As the world watches

As the world watches McGill University

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McGill Reporter
September 7, 2000 - Volume 33 Number 01
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As the world watches

Karine Legault Olympic competitor Karine Legault in action
CP Picture Archive (AndrÉ Forget)

Karine Legault was just a teenager when she first dreamed about competing in the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympic Games. But unlike most dreamy teens, the third-year McGill psychology student was quite prophetic about her future.

"I wrote in my high-school yearbook, 'Don't forget to look at me on TV at the Sydney 2000 Olympics,'" recalled Legault during an email interview from Australia.

Five years later, the world will indeed be watching, as Legault and a half-dozen other McGill athletes -- including Sébastien Paddington (swimming for Trinidad and Tobago), Marie-Luc Arpin and Jana Salat (water polo), and Benjamin Storey and Genevieve Meredith (rowing) -- take part in the Sydney Olympics that debut on September 15.

To these athletes, sweating for Olympic medals will be more than a moment of television. Competing in Sydney promises to be their moment in time, their chance to grab a piece of athletic glory and to live out their fantasies.

To think that just a few months ago, following disappointing training results, Legault nearly dismissed her Olympic dreams altogether. Good thing she didn't, since after shedding 20 pounds with the help of a nutritionist, she gained first-place ranking in Quebec and Canada in the 400- and 800-metre freestyle swimming category. Internationally, Legault ranks 19th in her sport, making her a solid Olympic contender.

Three traits -- perseverance, focus and dedication -- are what have made Legault a true Olympian. So has her desire to get to the highest level of amateur sport, a drive that's common among amateur athletes according to Chancellor Richard Pound, the Vice-President of the International Olympic Committee.

"When you're the best in your sport," he says, "the Olympics are the only place you want to be. It's one of the rare times an athlete can compete against others who are also the best in the world."

Reaching Olympic heights, however, entails a major sacrifice for student athletes: a temporary suspension of studies -- from six months to two years -- to devote themselves full time to their sport. But for most of these athletes, Pound says, missing school can be worthwhile. "In the case of McGill students," he says, "most are young enough that if they take a year off from school for the Olympics, it won't destroy their lives."

Having competed himself at the 1960 Rome Olympics while he was a McGill student, Pound understands how the Games can lure students away from their studies. In fact, for an athlete to miss an Olympic opportunity to stay in school could be counterproductive. "That student could then agonize over what could have been," says the former Olympic swimmer, who placed sixth in the 100-metre race.

It was with that frame of mind that Genevieve Meredith took a leave of absence from the School of Physical & Occupational Therapy, just six weeks before completing her studies, to join Canada's lightweight women's rowing team. "Leaving school so close to graduation was a huge decision," she recalled during a transatlantic call from Down Under. "However, I was told that those six weeks would be critical in my making the team, or not."

Meredith's choice could even be considered noble, since she qualified as her team's spare. That means she won't actually participate in the Games unless one of her teammates suffers an injury.

But at 24, her five years of experience as a rower with teams like the McGill and Montreal Rowing Clubs were considered sparse in a sport where the average age is 29. Meredith admits her main purpose in taking part in the Sydney Olympics was to be physically ready for the 2004 Games. That's why she's given the last 18 months to her sport. "I haven't had more than five days off since making the team," she says, noting she trains five to eight hours per day.

For Benjamin Storey, 26, a spare for Canada's lightweight men's rowing team, preparing for the Olympics meant interrupting his studies last March. "At this point," he admitted via email, "my status at McGill is pretty unclear."

Storey, a master's biology student, is worried about his studies because he has virtually ignored science and research for 18 months. "It is quite possible that I have basically sacrificed my degree for this opportunity," he says, noting he is grateful for the flexibility his supervisor, Professor Gregory Brown, has given him to date. "I will have to sort out my options when I return to Canada, but it is not unlikely that I will have to start my degree from scratch."

Yet, gambling school for Sydney, he says, even to be a spare, has provided him with athletic validation: "I have wanted to be part of the Olympics for as long as I can remember."

"So few people in the world ever achieve the level it takes to make it to the Olympics that just qualifying as one of those athletes is amazing," says McGill badminton coach Robbyn Hermitage. At 30, she will compete in the singles, doubles and mixed badminton tournaments in Sydney, after earning 19th place internationally in her game.

While Hermitage has not had to sacrifice school for badminton, she says the sport was a huge financial strain on her husband and family: about $30,000 in the last year alone to cover airfare and accommodations in order to compete in international tournaments. "With those kinds of expenses, my husband and I never vacation and do activities that other couples do," she says, adding that most of her expenses are now covered by the Canadian badminton team.

For Storey, the financial strain of sports has been less stinging. He earns $1,100 per month, plus tuition fees, from Sports Canada and has received about $5,000 in sponsorship and prizes over the last few months. "Having been a graduate student," he says, the stipend for amateur sports "isn't that bad."

Storey actually calls his student experience, and its accompanying lessons in time management, a partial preparation for the Olympics. Which is why he looks forward to returning to school, he says, even though it will be "very, very tough" after so much time off.

Surprisingly, Pound says, just four decades ago students rarely needed time off from school to prepare for the Olympics. Case in point: Pound had a full course load during his Olympic year. "It's the principal change about the Games today," he says, explaining that more countries now enlist their athletes, who often train full time. "There are many more great athletes now participating in the Olympics than there ever were."

That's why athletes need to be extremely focused and driven to make the Olympic cut, says physical education professor Graham Neil, a sports psychologist. "These athletes," he says, "have to be almost fanatical about their sport to realize their ambitions and goals."

Without that fanaticism, he says, "they would be overwhelmed by the time sacrifices they must make for their sport, team, coach and, in some cases, their parents."

Since Legault has been training for 15 years, she knows only too well the personal sacrifices she's made to reach the Olympics. "I've had to say goodbye to several friends for the sake of swimming, along with going out on Friday nights or having weekends off," she explains. "It hasn't been easy, but swimming has been my priority."

Athletes make concessions in their lives, says Meredith, because getting Games-ready offers a payback beyond medals. "Competing at the Olympic level is a quest to see how far you can push your body," she says, "which provides an incredible sense of achievement."

Curious about past McGill Olympians? Click on the "McGill's Olympians" link below for a complete list of the University's Olympic athletes.

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