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Passing the torch

2010 Olympians stoke fire in athletes with eyes on 2012

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They hung on every syllable, their eyes transfixed, their hearts undoubtedly pounding.

This was supposed to be one of those meet-and-greet, grip-and-grin-for-the-camera shindigs where the good folks at Canadian Sport Centre Manitoba would honour this province's 2010 Olympians while identifying 35 athletes who are on the radar screen for the 2012 London Summer Olympics.

And, no question, it was all that and then some with the likes of Cindy Klassen, Jennifer Botterill, Clara Hughes, Shannon Rempel, Kyle Parrott and Megan Imrie all in attendance as part of Olympic-themed celebration events scheduled for the next few days that will culminate Thursday with the ribbon-cutting ceremony of Sport Manitoba's new Sport for Life Centre.

But as all the back-slapping and photos were being snapped a scene was also playing out that spoke volumes of an athlete's ability to inspire, to lead and to encourage the next generation. After the TV camera lights went out and the media interviews were complete there was Hughes -- one of the world's greatest Olympians -- holding court with members of Canada's national women's volleyball team, a squad which has designs on earning a spot at the Jolly Ol' England games in two years.

The half dozen members listened intently as Hughes offered advice, then tried not to drool as she held out her Olympic medals from Atlanta in '96, from Salt Lake in '02, Turin in '06 and Vancouver just two months ago. After Hughes spoke, the lot then posed for a group photo.

"I want a copy of this, too," beamed Hughes.

"This is so awesome. It's so motivating," said Samantha Loewen, who hails from East St. Paul. "I'm in awe right now. I mean, just looking at her is giving me goose bumps. All of (the Manitoba winter Olympians) are so humble and nice people. Before this started (Hughes) came up and said, 'I'm Clara...' and I'm thinking like, 'I know. I know.'"

"Look at us right now, we're soaking up everything. It's so cool."

"Imagine how it made me feel," added Tasha Holness, who calls Calgary home. "She came up to ME and introduced herself and all I could think was, 'Wait, this isn't right... I'm supposed to be the one walking up to HER and saying, 'Hi, I'm Tasha...'"

Now, maybe the moment will be fleeting to some, an in-one-ear-and-out-the-other message. But if you were witness to Hughes' ability to motivate the volleyballers, it was hard not to think of the merit in Sport Centre's master plan to use the success of the Manitoba contingent in Vancouver -- and the opening of a new sport centre downtown and the improving resources for the homegrown athlete -- as a tool to grow our representation in London and in Sochi, Russia in 2014.

The goal? To ensure that at least three per cent of any Canadian Olympic Team hails from right here in the Keystone Province.

"It's not pure science," said Randy Anderson, the GM of the Canadian Sport Centre Manitoba. "But when Sue Dandenault was working for us, she did an analysis of the Olympic Games as far back as we could go and three per cent of our Olympic teams, on average, were made up of Manitobans. And the population of Manitoba is roughly 2.8 of the country. It gave us something tangible to put in our business plan.

"But in Beijing (at the '08 Summer Olympics), for example, Canada's team size was 324 and three per cent of that is nine and change. Well, we had two (archer Jay Lyon and rower Janine Hanson) and I would suggest as sport community we didn't do a very good job. Our feeling is we should have eight or nine Manitobans in London."

And maybe that's why a get together like Tuesday, even if it's just for a few minutes, can be critical. The message Hughes & Co. delivered can suddenly make the weight on an athlete's back during a series of squats in training not seem quite as heavy or the calendar of qualifying events over the next few months so daunting.

"It's funny, even though Clara was saying things our coaches have told us every day it's different hearing it from her," Holness said. "She's one of us. She's been there, she's done that. It was powerful.

"She put her medals on the table and said, 'It is going to be a struggle sometimes. But this is what I have to show for it.' It brought out a lot of good feelings to have met her. Actually, because I've watched her compete so much it was almost surreal to be in the same room standing beside her and even having a conversation with her.

"We may compete in different sports, but we all strive to be like Clara Hughes."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2010 C4

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