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Monday, September 4, 2000

Canada's swim program treading water too long

  The swim team used to lead the charge for Canada at the Olympic Games. Now, it's more like the charge of the lame brigade.

 Forget the positive spin team officials have put on this year's squad -- bigger than the 1996 team, more potential for Canadian records and personal bests.

 The fact is, the 39-member outfit is one of the weakest in years and may be the first since 1964 not to bring home a medal from the Games. And given the proud history of the sport in Canada, that would be a disgrace.

 "I think the fact that Swimming Canada is sending such a large team is all part of a smoke screen, to pretend this team is much better than it is," Nick Thierry, publisher of Swim Magazine, said. "And that's kind of dishonest."

 The world rankings don't lie.

 Heading into the Sydney Games, which begin in less than two weeks, Canada has one swimmer ranked as a medal contender -- Curtis Myden, who sits third in the 200-metre individual medley, 1/100th of a second ahead of American Tom Dolan. The next-best Canadians are Joanne Malar and Marianne Limpert, who are ranked fourth and seventh respectively in the women's 200 IM. All three are veterans, heading to their third Olympics.

 "Where's the new talent?" said Thierry, a statistician and former coach inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame this year. "Where's the renewal?"

 That's a good question. There was a time when Canada challenged Australia for Commonwealth dominance in the pool. Now, the comparisons are a joke. While the Canadian program has sunk into mediocrity, the Aussies have risen to the top of the world, with no fewer than 20 solid shots for individual medals in the pool.

 Thierry said it's easy to identify the root cause of Canada's demise since the 1980s -- the departure of coach Don Talbot.

 Just months before the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Talbot was sacked because he alienated himself from a number of coaches and administrators. The bottom line? Talbot was too tough for the system. The outspoken coach was ostracized for demanding tougher qualification standards and for generally criticizing the touchy-feely Canadian establishment.

 The English-born coach resurfaced in Australia less than a year later and has rebuilt the Aussie program into one the best in the world.

 The media there have taken to calling the Aussie squad, Team Talbot.

 "No question we would be much better off if he was still here," Thierry said. "Talbot was always a man of vision and that's what we've lacked in Canada for years."

 One of Talbot's replacements was Dave Johnson, a Montreal native who is still in charge of the program. Thierry thinks it's time Johnson quit.

 "I like Dave, but his reign has been a reign of error," Thierry said. "I just don't see any improvement since 1988. For the past 10 years or so, they've been saying that the Canadian team is rebuilding. We can't always be rebuilding."

 The Australian team has generated lots of publicity, mainly about its gold-medal chances. The Canadian team also has also been in the news. But while the Aussies talk about things golden, the Canadians waste time debating the bizarre appointment of Shauna Nolden as an Olympic coach. That's what the program has come to.

 FIVE-RING CIRCUS: Will Dutch swimmer Inge de Bruijn be this year's Michelle Smith? Smith of Ireland came out of nowhere to land on the podium four times at the 1996 Atlanta Games. De Bruijn, 27, failed to win a medal at Barcelona in 1992 and retired before Atlanta. But she has come back and has set eight world records in the past four months -- at an age when most swimmers have long retired, prompting suspicions by her competitors. By the way, De Bruijn is coached by Paul Bergen, who used to coach world record-holder Allison Higson at the Etobicoke Swim Club.

 HELP WANTED: Rower Marnie McBean said she has been overwhelmed by Canadians suggesting treatments for her bad back. One Ontario doctor offered to fly to the rowing team's training camp in Rockhampton, Australia, this week to treat the three-time Olympic gold medallist, who was forced to withdraw from the Sydney Games.