Getting in on FANFIT and the Olympic Spirit
I went in thinking all about me, but left thinking about all of them. Somewhere between the vertical jump and beep test it clicked. I cared less about my performance and more about the class of athletes represented that day. Brushing shoulders and taking selfies with Olympians was a blast, of course, but the real joy was in sharing a sense of the Olympic spirit. Yep, it was the corny, feel-good kind of experience Coke commercials are made of.
To know me is to know there are things in life I run to, like Hawaiian pizza, photo ops, and an athletic challenge. So when Olympian, Andrew James Russell, showed up at my door with a personal invitation to FANFIT: Canada’s Olympic Fitness Challenge, it was on! Alright, so Andrew didn’t exactly roll up to my apartment with balloons and an invitation like Ed McMahon with a giant Publisher’s Clearing House cheque. (Though I’m extremely flattered if you thought that possible, for even a second.) The 2008 Olympian did however, show up at my workplace, a downtown fitness club and clinic, one Wednesday afternoon. We had just ended a staff meeting when my manager asked if anyone could stay behind to help “some guys” shoot “some video”. That’s all we were told and all I needed to hear. While my camera-shy colleagues scurried out the studio door, I touched up my lip gloss for the mystery appearance.
Three guys arrived with cameras, mic’s and contagious enthusiasm. Andrew was a charismatic, 30-something guy next door type who introduced himself as an Olympian, without conceit, and as if merely a preamble to his purpose that afternoon. His eyes lit up as he told us about FANFIT. This was his baby – a fitness event in which participants (people like you and me) compete against each other, and against Canadian athletes, in five athletic challenges, to raise funds for the Canadian Olympic Foundation. The COF in turn, funds our country’s sport system and most promising athletes. Now it all made sense. The video was promo material to help increase awareness of the Toronto debut event.
I must admit, until then, I had no idea who Andrew was or that sprint canoeing was a thing. In fact, canoeing would be among the last sports to come to mind in thinking about the Olympic games. But that didn’t matter. Andrew represented Canada in Beijing where he competed alongside the best in the world. That impressed me immensely; that, and the brightness emanating from his cheerful personality, smile and efforts. Seriously, he was like the poster boy for Canadian sport. Yep, he was selling an Olympic dream of-sorts and I was buying. And the only remorse to be had was that I didn’t get a picture with him. You know if it’s not on Instagram, it’s like it never happened!
Making The Team
We would compete in teams of up to five people, each of us completing all five stations: vertical jump, agility combine, 1000m row, plank and beep test. Ugh, the beep test. A well rounded group of individuals with different strengths seemed the best strategy. I assembled a team of enthusiastic fitness colleagues – Jack, Jeremy, and the new girl, Nicole – that dwindled to just me and the boys by event day. I regret that Nicole couldn’t join us after all. It was too good – the spunky little Australian with the signature pompadour meets top knot, here on a work visa, raising funds for Canadian athletes. And months before the summer games no less. It was like misdemeanor treason.
The five events would test our power, agility, core strength and cardiovascular fitness. My training goals were two-fold: don’t get hurt and don’t suck. I didn’t need to win this competition (and was 200%certain I wouldn’t anyway) but wanted to turn out a decent performance. Coming off months of powerlifting training with little to no cardio component, I wasn’t feeling confident about the plank, nor the 1000m row, and definitely not the beep test, a nightmarish exercise in aerobic fitness cruelly invented by a Canadian. Merci beaucoup, Luc Léger! So my trainer and teammate, Jeremy, incorporated some rowing, agility and reaction work into our training during the weeks leading up to FANFIT. I was also advised to take it easy in the highly anticipated KTX cycle class I’d be doing the night before the event, to which I made no promises.
The Olympic Spirit
I arrived at the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport, a stunning new building across from Varsity Stadium on the UofT campus. Looking up at the glass exterior accented by a geometric design of diagonal beams was a conspicuous reminder of the school’s wealth. Or as I stated more bluntly in my head, “Damn this school has money!” Circling down the concrete stairwell and walking through the basement of quiet building was positively haunting. In an inexplicable moment alone near the change rooms, I could feel the collective energy of the athletes who had walked the same path before me. What an honour it was to step into that gleaming gymnasium.
Competitor bibs, jumbotron, officials busy testing the rower technology, and Mark “Strizzy” Strong, the commentating voice of the Toronto Raptors, setting up to host – this was serious. Despite its competitive nature, the atmosphere was light, friendly, and somewhat reminiscent of elementary school play days where attitude outranked talent and everyone left with a participant ribbon (which get replaced with t-shirts when we grow up).
Andrew greeted me with a warm hug and smile. And yes, I made sure to get that selfie. Click! With the exception of basketball player, Tamara Tatham and high jumper, Nicole Forrester, who each stood inches above the crowd, the athletes were identifiable almost exclusively by their uniform black cotton t-shirts. These outstanding, highly accomplished national competitors and Olympians looked like ordinary people. Healthy active people with plain black shorts, ponytails and positive energy. If any of us participants were at all star-struck, we didn’t let on. And if any of the Olympians had an ounce of ego, it didn’t show. It was such a quintessential Canadian experience.
Before the start of the challenge, the Olympic team posed for a group shot directed by the event photographer. I tried to set the camera on my phone while running over to that side of the gym but was seconds too late. Would you believe they saw my failed effort and were kind enough to reassemble so I could get the picture? Talk about a Kodak moment.
Let The Games Begin
The first wave of competitors was called up. I peered around the group that had clustered in beside me, sizing up the competition. Or rather age-ing up the competition. I was surrounded by adolescent boys junior enough to be my offspring! Boys with height and years of undisturbed sleep on their sides. Boys with starting forward and goalie positions in their futures. If I wasn’t already concerned about that row and beep test, I was now.
I flew through the vertical jump and agility test, speaking casually with the athletes in between. I introduced myself to Brianne. She introduced me to the world of women’s wrestling. Her enthusiasm was endearing as she explained how women had only recently entered the Olympics and pointed out the the image of 2008 gold medalist, Carol Huynh, on the banner behind us. The only wrestling matches I knew of where the spectacles broadcast from Maple Leaf Gardens so I was curious about her exposure and entry into the sport. Just as I was learning more about Brianne’s involvement in a program that develops young female wrestlers, it was time for the row event.
The set up was fantastic. Approximately twenty rowing machines were arranged in a square and connected electronically. Our corresponding yellow boats, which we could see on the big screen, sat at the start line ready to race. After a quick tech check, the gun went off and so did we. I started what I estimated would be four minutes and thirty seconds of grueling full body effort. Half way in, I knew the boys had me. Many finished while I was still rowing. Voices high and low echoed behind me,.”C’mon Debbie” “That’s it, almost there”. I glanced up at the yellow boats between strokes. Only a few remained. I fought through the fatigue in my hamstrings, lengthened my row and powered through the final 150m determined to finish first among the last. After four minutes and twenty two seconds, it was over. I was satisfied, but winded. So very winded, pacing hands on hips, chest rising, at first quickly, then slowly, in an attempt to settle my heart rate.
In the fifteen or twenty minutes between the row and the plank, we coughed – all of us – like smokers in an infirmary. So much so that the volunteer calling for our attention could barely be heard amid the symphony of hacks. The plank challenge began and that burn soon moved from our chests to our core. With nothing to prove to myself or anyone else, I smiled at the camera, dropped my knees at the one minute mark and spent the remaining four minutes cheering on my teammates: one more station to go!
The beep test sucked. In every way. In a frenzy to find a spot on the starting line, I was separated from my teammates, Jack and Jeremy, who probably would have given me the push I needed to endure through the predetermined, respectable, level five finish. The slow trots back and forth across the twenty metre distance began. Beep. I listened, trying to understand the progression of levels. Beep. Okay got it. Beep. The pace picked up a little. Beep. I tried to find a groove. Beep. I felt small beside the husky boy to my left. Beep. To my right. Beep. Ugh, I’m already tired. Beep. Just get to the next one Debbie. Beep. Keep your head up. Beep. Oops, just missed that one. Beep. Does anyone notice when you miss? Beep.This sucks. Beep. I’m done. Any shame I should’ve felt in being the first to stop, and in doing so early, was dissolved by the relief of having it over with.
I joined the spectators on the sidelines and watched the next wave of competitors grind through the beep test. This is where the day gets uber- warm and fuzzy. One by one, competitors dropped out until only three people remained: Ken and Scott (both Olympic field hockey players) and one of those young boys powered by puberty. We clapped and cheered with encouragement but could see the fatigue taking over on their faces and falling shoulders. Soon it was down to two, and then one – and not Ken or Scott. The young boy beat the Olympians! The next slow motion minute was the stuff highlight reels are made of. Like a dying flame restoked to life, Ken jumped back in to finish side by side along the young competitor. Amazing.
Faster, Higher, Stronger
FANFIT was created to connect us with our country’s best athletes in a new and inspiring way. By that measure, it was a great success. Standing, sweating and cheering alongside Andrew, Brianne, Ken and all the others humanized them in a way I had not expected. These men and women were no longer just last names on a screen or numbers in lanes. They were people. Talented, authentic, positive, generous people. In my short time with them, my admiration for athletes who command even the most obscure sports, grew tenfold. Trust me, I’m never making fun of field hockey!
Instead of anticipating my results, as I normally do, I finished the event anticipating a follow-up call with Andrew. I had so many questions about what training and life look like for Olympic hopefuls. He shared with me the realities of working full time while pursuing a place on the national team. And of sleeping in one’s childhood bedroom while plunging every penny earned back into training. And of scraping together the means to travel to important international competitions. And then he shared this, his most memorable experience from Beijing and what he describes as the single most defining moment of his career.
I placed second in my age category and 80th among 116 competitor that day, but more importantly, I was touched by the Olympic spirit. I have greater respect for our most accomplished athletes and greater appreciation of the needs of our promising young athletes. Our team fundraising contribution was modest, but I’m proud to have even a small hand, in helping Canada’ athletes live their Olympic dream.
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