Athletes take part in an endurance test at the RBC Training Ground event in Whitehorse on May 11. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News)

Olympic opportunity for Yukon athletes at RBC Training Ground event

“At this age group, it’s just about saying yes to opportunities. Go out. Try it out, if you like it.”

Dozens of athletes from across the Yukon gathered at the Canada Games Centre in Whitehorse for an RBC Training Ground event – the first of its kind in the Yukon – putting participants aged 14 to 25 through a handful of tests measuring different physical skills on May 11.

The goal is not only uncovering Canada’s next great Olympians, but also helping athletes find new sports they may have an innate physical aptitude for.

Joining participants, volunteers and representatives from a number of sport organizations were two Olympians: Brianne Jenner — a member of the 2014 gold-medal-winning and 2018 silver-medal-winning women’s hockey teams — and the Yukon’s own Zach Bell — a two-time Olympian in the sport of cycling.

“Basically, this is talent identification for athletes across Canada,” said Bell about the Training Ground program. “The athletes go through four different tests and those results are shared with (national sports organizations) and they can get invited along and eventually end up with funding to pursue a career towards an Olympic Games.”

Jenner said the tests — a vertical jump test, a sprint, a pull strength test and the famous PACER test, perhaps better known as the beep test — are similar to things she and her teammates take part in fairly regularly.

“I’m here to support these athletes, cheer them on and give them a little bit of advice. Obviously fitness testing is something that we go through quite a bit as Olympians,” said Jenner. “It’s a really good way for them to gauge where they’re at physically and what their strengths may be and see if there is a different sport that may be out there for them.”

For athletes who show potential in sports they’re not currently involved with, there is no better person to speak to than Bell.

“I think as athletes you’re always on a journey and you’re always developing,” said Bell. “For me, I started in wrestling and ended up in cycling once I was in university. … At this age group, it’s just about saying yes to opportunities. Go out. Try it out, if you like it. The thing that is going to keep you motivated and passionate in sport is enjoying your time in the pursuit.”

To Bell, Yukoners have the benefit of a situation where athletes frequently get the chance to compete in a variety of sports.

“Being a small, community-based sport environment, athletes have these kind of opportunities where an athlete can play basketball and wrestle and play volleyball and play badminton,” said Bell. “So you develop this physical ‘language’ that a lot of big centre athletes just don’t get. They get funnelled into these sports and then when they’re asked to transition into something they have a better aptitude for, they just don’t have the physical vocabulary to make the transition quickly.”

After 10 years of wrestling, Bell started out in cycling as a way to stay fit for the rest of his life.

“I basically said, I’m not going to make it as a wrestler. I just want to be healthy, and I jumped into the sport,” said Bell.

Within a year of starting, it was readily apparent Bell had the physical tools to excel in the sport.

“They said, ‘OK, you have an aptitude for this physically,’ but technically it probably took me a good five years of work to get the technical aspects where I could start to be competitive on a relatively high international scale,” said Bell, explaining success came first in events that had strong similarities to wrestling. “The first event I was good at was the pursuit – a four-minute event (as) matches were four to five minutes — so I carried that physical bank account with me as I transitioned.”

That is to say, any athletes coming away from the combine with opportunities to try new sports should do so.

“I think so many athletes on our Olympic team are second-sport athletes,” said Bell. “So many of the athletes I work with in cycling are coming from speedskating or something else. It’s just the nature of our sport environment in Canada that we don’t necessarily find the sport we’re good at right away because of geography or demographics or whatever.”

Even if an athlete doesn’t want to try something new, there was still valuable knowledge to take away from the day.

“It’s a cool opportunity to test themselves and come away with some data on what their strengths and areas to improve are,” said Jenner.

The Whitehorse event is one of 30 similar events being held across the country. The top performers at local events will then do further testing with specific sports and potentially be invited to the national final.

Up to 30 high-performance athletes will be selected to receive funding and resources based on their performance at the finals.

Contact John Hopkins-Hill at john.hopkinshill@yukon-news.com

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The pull strength test was one of four tests for athletes at the event. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News)

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