Canadian Olympic speedskater and cyclist Clara Hughes, of Winnipeg, Man., stops to take a picture of a photograph of Canadian skeleton athlete Michelle Kelly competing at the 2010 Olympics, outside the hotel where the Canadian Olympic team is gathered for a summit in Vancouver B.C., on Monday May 13, 2013.
Photograph by: Darryl Dyck , THE CANADIAN PRESS
VANCOUVER – Eric Neilson concedes he was a bit star struck over the weekend as he sat in conference rooms at a downtown Vancouver hotel with more than 100 Canadian Olympic hopefuls for the 2014 Sochi Games.
Like the 31-year-old skeleton athlete from Kelowna, several were at their first Canadian Olympic Committee Olympic Excellence Series, while others were multiple-time Olympians who had been through the experience before.
“I was sitting in one of the conferences and I was sitting completely in awe,” Neilson said Monday as he and other athletes did rounds of media interviews. “I was there with people who I had literally screamed at the TV for. I just sat there and soaked it all in.”
It marked the fifth time that the COC has brought together athletes, coaches and support staff for a weekend workshop in the year leading up to an Olympic Games.
It is part of a strategy to ensure Canadian athletes are as prepared as they possibly can be for the challenges of competing at an Olympics.
“Virtually every moment, whether it was for education, relaxation or simply to get to know each other, was designed to help ensure that the Canadian team entering Sochi’s Fisht Olympic Stadium is practically and purposefully equipped to deal with whatever occurs, both on and off the field of play,” said COC president Marcel Aubut.
In addition to breakout sessions that focussed on their individual sport requirements, including the impact of weather and snow conditions at the venues in the Black Sea resort, the participants sat in on motivational speeches from a variety of athletes.
They heard from the likes of Will Gadd, an ice-climber and extreme adventurer, from Canmore, Alta., ex-Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes, a multiple medalist in cycling and speed skating, and John Herdmann, the coach who led the Canadian women’s soccer team to a bronze medal at the 2012 London Summer Olympics.
“There was amazing and inspiring speeches throughout the whole weekend,” said Kaya Turski, a Montreal native whose sport of ski slopestyle will make its Olympic debut at Sochi. “Something that really stood out for me was Clara’s speech.
“I had no idea the history she’s had and the ups and downs. Very inspiring. We can all relate through the struggles we all have. It’s not all about the successes.”
Like Turski, Nielson said it was the first time he’s had a chance to spend some extended time with athletes from other sports. In fact, Nielson wound up rooming on the weekend with Alex Bilodeau, the freestyle moguls medalist from Rosemere, Que., whose early gold at Vancouver 2010 made him the first Canadian athlete to win Olympic gold at a home games.
“To talk to him about his success and dedication, I mean the guy is just 26 years old,” said Neilson. “He’s just a young kid still.
“And he gets to room with me,” added a laughing Neilson.
Bobsleigh pilot Kaillie Humphries, a 2010 gold medalist and 2013 world champion, said she enjoys talking to elite athletes in other sports.
“These are people who share the same passion, drive, dedication and commitment as you. To be able to talk with them in a casual (environment) . . . to see their personality come out, I can learn from each and every one of them.”
Neilson, who was fourth at the 2013 worlds in St. Moritz, Switzerland, said one of the most important messages he got out of the weekend was to pay attention to detail.
“Take every moment this year to make sure you’re doing the small things to get ready – you know, make sure you get your therapy. Or, if you can change your nutrition just to get that little bit of an edge . . . that’s something I really got out of it.”
Neilson, who got food poisoning in Sochi from eating uncooked chicken when the skeleton team was there for a pre-Olympic test event, said he believes things will be better in the athlete’s village next February.
“Once the Olympics start, it’ll be different. They want to show their best. We know security is going to be tight, transfer to the venues will be kind of hectic, but it’s something you’ve just go to roll with and deal with it.”
Turski, a multiple X Games gold medalist, said the biggest thing that resonated with her from the weekend was to keep everything simple.
“Just do what you do and trust in that. I’m always trying to do that and I’ve had a really successful career and I think that’s a great plan heading into the Olympics. Don’t stray from the plan and go with what I’ve got, trust in myself and the support system I have around me.”
“There’s so much hype around the Olympics. It’s amazing, but it’s a lot of weight on your shoulders to carry your country . . . but I’m going to just let that support lift me as opposed to weighing me down.”
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