Four times during his career, Kelowna’s Jeff Thorburn has donned his country’s colours at an international sporting event.
With all due respect to the people and teams involved the first three times, it’s likely nothing will match what the 43-year-old athletic therapist is experiencing this month in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“It may sound cliché, but this is truly an honour to be a part of such an incredible national team and such a monstrous event,” said Thorburn. “I am so excited to be a part of this team and this spectacle.
“Really, much like any of the athletes and coaches, I want the team to win,” he added. “Helping and supporting Team Canada in any capacity is a great highlight of my career so far.”
The head athletic therapist at UBC Okanagan since 2013, Thorburn spent seven seasons with the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets, during which time he worked for Hockey Canada three times—the last at the 2012 world junior hockey championship in Calgary and Edmonton.
When Scott Salmond from Hockey Canada’s management team contacted Thorburn last summer about the potential of revisiting his hockey experience with a trip to PyeongChang, a decision wasn’t long in coming.
A father of three who would have to be away from his family and his job for an extended period of time, there were more than a few factors to consider.
Still, in the end, Thorburn said accepting the role was a no-brainer and an honour “for anyone working with sport or athletics to jump at an opportunity like this.”
Thorburn and the men’s hockey team are based in Gangneung, the athlete’s village for all ice sports and a 30-minute bus ride from PyeongChang.
The scope of the world’s largest sporting event and the excitement generated by the games have captured Thorburn’s full attention and imagination.
“The village and the city have a great vibe,” Thorburn said this week via email. “Everyone is excited about being here and the people of Korea are very excited to be hosts to the world. Everyone is very friendly and helpful, although the language barrier often makes things challenging when you are outside of the village and venues.
“Being in Korea, even after the first couple of days, you had a sense of the true magnitude of the Olympic Games.”
Thorburn is part of a small but talented contingent of Kelowna athletes is proudly wearing the Maple Leaf at the Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
The most renowned of the local competitors is Kelsey Serwa who will be pursuing her second career Olympic medal in the women’s ski cross event.
Serwa, 28, will compete with her Canadian teammates on Friday, Feb. 23.
In her first Olympic Games, Tess Critchlow, 22, competed this week in the women’s snowboard cross, finishing in ninth place.
Julia Ransom, a member of the Canadian biathlon team, is expected to compete in the women’s relay next week. Earlier in the week, Ransom placed 28th overall in the 10 km pursuit.
Lake Country’s Ian Deans is serving as an alternate on the men’s ski cross team. The men’s ski cross qualifications and finals are scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 21.
A coach from Kelowna is also at the 2018 Olympics but is providing his expertise for another country. Bob Ursel, a former B.C. men’s champ, is guiding the host South Korean men’s team in the curling competition.
Back home in Kelowna, Thorburn has more than a few people tracking his and the Canadian hockey team’s progress in South Korea, including colleague and friend Kevin Phillips.
A fellow athletic therapist and the strength and conditioning coach for the UBC Okanagan Heat, Phillips is excited for Thorburn and his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“There’s something to be said for the flag, representing your country is a tremendous honour whatever and wherever the event is,” said Phillips, who has worked previously with the B.C. Lions, Soccer Canada and the Vancouver Whitecaps. “When Jeff got the call, his eyes lit up, you could tell how excited he was for the opportunity to work with a national program, like any athletic therapist would be.”
Phillips, who has worked in an international setting with Soccer Canada, knows firsthand the role athletic therapists are asked to play in a team-first environment.
In a largely behind-the-scenes position where the team’s success is paramount, Phillips says Thorburn’s personality, experience and skill set are well-suited for a national men’s Olympic program.
“You have to try to make it the best environment possible for them to perform at 100 per cent, you can’t have a selfish attitude,” said Phillips. “Jeff fits perfectly into that, he’s such a caring, selfless and kind person, it’s not difficult for him to put others before himself.
“He understands his job, what’s asked of him and he carries that out like the professional that he is.”
While Thorburn has proven time and again to be very much a team player, he also understands and embraces the personal benefits he’s gaining during his latest tour of duty with Team Canada.
“It’s an excellent professional development opportunity,” Thorburn said. “There are always things to learn and pick up on when working alongside a great medical staff, and management and coaching staff.”
The Canadian men’s team continues the Olympic competition this Saturday with a game against the Czech Republic, then will battle the host Koreans on Sunday.
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