NEWS
04/26/2016 13:13 EDT | Updated 04/27/2017 01:12 EDT

Term "NextGen" to become more prominent in Canadian high-performance sport

When Sean MacKinnon wheels to the start line of a stage race in Luxembourg next week, his bike will have been prepped by a mechanic.

The 20-year-old from Hamilton doesn't have to work on his own bike, he doesn't have to figure out how to get to the cities he's racing in, or arrange transportation for himself and his bike once he gets there.

Having those logistics taken care of by someone else feels like a luxury to MacKinnon. He was an 18-year-old fending for himself on those fronts two years ago while racing in Belgium.

"It's just totally different," MacKinnon said from Nice, France. "It's a huge difference having support staff around more or less full time when you're going from having nothing."

MacKinnon is part of Cycling Canada's NextGen men's track endurance program, which is for road and track prospects deemed medal contenders at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

"NextGen" has been popping up in Canadian high-performance sport of late and the term is about to become more prominent.

The Liberal government is following through on a commitment by the Conservatives in the 2015 federal budget to funnel extra money towards athletes like MacKinnon. He won Pan Am Games bronze medals last year in both the road time trial and track team pursuit.

It's an investment of $5 million annually for four years starting in 2016, on the condition Own The Podium match that figure via its own fundraising. So it's worth $40 million to Canada's "next generation" of summer and winter Olympians, meaning those athletes five to eight years away from their peak.

"As successful as we are today and as successful as we'll be in Rio, the only way we can sustain that success is by investing in our athletes that are five to eight years out," Minister of Sport Carla Qualtrough said.

"We know that's a tough period when you're beyond the provincial level, but you haven't quite made the carded-athlete, national-team status."

Canadians who finish fifth to eighth in Olympic Games are one indicator of future medal potential in the pipeline. The numbers in that category have been flat-lining in summer sport and dropping in winter sport.

OTP doles out money, the majority of it from taxpayers, based on a sport federation's ability to produce athletes with Olympic medal potential.

OTP chief executive officer Anne Merklinger called it “one of the best days of my career” when NextGen funding made it into the 2015 federal budget. But an election and change in government cast uncertainty over whether that money would still be there in 2016.

Her strategy was to deliver a unified message from sport organizations that Canada will slide off the podium if there wasn't an investment beyond whatever Olympic Games are coming up next.

"This is one time that everyone has come together and said, 'our investment in the next generation of podium potential athletes is a significant gap for this country,'" Merklinger said.

"All political parties have listened to that. That's been reflected in the transition from the previous government to the new government. That's worthy of celebration."

A few sport federations such as Cycling Canada had access to OTP money to set up NextGen programs before this new money came down the pipe.

"There just hasn't been enough funding to go around," Merklinger said. "We had to limit that to category one and category two sports and even then we couldn't resource it to the level we wanted to.

"Now we get to go deeper and we get to examine all sports that have athletes that have shown medal potential whether they're targeted sports or not."

What track coach Ian Melvin and road coach Luc Arseneau do for MacKinnon and the nine others in the NextGen track/road group is keep them under an umbrella of a year-long racing and training plan, instead of hoping the young men are doing the right things on their own between events.

"We're able to start working with them and developing them as an athlete from a younger age than we could have done historically," Melvin said. "We've been able to create and build a program and a pathway to essentially move them one step to another."

MacKinnon still pays $6,000 a year out of his own pocket to race.

"We're still working covered in Band-Aids," Melvin said. "The NextGen funding does not come close to covering our actual running costs."

After Luxembourg, MacKinnon has more stage races in Germany and France. There is no way he would be able to get this much race experience if not for NextGen, he said. Could it help him win a medal in Tokyo?

"I think it 100 per cent will," MacKinnon said. "It's really cool this has actually started."

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press