SPORTS

Van Koeverden gives OTP hiring of Merklinger as CEO his stamp of approval

01/26/2012 01:23 EST | Updated 03/27/2012 05:12 EDT
Adam Van Koeverden believes Anne Merklinger can get Canada's athletes to the top of the podium because she did it for him.

The kayaker won his three Olympic medals, including one gold, while Merklinger was director general of CanoeKayak Canada.

Own The Podium promoted from within, naming Merklinger as its new chief executive officer Thursday. Merklinger was OTP's director of summer sport under former CEO Alex Baumann, who stepped down Oct. 1 to take a similar position in the New Zealand sport system.

Van Koeverden is a medal contender again this summer in London and gave Merklinger's appointment his full endorsement.

"I think it's very, very good for the future of Canadian sport,” he told The Canadian Press in an e-mail. “Too many executives aren't good at following through and executing and having good ideas and putting the right people in place to do the jobs that need doing and that's what Anne's really good at.

"She hires the right people and she recognizes talent when she sees it and she gets the job done. She’s just a powerful person. She's smart and motivated and she works harder than anybody I know, including any of the athletes I know. I have no more faith in any other individual in Canada than I do in Anne Merklinger."

Own The Podium divides about $70 million annually in federal government funding between summer and winter athletes, so Merklinger now holds one of the most powerful positions in Canadian sport.

Her job is to continue Canada's success internationally following the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C.

The host team finished third in the overall medal count, but won a record 14 gold medals. Canada also won 19 medals, including 10 gold, in the Paralympic Winter Games.

"We've realized how important it is to Canada for our athletes to do well," Merklinger told The Canadian Press. "We saw with the success in Vancouver, the impact it had on our country. There's such an awareness and so much momentum to carry forward.

"We've seen the impact that athletes winning medals has on building communities and developing national unity and pride."

OTP oversees many aspects of an elite athlete's life in between Olympic Games and works in concert with the Canadian Olympic Committee. The COC prepares athletes for the Games environment and looks after their needs on the ground at Games.

The selection of Merklinger provides continuity within the organization with the Summer Games in London just six months away.

Canada isn't as strong in summer sport as winter, so the goal for London is more modest — a top-12 finish in overall medals and top-eight in gold medals at the Summer Paralympics.

Merklinger, 53, is a former national team swimmer and a curler who competed in four national championships. The Ottawa native was an athlete up until 2006 when she retired from curling.

Merklinger served as director general of CanoeKayak Canada for 15 years before joining OTP in 2009. Canadian paddlers won eight Olympic medals, including Van Koeverden's gold in 2004, during her time at the helm.

Merklinger follows two men who were CEO, but she doesn't feel she's had to break through a glass ceiling to get OTP's top job.

"I don't ever think of my gender throughout my sport career and compare," Merklinger said. "I'm aware of the different approaches I might use and how they may differ from a male perspective, but in terms of a leadership approach, the gender lens doesn't really enter into any of my thinking.

"The network of people who have mentored me along the way are highly accomplished men and women and I use that network to shape my own approach and my own thinking."

The head of OTP must be politically astute as the job requires lobbying the federal government for funding.

"I actually relish that part of it," Merklinger said. "I know for us to achieve our objectives as a nation in terms of being a world-leading high-performance country, we need all those partners fully engaged with us working together.

"Without those relationships getting stronger, we won't be able to affect the improvement we need as quickly."

Merklinger is now the ultimate decision-maker on which sport federations get more money than others. Money is distributed based on a sport's medal potential at Olympic Games.

"If you were to ask around within the summer sport community they would know that I didn't shy away from making the difficult decisions," she said.

When Baumann resigned, executive search company Odgers Berndtson donated its services free of charge and launched a global search for a suitable replacement.

OTP board chairman John Furlong, formerly the head of the Vancouver Olympic Games Organizing Committee (VANOC), said about 100 candidates from Australia, the United States, Europe, Britain, Asia and Canada applied for the job.

Merklinger was among three to make a short list.

"The best person to lead us was already on our team," Furlong said during a conference call. "Anne is a very uniquely qualified individual. "Her career has soared on both the summer and winter side.

"She has an experience as an athlete in summer and winter and has worked on both sides. She has the kind of savvy you need and she's tough. This is a very tough process to prepare athletes. You're under a lot of pressure and you have to make very difficult decisions and some of them are often not that well received."

Merklinger, winter sport director Ken Read and operations director Joanne Mortimore jointly ran OTP after Baumann's departure. Read, a former national team skier, told The Canadian Press late last year he wasn't interested in pursuing the job of CEO.

Merklinger was put through four separate interviews before earning board approval. The final one was Monday when members of the OTP board took turns firing questions at her.

"I said in our staff meeting 'There's still blood on my pillow,' " Merklinger said with a laugh. "It's been a real whirlwind couple of days."

OTP must hire a director of summer sport following her promotion.

OTP was established five years out from Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler. It was a $117-million plan designed to help Canadian athletes win more medals than any other country at their own Games.

Merklinger is the third former athlete named to the job after Baumann and Roger Jackson.

Jackson, an Olympic champion in rowing, stepped down following the 2010 Games. Baumann, an Olympic gold medallist in swimming, was also overseeing summer sport within the organization when he was promoted to CEO that year.

Merklinger curled in four Scotties Tournaments of Hearts and skipped Ontario to the final in 1998 and 2000. She swam on the Canadian team from 1977 to 1981 and won a silver medal in breaststroke at the 1979 World University Games.

Merklinger lives in Ottawa with her husband Don and has two children — Megan, 22 and Connor, 18.

MORE:cpSports