Manitoba's big 10

Meet our province's Olympic contingent

By PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency


Manitoban athletes Jonathan Toews (men's hockey), Cindy Klassen (long track speed skating) and Clara Hughes (long track speed skating) will represent Canada at the Vancouver Olympics. (File photos)

Five of them are Olympic veterans, five are raw rookies.

But none have ever experienced anything like a home-country Olympics.

For the 10 born-and-raised Manitobans going to Vancouver -- actually, for all 200 athletes who'll be named to Team Canada on Friday -- that puts the 2010 Winter Games on an entirely different level.

"People keep telling us to expect the unexpected," Winnipeg speed skater Brittany Schussler told the Sun. "It's going to be wild."

It's a first Olympics for the 24-year-old Schussler, although she was an alternate in Turin, four years ago.

Four other 'Tobans have never even done that: NHLer Jonathan Toews, a Winnipegger, skeleton racer Jon Montgomery of Russell, Falcon Lake's Megan Imrie in the biathlon and speed skater Kyle Parrott of Minnedosa.

Most weren't even old enough to watch TV the last time the Olympics came to Canada, 22 years ago.

That they've made it this far in their respective sports at a time when the Games return to our home and native land is a dose of divine timing.

Most athletes go their entire careers without experiencing anything like this.

"It feels like so much more," Parrott said. "On TV you're constantly seeing this advertising for the Olympics. You're driving around, you're seeing the Olympic rings. It's amazing to have a first Olympics in Canada."

Parrott's based in Calgary for his training, but it's the same no matter where you live: constant reminders, especially on the tube, that the Games are coming.

This is going to dwarf any sporting event this country has ever seen. The media coverage will be enormous, the images everlasting.

Hit the podium in this one, especially the top of it, and you'll be a Canadian hero, liable to end up on a stamp or something.

The sheer enormity of it all should bring out the best in Team Canada, since the athletes have been more focused than ever -- even longtime Olympic vets.

For instance, Parrott trains with Winnipeg's Mike Ireland and Jeremy Wotherspoon, both with multiple Olympics under their belts. And he noticed a change in both of them as far back as last summer.

REPEAT OLYMPIANS

"Those guys like to joke around a lot," Parrott said. "I could tell when we were training it started to get a little quieter and a little quieter each day. People were getting a little more serious. I kind of stopped and thought about it: this must be a really big deal if these guys are starting to really crack down and get really, really focused."

Joining Ireland as repeat Olympians are speed skaters Cindy Klassen, Clara Hughes and Shannon Rempel, along with Jennifer Botterill, a mainstay on the women's hockey team.

Hughes could be named Canada's flag-bearer on Friday, which would put yet another exclamation point on the proceedings for her.

Other Manitoba-born, but not necessarily raised, athletes going to Vancouver include curler John Morris, hockey's Duncan Keith and freestyle skier Danielle Poleschuk.

Even the highly paid pros who play in front of thousands of fans every other night seem to realize this is going to be special.

"There's a lot of expectations," Toews said the day he was named to Team Canada. "But having the home crowd and that home country atmosphere is going to be huge for us. It's definitely something we've got to use as an advantage, instead of something that can bring us down."

Ah, yes, the pressure.

That'll probably be most intense in hockey, where it's gold or bust.

The rest of you: just help Canada Own the Podium, that's all.

And, as always, do Manitoba proud.

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'TOBA 10

- Clara Hughes, Winnipeg

- Mike Ireland, Winnipeg

- Cindy Klassen, Winnipeg

- Kyle Parrott, Minnedosa

- Shannon Rempel, Winnipeg

- Brittany Schussler, Winnipeg

- Jonathan Toews, Winnipeg

- Jennifer Botterill, Winnipeg

- Megan Imrie, Falcon Lake

- Jon Montgomery, Russell

POLL