in curling and ski jumping. Switch the focus to summer sports and it could happen here, Cotton said.

“The Olympic identity is here, but the exposure isn’t. You’ve got Olympic athletes at Elk Lake sharing space with rowers. That’s a good infrastructure to start with. Victoria has very natural resources, and there’s an opportunity to improve the connection with people who live here, who grow up here, the businesses and institutions, I think that part of our identify is underdeveloped,” Cotton said.

So what does Trøndelag and the rest of Norway do that’s so effective?

“In Trøndelag, from the minute your born its reinforced though access to role modes, whether its their presence in high schools, etc., it’s made very clear at an early stage that you can be an Olympic athlete as well,” Cotton said.

Having youth athletes train in the same space as Olympians, or even bump into them at the grocery store, is part of the model, Cotton said. So is getting the athletes to speak regularly at schools and local events, which many already do. Lindsay Jennerich toured her Olympic medal to schools following the Rio Games, Olympic gold-medal rower Adam Kreek is raising his family locally as a professional speaker and rower-turned-photographer Kevin Light continues to be Saanich-based as he shoots local and national news and sports events.

In addition to Rowing Canada, Rugby Canada, Triathlon Canada, Athletics Canada, Swimming Canada and the Canadian National Mountain Bike Team, athletes of various types, be it cycling, diving, wheelchair rugby, soccer or baseball and more are drawn to the local amenities and year-round training the Capital Region offers. Victoria also boasts a few winter athletes, such as 2014 Sochi gold medal winner Jamie Benn in ice hockey, and 2018 Paralympic skiers Braydon Luscombe and Mel Pemble. There are plenty of Olympic medal winners such as Jennerich and Patricia Obee (rowing), Ryan Cochrane (swimming) and a few others with Victoria ties (Hilary Caldwell, swimming, and Gillian Carleton, cycling).

The next step is to have the athletes reach out and with an added presence to inspire youth and additional local relationships.

“Once you build enough of an infrastructure there’s a tipping point, and it builds on itself,” Cotton said. “You get those strong relationship with Olympians.”

To be clear, the message for aspiring athletes is to focus on hitting your peak, and not to expect everyone is an Olympian.

“If your peak is the Olympics, great, but it’s about hitting your potential,” Cotton said,’ and it’s about sharing that expectation with athletes from the high school level.

“In Trondelag, you have hope, optimism and resilience with the locals, knowing they’ve produced so many athletes over time. It makes it easier to believe you can be successful yourself, but it’s always about being your best.”

reporter@saanichnews.com

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