Team Canada reaching for the top

TURIN -- No longer can Canada's elite winter athletes cite poverty, poor coaching, a lack of resources or poor support to explain Olympic failures.

Thanks to increased funding, guidance and innovation as part of the Own The Podium (OTP) program, the stage in Turin is set for Canada to post its greatest Olympic showing.

"With the new initiatives I feel as an athlete I have everything I need to be the best I can in Turin," said the 33-year-old cyclist-turned-speed skater, the only Canadian to medal in both the Winter and Summer Games.

"I've been an athlete at this level for 15 years in two different sports and with all the changes, I've never seen it this good. I feel like my coaches have all the support they need and, as an athlete, all the little things that were causing a lot of stress have been addressed."

Such words are music to the ears of Canadian Olympic Committee boss Chris Rudge, who was initially mocked when he set Canada's medal goal at 25.

"One of the things that's really positive is we know the athletes are going into competitions focused on the right things, not on backfilling issues regarding a place to stay or being able to afford travel," said Rudge.

"One athlete was saying, 'I know all my health needs are being looked after. I can get all the physiotherapy and massage therapy whenever I need it and the best thing is that when I'm traveling on the road, I can have my own room.'

"It's amazing what little things have a big impact on an athlete's preparation. Those kind of stories are pretty gratifying."

Introduced 13 months ago with an eye on topping the medal standings at the 2010 Vancouver Games, the $110-million OTP program has paid early dividends as Canada enters the Turin Games second only to Germany in World Cup medals with 136 this winter.

"I just hope we're able to nail it," said Canada's chef de mission, Shane Pearsall, overseeing a team that finished fourth in Salt Lake City with 17 medals.

"That's the issue because we've got some expectations. I think we're doing a lot of things right and success at the Games is going to prove that."

In past Games, expectations have too often been followed by failure, which is something Canadian athletes and officials have worked hard to address.

One of the new initiatives came in the form of a summer retreat in Lake Louise matching up past Canadian Olympic medallists with current athletes to discuss problems they might face at the Games.

"It was great for building team camaraderie too, and if we see a successful start from the beginning of the Games, I think you're going to see a team commitment and momentum that will be incredible," said Jackson.

"You look at the enthusiasm across all winter sports and the results they're getting -- I think all the teams and kids believe in themselves in a way they never have in this country before," added Rudge.

How perfect, then, that all eyes will be on Alberta gold- medal favourite Jennifer Heil, a moguls skier who kicks things off Saturday.

"It's going to get things rolling and help others start winning, not just through these Games, but in the summer and onto 2010," said Pearsall.

"Second (among all countries) is not out of the question. People look at this thing about being first in 2010 and they laugh. But as funny as it seems, they haven't thought about it before."

This time, Canadians are here to win.

And as Hughes says, there's no reason they can't.