Fiscal finish line extended for athletes

For the first time in seven years Kelowna’s Malindi Elmore is on her own. Financially that is. At a time when she is healthy, at her peak, a two time defending national champion and one of the top

  • Fri Feb 18th, 2011 9:00am
  • News

Olympic medalist Chris Le Bihan with his wife Naomi and son Beau

For the first time in seven years Kelowna’s Malindi Elmore is on her own. Financially that is. At a time when she is healthy, at her peak, a two time defending national champion and one of the top

female 1,500 metre runners in North America, her federal government funding has been chopped.

It means Elmore and her husband will have to make up what would have been close to $25,000 in support from the federal government’s Athlete Assistance Program.

The program “cards” athletes who have met certain criteria. This year, Athletics Canada (track and field) has moved more of its money into developmental athletes.

Elmore, 30, isn’t alone in not being supported by Canada anymore. In fact the top three Canadian women in her distance—Elmore, Megan Wright, a 29-year-old from Edmonton and 33-year-old Carmen Hussar of Cambrige, Ont.—have all been left off the carding program in favour of developmental athletes.

For Elmore, it marks the end of seven years of support from Athletics Canada. Together with the loss of her major sponsor a few years ago, it means she will be on the hook for almost all of the costs to compete this year. What she can’t afford will be made up on credit cards or lines of credit, a typical story for Canada’s best athletes.

“I am disappointed about not being carded. It was a big blow financially and even a bit emotionally,” says Elmore.

“However, it also has fueled my fire even stronger to get out there and race and perform at the highest level. I would love to have my best year ever with the least amount of support.

“I’m grateful for their support for the last seven years. I feel I’m at the point where I’m in my prime and the investment is going to start to pay off.”

•••

It’s a rainy day heading over the Coquihalla and into the Fraser Valley as Elmore and her husband Graham Hood, a two time Olympian who now works for the City of Kelowna, head for an indoor race at the University of Seattle.

Hood is at the wheel, one of the rare times the pair will travel together to an event. Normally Elmore will fly to her races, racking up the bills.

This trip she calls cheap as the pair drive to Seattle on a Friday and come back Sunday. They’re still more than $600 out of pocket. She’s just back from a training camp in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that cost over $2,000 and would have been much more had she not found accommodation for $100 a week.

“I’ve gotten pretty good at knowing where to go to train where it will cost me the least,” she says. “I’m pretty on top of trying to save money when we can. If it comes down to it we would take out a line of credit or whatever it takes to make it to the Olympics.

“It’s sometimes stressful and I’m always looking for the best deal but we try not to let it prevent me from doing what I have to do. We figure it will all work out in the end.”

As the pair—married for four years now—make their way to Seattle, Elmore’s thoughts drift towards her sport and her race this weekend.

“At this time of the year you’re still in heavy training,” she says.

“You want to get a sense of where you are at. But the outcome is not the end all and be all.

“It’s good to know where you are at and it’s good to have a good performance anytime.”

This early in the season her times won’t be as fast as needed if she hopes to medal at the Worlds. But that’s no worry. She will run faster and faster as the season progresses, aiming to peak for the August World Championships.

“You don’t want to be too sharp too early in the season,” she says. “This year is unique for me. For the last few years I’ve had injuries that have gotten in the way of my training.”

Knock on wood but Elmore is as healthy as she has ever been. A few years after making her Olympic debut in 2004 in Athens, Greece, Elmore suffered a stress fracture in her foot.

The injury would follow her around and hamper her ability to train leading up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. She would miss qualifying by a heart-breaking .07 of a second.

For the past two years her health has returned and she has responded by winning the Canadian national championships in the 1,500 metres in back to back years.

Now, in the year before her next shot at the Olympics, she is 100 per cent and ready to go.

Historically women who have medalled in her sport have been between 29 and 34 years of age.

At 30 Elmore says she is at her peak and will be a medal threat at this year’s Worlds and next year’s 2012 Olympics in London.

“My first Olympics was really exciting but my goal was to be on the team,” she says.

“If I go back I’ve already been there. Now I want to actually do something when I’m there.

“Since 2004 there have been some really tough years. It would have been easy to quit.

“But I have this vision of where I want to be. Since I was 16 I’ve had my eyes on the Olympics.

“It’s about the hard work and the sacrifice and really putting out everything you’ve got to try and achieve your potential.”

•••

As Elmore looks ahead to the 2012 Olympics, fellow Okanagan athlete Chris Le Bihan is looking back at the 2010 Olympics this week.

He made the games as a member of Canada’s four-man bobsleigh team.

They raced to a bronze medal in what was a life changing week for Le Bihan in not only his athletic career but in his life.

A week before his medal run, Le Bihan’s first child was born. He was not there as he was in the athlete’s village preparing for his event.

The birth of little Beau Legend and a bronze medal at the Olympics. They will be linked forever.

“They are connected for sure,” says Le Bihan from Calgary.

“When I think back to the games the moment that sticks out the most is the phone call at 1:30 a.m. on Feb. 20 from my wife saying, ‘You have a son.’ I jumped out of my bed and pumped my fist in the air and yelled ‘Yes!’

“That is the integral part of my Olympic story and that memory is triggered whenever I bring out my medal to show people. It’s the story I tell to everyone.”

After years of hard work and sacrifice, winning the Olympic bronze medal gave Le Bihan’s career a boost. He has done some public speaking and other appearances, talking about his unique journey.

The medal itself came with a $10,000 cash prize from the Canadian Olympic Committee.

That money likely only made a dent in what Le Bihan himself has put out over the years. In the year leading up to the Olympics Le Bihan and three teammates took money out of their savings, put it on credit cards or on lines of credit to come up with $50,000 to purchase half of their four-man sled for the Olympics.

Le Bihan has been a carded athlete for the past five years. He spent those years working part time, training, trying to support and plan a family and thinking about life after sports.

The Athlete Athletic Program is fine he says, although there hasn’t been an increase to the program’s levels of funding for years.

“The AAP is great and all athletes are very appreciative that we have our government’s financial support,” he says.

“But it’s time for a boost in the funding levels to account for the cost of living increases over the past six years. There is an initiative going on right now to push for an increase in the AAP budget by 20 per cent.”

That push is one of the things Le Bihan is starting to work on as he considers career opportunities post Olympics.

He remains a national team member and is also the men’s World Cup Bobsleigh athlete representative.

He knows what it takes to make it to the top and knows the financial sacrifice and the long hours of work he put in to get a chance at Olympic glory.

And he knows firsthand about the personal sacrifice that athletes make, spending time away from family, missing birthdays and in Le Bihan’s case, even a birth.

“Of course I wanted to be there for my wife, Naomi, and I wanted to experience my son’s birth,” he says.

“We had nine months to prepare and come up with a game plan. Unfortunately it didn’t work out as planned, as most births don’t seem to.

“I really had to lean on my teammates for support. They are all fathers and we are more than friends, we are a band of brothers. They helped me through it. I will catch the next one.”

Catching the next birth may be easier than catching the next Olympics. For Le Bihan the next Winter Olympics is in Sochie, Russia in 2014.

Now he is in the year after the Olympics, what athletes call the start of another Olympic cycle.

“At this point I am unsure,” he says. “It’s a huge commitment and I have other exciting factors to consider now. Competing at the Olympics is awesome but I also want to experience it from the other side, as an organizer or spectator.”

•••

It’s a bit nicer day as Malindi Elmore and husband Graham return to Kelowna following the early season race in Seattle. Elmore led from start to finish in the 3,000 metre race, running away from the competition to place first.

More important than the placing was her time in the event.

“It was a benchmark to see where I was at with training and I ended up being right where I expected to be which was good,” she says.

“It would have been cool to be ahead of where I thought but it wasn’t as competitive of a race as I was expecting.”

Elmore is back at work the day after returning from her race. She works for New Town Services, a consulting company that is like a sponsor.

Her bosses allow her time off to train and compete, supporting her quest for a World or Olympic championship.

Another area Elmore has received support is from the CAN Fund, started and administered by Jane Roos, the wife of Kelowna native Conrad Leinemann.

Since 1997, the organization has raised over $11 million that goes directly to athletes.

Last summer, just a week before the national championships, Elmore received $6,000 from the CAN Fund that helped her pay for flights to race in Europe.

“The CAN Fund is such an amazing thing for athletes around the country not only with financial support but they have really done an amazing job letting people know what really goes on with Olympic athletes,” says Elmore, who will again apply to the CAN Fund this year.

But with virtually every athlete in the country looking for funding, it’s far from a sure thing.

What’s more of a sure thing is the continued support she will receive from her husband. Elmore will spend four or five months of a typical year on the road.

She is one of the only Canadian athletes in her sport who lives in Canada as most winter in warmer areas where they can train.

Despite the past injuries, the lack of a major sponsor and this year the loss of the support from the Athlete Assistance Program, Elmore continues to push for the top of the mountain.

“What really keeps me going is the fact that I believe I still can exceed my expectations,” she says.

“I just visualize winning an Olympic medal or a World Championship medal, standing on the podium, singing Oh Canada and knowing that I really worked hard to get there.

“As long as I still have that vision I think I would really have regrets if I stopped now.”

For more information on the web, check out the following websites:

Malindi Elmore: www.canadianrunner.ca

Chris Le Bihan: www.athletescan.com

The Can Fund: www.canadianathletesnow.ca.

kparnell@kelownacapnews.com