VANCOUVER — The first Wednesday in February is National Signing Day in the Excited States, the day when campuses across the nation wait breathlessly for the country’s best high school football players to declare which NCAA university programs they intend to grace with their presence.
It is the feeder system for the feeder system — the Canadian hockey equivalent would be bantams signing letters of intent to join major junior clubs — only in the States, it isn’t a draft, but a polarizing, tantalizing, hyper-ventilating day for fans and alumni and coaches and college presidents, and is covered in embarrassing detail by national and local media.
On the first Wednesday in February, Pierre Lafontaine sits in his office in Ottawa and ponders the size of the boulder he has chosen to push up the mountain.
Lafontaine will end his eight-year tenure at Swimming Canada on March 1 to take over as CEO of Canadian Interuniversity Sport, which is to the NCAA as ... oh, Major League Soccer is to the English Premier League.
“Big hill to climb,” says J.D. Miller, who co-founded the B2ten group of silent benefactors who have provided essential money and resources to Canadian Olympic athletes to get them on the podium, and who will miss Lafontaine’s boundless energy at the top of the swimming pyramid in this country.
It’s impossible to view Lafontaine’s departure as anything but a net loss to the Olympic effort, even if one of his goals as the new CIS chief is to make Canadian universities a bigger part of the national sporting fabric, including Olympic athlete development.
“It’s a Sisyphusian task he’s taking on,” Miller said, invoking the name of the mythical Greek boulder-pusher, “but you know what? It’s hard to think of a better person for it.”
Harder than that, though, is trying to figure out where he’ll begin.
It’s easy enough to see what he doesn’t have.
He doesn’t have athletic scholarships with which to fight the losing battle of Canadian athletes — hockey, football, basketball, track and field, soccer, and on and on — jumping to U.S. schools for free educations. He doesn’t have TV money to speak of, although a modest contract is in the works. And compared to the NCAA, with its full-time staff of around 300, he has 10.
“Well, when I took the (Swimming Canada) job here eight years ago, I remember my buddies in Australia saying, ‘I can’t believe you’re going there. They’re so bad!’ ” said Lafontaine, who spent three years as the Aussies’ head swim coach.
“And all I could think of was there’s so many great things that if all you focus on are the roadblocks, then sure it looks like an abyss. We’re not going to change the whole world with 10 people, but my staff at Swimming Canada is 12 — to 145, I think, in United States swimming — so I do think the staff will have to chop away at two bites at a time. But by engaging each one of the schools on the marketing and communications and IT fronts, the CIS doesn’t have to do it all. The schools are the bigger picture.”
Lafontaine was known as a facilitator, an energizing, encouraging presence as a swim administrator who gave all the help he could to let the coaches do their jobs.
“You might say this sounds like Bible wording, but what we’ve got here are 11,000 athletes who are people, 4,500 coaches who are people, 54 ADs who are people, and I don’t think anybody in there is not wanting to be way better,” he said of the CIS task. “So what I’ve got to do is talk to them and find out what lights them up.”
He’ll be dealing with corporations and university presidents and TV executives, too, while trying to create an environment that will keep Canadian athletes at home.
A lack of athletic scholarships would seem to make that task nigh-on impossible, but Lafontaine is hopeful. Miller and B2ten, for instance, are contemplating trying to engage corporate sponsors to fund scholarships for talented athletes to get their post-secondary schooling in Canada.
“Pierre seems to think it’s doable. We’d just pay the tuition bill,” Miller said. “Bottom line is, if we can’t activate the universities, let’s activate the private sector.”
Swimming Canada, too, has mulled devoting a segment of its budget, probably a re-direct of some of its own corporate funding, to keep swimmers in Canadian universities.
“I also think the universities have to be part of the [national sporting] solution,” Lafontaine said. “I’m sure they didn’t make this move, and push for this kind of change, for status quo. I think they want to be way more relevant, and they want to give a great student-athlete experience at the university.
“There’s also a bunch of them that say you know what, we want to go there (with athletic scholarships). So I’m not sure of the exact lay of the land in all these things, but in terms of the number of kids that are leaving to go into sports in the U.S., unless there’s a brand out there that tells a kid, ‘This is a great choice here,’ we’re not going to win this challenge.”
Miller has long scratched his head at the Canadian university ethos of rewarding the grade-point average over all else.
“The only thing that counts, for kids finishing high school and wanting to get into a (Canadian) university is a number. If it’s 86.3 to get into Western or Queen’s this year, you could have nothing to offer but grades, and the grade will get you in,” he said. “Whereas in the United States, sure, if you have the grades that gets your foot in the door, but then it’s: ‘What are your recommendations, can you speak, what’s your community service, do you play sports?’ And the best universities want the best everything: the best chess player, the best trombone player, the best painter, the best basketball player.
“And it becomes a pursuit of excellence, not a uni-dimensional pursuit of grades.”
The notion, B2ten’s take at any rate, is that American universities use Canadian athletes for their purposes, but have no vested interest in them as national resources.
“I said a long time ago: name me five Canadians — just five — who have achieved a great level of success at the Olympic level who have gone on to do really noteworthy things for our country. Not an easy list,” Miller said.
“It’s because we haven’t seen to their education. We’ve squeezed out what we need to squeeze out of them, which they’ve given willfully because they’re passionate about sport for the benefit of the country on the amateur sport playing field — but that’s it.
“And I don’t have a problem if a world champion in alpine skiing wants to be a ski instructor for the rest of his life because that is what they are truly passionate about. However, if they end up as a ski instructor because there’s nowhere else to go, we’ve failed them. The system has failed them.”
Lafontaine isn’t against athletes attending U.S. schools, he just thinks the Canadian alternative is undervalued. And undervalues itself.
“One day, I’m driving to Ottawa, listening to CBC Radio, and the morning person says, ‘In the next half-hour we’re going to have this brilliant girl, a rower, who just signed a letter of intent to go to Princeton — and isn’t it neat to have brain and physical capability together?’ And I was pissed! I called them up and said, ‘What are you talking about? We’ve got some of the most brilliant rowers rowing for Queen’s, for McGill, for U of Toronto, Ottawa, and here you’re promoting a kid who’s going to Princeton?’ A Canadian radio station!”
And then there was the person he told last Thursday, just prior to the announcement, that he was leaving Swimming Canada to join the CIS.
He got blank stare and a telling reply.
“What’s the CIS?”
Sisyphus? Pfft. He had it soft.
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun