SPORTS

Canada's completed winter sport institute a training hub for Olympians

09/11/2014 12:21 EDT | Updated 11/11/2014 05:59 EST
CALGARY - If Kaillie Humphries doesn't feel motivated to lift another set of weights, the Olympic bobsled champion just looks around her for inspiration.

Among those who came through the doors of Canada's recently completed winter sport institute on this September day were speedskaters Denny Morrison and Gilmore Junio and luger Alex Gough.

Another day it might be hockey player Meaghan Mikkelson and alpine skier Manny Osborne-Paradis working out beside her. Calgary Flames forward Matt Stajan has also trained there this summer.

"On days when feel like 'Oh, I don't really feel like doing this,' when you see them killing themselves and you know what they're working for and it's the exact same thing as you, that's motivating, that's inspirational and you do work that much harder," Humphries said in an interview.

The high-performance training centre that opened this year is the third and final phase of the sport institute, named for benefactors Allan Markin and Keith MacPhail.

The sprawling Markin-MacPhail Centre at Canada Olympic Park on Calgary's west side fulfils the vision sport leaders had years ago, when the shovels went in the ground despite not knowing where all the money was going to come from to pay for it.

In addition to the high-performance training centre, the Markin-MacPhail Centre includes three NHL-sized rinks, an Olympic ice surface with seating for 3,000, the ice house, and an office tower housing the National Sport School as well as several national sport federations.

With the 2014-15 winter sport season fast approaching, you can't throw a handful of seed these days without hitting several Olympic or Paralympic athletes in the cavernous training centre.

During an unexpected September snowstorm, Humphries is sprinting inside on a three-lane, 100-metre track in the high-performance centre. From the track, she walks through two doors into the ice house where the two-time Olympic champion works on her push starts.

Humphries then returns to the training centre to lift weights. She accomplishes this in a single morning.

In the same space, there is a medical centre where Humphries can have her aches and pains treated. There are hot and cold tubs she can use to recover from workouts.

She can prepare, store and eat food in an athletes' lounge. She can buy lunch in the cafe, a space that allows the public and other athletes to watch her sprint on the track.

She no longer has to drive around Calgary for time on a sprint track while her muscles cool down in the car as she drives back to the weight room at Canada Olympic Park.

The bobsled track's finish line is a minute's walk across the road. When Calgary hosts World Cups, Humphries can use the sprint track to warm up for racing instead of sprinting between cars in the parking lot.

When she's not travelling the world to compete, the Markin-MacPhail Centre will be her second home as she prepares to defend her Olympic title in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018.

"I do everything here," Humphries said. "I can really cater my training to exactly what I need to be the very best.

"When you are pushing your body to the limit and trying to get every little bit out of yourself as an athlete, you need the environment to work with you in order to have that happen.

"Knowing I can push my body to the limit, but also repair it as soon as I do it with the hot and cold tubs and having therapy here, that's not something that athletes all over the world have."

Canada can claim to be a player in winter sport after the country's performance at the last two Winter Games.

The host country won a record 14 gold medals among its 26 in Vancouver in 2010. At the Sochi Games earlier this year, Canada finished fourth in the overall medal count with 25 and third in gold with 10.

The $220-million institute gives Canada a big bat in winter sport, but sport institutes are something other powerhouses already have. In the U.S., there's the Olympic Training Centre in Colorado Springs, Colo, and the Aussies have the Australian Institute of Sport.

The Markin-MacPhail Centre sits on the southwest edge of Canada Olympic Park and works in concert with the cluster of legacy venues left from the 1988 Winter Olympics.

WinSport Canada, formerly the Calgary Olympic Development Association, is responsible for many of those '88 venues and oversaw the institute's construction.

"Well, I think it is unique in the world," Own The Podium chief executive officer Anne Merklinger said. "It is, without a doubt, the best high-performance winter training facility for winter sport in the world.

"We've had many visitors from different countries come in and just marvel at what's been developed here by WinSport."

Olympians and Paralympians are the high-profile clients. The hundreds of other figure skaters, skiers, snowboarders, sliders and hockey players who make use of the park almost every hour of every day are crucial to its operation. Their user fees keep the lights on.

The municipal, provincial and federal governments contributed $130 million towards the institute. A condition of that funding was public access to it.

WinSport had to come up with the rest of the capital money via corporate fundraising and selling some of its land.

WinSport pays for the operation of the Markin-MacPhail, the other sports venues at COP as well as contributing to the running of the Olympic Oval at the University of Calgary.

So the day camps, learn-to camps and recreational programs for everyone from toddler to senior are vital to WinSport's operations, including the Markin-MacPhail Centre.

"I don't want to continually see sport going cap in hand to the public purse," WinSport vice-president Dr. Stephen Norris says.

"We need to learn to stand on our own two feet to a much greater extent. Certainly use corporate Canada to help us in that pursuit, but can we through offering very good programs to the mass public help generate the underpinnings for high-performance sport?

"While not a lot of people will use the bobsleigh track, it's how do we keep those facilities alive for Olympic pursuits? We do that by making sure we have programs that anyone can engage in."

The public can buy memberships to the new high-performance training centre. Their equipment and training space is separated from the Olympians by glass doors, but the paths of the public and Canada's heroes still cross in other spaces such as the medical centre.

The opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the country's sport heroes helps sell memberships.

"The whole idea behind it was train like an Olympian and support our Olympians," said Helen Upperton, a former Olympic bobsledder who is a WinSport spokeswoman. "The public memberships help provide the athletes the opportunity to train in this facility for free."

The first phase of the institute completed in December 2010 was three NHL-sized rinks. The money the rinks generated helped pay for the construction of the next two phases.

The international rink and office tower, which includes Hockey Canada's headquarters, opened in 2011. The high-performance centre was behind schedule and completed after the Winter Olympics in Sochi because WinSport had to find money to finish it.

"A very bold move by the board of directors of Winsport/CODA a decade ago was to undertake this project without necessarily having the financial arrangements in place," Norris said. "That was a very bold step.

"That was another reason why the facility was built in phases. Originally, the high-performance phase was mean to be built first. There came a realization we should probably build things that can provide a bit of an economic return en route to finishing."

Montreal and Victoria have taken the legacy venues from the 1976 Summer Olympics and the 1994 Commonwealth Games respectively to develop sport institutes catering mostly to summer athletes.

Next year's Pan American and Parapan Am Games in Toronto has provided the infrastructure for a summer sport institute there.

But a winter sport athlete in Canada who reaches even a provincial level of competition will likely walk through the doors of the Markin-MacPhail Centre at some point for a camp or a competition.

Hockey Canada's under-17 men's camp in July was an example of that, as over 100 players from B.C. to Newfoundland spent a week at Markin-MacPhail.

With only glass separating a lot of the institute's spaces, Humphries now trains in the public eye a lot more. She's fine with that.

"Just the number of kids we get even for hockey camps at the arenas here that get to watch us and see all of us athletes train, that's going to motivate our younger generation," she said. "You'll see the parents come by and they bring their teenaged daughters, their kids to watch you train.

"They see how hard you're working. Dreams don't happen out of thin air."

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