They say the coldest place in Winnipeg on a January morning is the corner of Portage and Main.
Because as any kid who’s ever been a competitive swimmer in this city can tell you, the coldest place in Winnipeg on a January morning — or any morning, for that matter — is in the water at Pan Am Pool for a 6 a.m. practice.
With every fibre of their beings telling them to pull the covers up to their chin and go back to sleep, these kids haul themselves out of bed at an ungodly hour, drag their exhausted selves to Pan Am and then, against all better judgment, dive into the chilly water at a time the rest of us are still stringing out REMs.
Whether its Manta or Marlins or any of the other competitive swim clubs in town, these kids hold down crazy schedules — six days a week at the elite level, with two-a-days on at least a couple of those days, swimming both in the early hours before school and then returning later in the day to do it all over again.
It’s exhausting just to watch, as any parent of a competitive swimmer can attest.
And yet these kids pound out the lengths, day after day, month after month, in almost complete anonymity just to see if they can shave a tenth of a second off that personal best.
I was reminded of that world this week by a commercial I saw for the Canada Games depicting young athletes training in empty pools and gymnasiums and tracks all over the country. As the kids pounded it out, the narrator declares: "Canada’s pride isn’t yet awake at 5 a.m."
But the kids are. And the very best of them are in Winnipeg the next couple weeks — 3,400 of the country’s finest young athletes competing in 249 events across 16 sports as this city hosts the Canada Summer Games.
For those kids — and their parents and grandparents — it is the payoff for all those lonesome hours in all those empty tracks and pools and gyms: a brief moment in the spotlight when the kids can stand up before the country and, like kids everywhere, shout: "Hey! Look what I can do!"
But just as much as for the kids who did qualify to get here, I’d argue these Games are also for all the ones who didn’t, the kids who missed qualifying by a hundredth of a second and the kids who weren’t even close to qualifying.
There’s a special kind of agony in working so hard for something and then coming up short — or even long. And there’s nothing more heartbreaking than watching your kid do all the right things — putting in the hours and the work, day after day and month after month — only to come away empty in the end.
And yet, upon further reflection, there’s also a pride that comes with seeing what you and your kids do celebrated on a national stage the way we will here in Winnipeg for a couple of weeks.
And then, of course, it will all go dark again: the bleachers will empty, the flags will come down and in the end, it will just be those kids and that freezing pool alone together again.
We love to pat ourselves on the back about all that "Canada pride." There’s no questioning how much this country loves huddling around a television set for the Olympics every two years — or any time someone throws a frozen disc on a sheet of ice and sends out a bunch of players wearing maple leafs on their chest.
And yet, if you stage, say, a world luge championship somewhere in Canada, the average Canadian who cannot get enough of the stuff every four years on television won’t walk across the street to buy a ticket.
Indeed, as that commercial points out so effectively, the actual heavy lifting that underlies all that Canada Pride is done long before the hot lights come on and with very little support from actual Canadians.
You want to know who the biggest single financial supporter of amateur sport is in this country? It’s not the feds, it’s not the province, it’s not a handful of good corporate citizens who sponsor the best of our amateur athletes.
No, the biggest single funder of amateur athletics in Canada — by a freaking country mile — is parents.
Parents pay the registration fees. Parents buy the equipment. Parents pay the entries. And parents — you crazy, under-appreciated, over-caffeinated, exhausted bunch — do more driving than a Unicity cabbie.
A tiny handful of those parents’ kids will eventually reach a level so elite that they will become eligible for meaningful government funding as part of the country’s carded athlete system.
That system has gotten better — and better funded — over the last decade as part of the Own The Podium initiative that has very successfully targeted elite athletes for support in sports that Canada actually has a chance to medal at the Olympics.
A curler? You’re going to be well-funded at the elite level. A ski jumper? Unless you’re the second-coming of Horst Bulau, you’re going to be paying almost all your bills on your own. It’s a cut-throat and decidedly un-Canadian way of funding athletes in a polite country where we generally like to give everyone a participation ribbon.
But there’s also no arguing with the results: from Vancouver to Sochi to Rio, Canadians are bringing home medals like we never have before.
But long before they get to that world stage, those athletes will get their first real taste of big-time competition here in Winnipeg over the next couple of weeks.
You’ve never heard of most of these kids we have in town right now — and most you will never hear of again.
But the long list of Canada Games alumni who went on to become household names in this country — from Andre De Grasse to Bruny Surin, Bob Gainey to Sidney Crosby, Catriona LeMay Doan to Steve Nash — suggests there are more than a few stars in the making in this prairie town right now.
Here’s some stats for you: 48 per cent of Olympic medals won by Canada in Sochi were contributed, at least in part, by Canada Winter Games alumni. The number was even higher in Rio — fully 64 per cent of our Summer Games medals in 2016 came at least in part from Canada Summer Games alumni.
In all, Canada Games alumni account for 40 per cent of all our Commonwealth, Olympic and Paralympic athletes.
All of which is to say that in a city famous for loving a bargain, the Canada Summer Games might be the best bargain in town right now — a chance to see Olympic athletes at Winnipeg prices, without the costs of a flight or stratospheric Olympic hotel prices.
It’s cold in that pool for those kids. And it will be cold again when all this is wrapped up.
So how about we do for those kids the next couple weeks what Winnipeg has always done best in the summer — let’s warm things up.
Read more by Paul Wiecek.