'Marvellous year' for amateur sport

ALISON KORN

, Last Updated: 9:24 AM ET

As you read this, a Canadian athlete probably is training.

That's because high-level performance is not a lucky gift from Santa, but a product of ongoing hard work. So a salute today, to the athletes who excelled in both summer and winter sport this past year.

The list of 2008 amateur sport highlights is long. With the Vancouver Winter Olympics just 14 months away, Canada's goal of dominating there is looking credible.

Consider this: Canada won 184 winter World Cup medals during the 2007-08 season, an increase of 49 from the year before. Only Germany earned more.

"This has been a marvelous year for Canadian athletes," the Canadian Olympic Committee's CEO Chris Rudge said. "Our athletes put in a superb performance at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and winter sport athletes distinguished themselves on the international stage. Canada's place in amateur sport will only get better."

Four Canadian winter sport athletes finished the season as World Cup champions: Kristina Groves (long-track speed skating), Steve Omischl (freestyle skiing aerials), Maelle Ricker (snowboard bordercross) and Jeremy Wotherspoon (long-track speed skating). In para-alpine, World Cup Crystal Globe champions were Kimberly Joines, Lauren Woolstencroft, and Chris Williamson with guide Nick Brush.

In curling, both Jennifer Jones and Kevin Martin and their teams won world championship gold.

There also were three medals for Canada at the 2008 figure skating world championships: Jeff Buttle won gold, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won silver in ice dance, while Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison won bronze in pairs.

As for summer sport, Canada exceeded expectations at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with 18 medals (three gold, nine silver, six bronze), up from just 12 at the 2004 Athens Games. Particularly exciting was the spike in Canada's "conversion rate," the percentage of athletes who were ranked in the top five going in to the Games, who then won Olympic medals. The figure was 67% in Beijing after being just 35% in Athens.

In Beijing, wrestler Carol Huynh captured Canada's first gold, while the men's eight in rowing powered to the top of the podium as well. In equestrian, Eric Lamaze led the team to silver and then won Canada's first individual gold medal in the sport.

Karen Cockburn in trampoline and Emilie Heymans in diving both made the podium.

Athletics Canada earned its first Olympic medal since 1996 as Whitby's Priscilla Lopes-Schliep won a photo-finish bronze in the 100-metre hurdles. In swimming, Ryan Cochrane temporarily held a world record in the heats and then captured bronze in the grueling 1,500 metres. Simon Whitfield thrilled triathlon fans in winning silver, eight years after winning gold in the inaugural event.

Then at the Beijing Paralympic Games, wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc was a heroine of the entire Games, winning five gold medals and setting three world records.

Canadian swimmer Valerie Grand'Maison won six medals, including three gold, in her debut. She was part of Canada's two podium sweeps, in the women's 100-metre butterfly and 100-metre breaststroke.

"The Beijing Games (and 2008) were a landmark year for us," the Canadian Paralympic Committee's Mark Buzan said. "Canadians are realizing that this is indeed real and competitive sport. We hope this will incite Canadians with a disability to consider how they can get active."

Along with celebrating this year of achievements, let's spare a thought for those who underachieved, or who didn't enjoy the public recognition of a medal. It was a remarkable year, with even better times to come.


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