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Steve Simmons: Swimming Canada’s Olympic Plan Comes to Life, Four Years Early



RIO DE JANEIRO — This is the unexpected beginning. A little too soon. A little early in the plans.

The kind of too soon that makes you smile, or if you’re a teenager, maybe giggle a little: This unlikely and sensational rise of Canada’s swim team, especially the female swimmers.

Three medals won after just four days of the Summer Olympics. That’s one more in total than Canadian women won in London, Beijing, Athens, Sydney, Atlanta, Barcelona and Seoul, combined. Two medals won over those 28 years.

Three already here. Possibly more to come.

“Was it expected?” John Atkinson, the high performance director of Swim Canada repeated the question. “It was hoped for. We knew we had a shot to be in some finals. That was possible. But to think we would have three medals at the end of Day 3? I would have taken that, yes I would have taken that.”

Just a few days before the Olympics, while speaking with Anne Merklinger, the CEO of Own The Podium, she mentioned the name Penny Oleksiak. She mentioned her in the same sentence with Tokyo 2020. Rio was supposed to be the warmup for four years from now for the kids on this swim team.

“It’s phenomenal what has happened here,” said Merklinger.  “We had identified Penny as having potential for 2020. Her and others. We knew our investment would pay off over the long term. We just didn’t know how long it would take, or in this case how quickly it would come.”

This is part sport, part business, part investment: That’s what Olympic sport has become in Canada. It’s not just about dreams and medals and personal bests. It’s a partnership between the federal government, paying the role of banker; the national sport organization, in this case being Swimming Canada; and the OTP program created at great expense as a lead up to the Vancouver Olympics.

And this is the swimming plan come to life, on display at the biggest event in the world, for the very first time.

It started, of course, after failure. Too much failure. After almost each of the Olympics post the bloated medal totals from Los Angeles in 1984, Canada’s swim program seemed in disarray. Once in a while a Mark Tewksbury or a Ryan Cochrane would come along, but in between fingers were pointed, blame was allotted, jobs were lost, reputations ruined.

After the London Olympics four years ago, OTP made a determination along with Swim Canada that things had to change. They looked at the sport, saw all the medals available, so many events, so many disciplines, and asked: What about us? How do we become part of the show?

In 2013, Atkinson, a world-class coach, was brought in at significant expense to be the technical director of Swim Canada. What did he find? “When you looked underneath, the depth was really poor,” he said. “We had a lot of work to do.”

The stars of this story aren’t just athletes who have made a significant leap onto the world stage, aren’t just coaches and administrators, but also a building in Scarborough that has had a dynamic impact on the growth of Canadian swimming. The Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre, home now to many of Canada’s greatest swimmers, has changed the environment for swimming in the country and the results are already evident.

Oleksiak trains there with national team coach Ben Titley. She’s not alone. Four of the five medal-winning relay swimmers from Saturday night’s bronze-medal performance train together at the Pan Am pool. Kylie Masse, who won bronze the night after Oleksiak won silver, also spends some time there.

“That’s a special environment and a great legacy from the Pan Am Games,” said Atkinson. “I think having that world-class facility with world-class coaching has been a very large contributing factor. When you add in what we’ve gotten from OTP and you can see the beginning of something (special).”

The beginning? Two of the Canadian medal winners here are 16-years-old. The IOC confirmed Tuesday that Oleksiak and relay teammate Taylor Ruck are the first athletes born in the year 2000 to ever win an Olympic medal. When asked what inspired Ruck to be an Olympian, you realize just how young she is. She said she watched Missy Franklin swim in London and decided that’s what she wanted to be. Franklin was 17 at the 2012 Games.

“Having people to look up to, that’s really important,” said Atkinson. “Penny is going to be the sort of person that young ladies all across Canada will look up to, and she and others will be role models for the future. Swimmers for other Canadians to look up to and want to be like.

“We can look back at our first Olympic Games and what mattered to us and who we wanted to be like. For the 10-11 years olds out there now, maybe these will be the stars that kids will want to emulate.”

With Oleksiak being the 16-year-old leader in the clubhouse and three races left this week.

“What we’ve seen in the course of the season from Penny is, every time she’s competed better and better and you see her confidence growing,” said Merklinger. Oleksiak is the first woman in 32 years to win more than one medal for Canada at a Summer Olympics.

“We’re absolutely delighted by what we’ve seen here and it’s not over. We believed swimming had potential for 2020 and we look at some of the young athletes on the men’s team that are trending in the right direction.”

The 2020 Games arrived four years early for Swim Canada and OTP: The best is yet to come.

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Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020



Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.

Theo Bair (MLS)

This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.

Source: Pixabay

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)

Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.

Baseball by andrewmalone, on Flickr

Baseball” (CC BY 2.0) by andrewmalone

Connor McDavid (NHL)

McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.

Chuba Hubbard (College Football)

The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.

2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.

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Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo



Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.

Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.

Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.

“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”

Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.

Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.

“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”

Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.

“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”

Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.

Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.

“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”

After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.

“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”

None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.

“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.

Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.

“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”

That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.

“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.

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Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month



NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.

The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.

Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.

“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.

“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”

It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.

For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.

Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.

A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.

It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.

Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.

“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.

“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”

Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.

“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.

“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”

And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.

“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”

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