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Such a long journey

Athletes who’ve made improbable ascents—through sheer talent or desperate ambition—are off to London


 
Such a long journey

Roger LeMoyne

Nicholas Tritton never doubted the dream. But sometimes, in the dead of night, his father did. Alone with two kids and a stack of overdue bills, Mark Tritton would glance from his sleeping boy to the judo bag waiting by the door of their home in tiny Hood, Ont.—a repurposed country schoolhouse where the pots and pans rested on open shelves, and where Mark slept on the couch so his kids could use the only bedroom.

He had summoned a three-room dwelling from the old building like a magician pulling silk from his sleeve, having separated from his wife years earlier and agreeing to take the children—mere toddlers at the time. A fledgling contractor, Mark was good at making things out of nothing. But money he couldn’t conjure, and with each passing year he needed more. Unaccountably, the boy he was raising in the hinterlands of Lanark County was a rising star in the world of judo, a sport whose tournament schedule read like the itinerary of a G20 leader. Rotterdam. Rio. Tokyo. Paris. “There were times when I’d think about Nick’s next trip to a meet in New York or wherever,” Mark recalls. “I’d say to myself, ‘Man, you need another job.’ ”

The simple thing would have been to rein in Nick’s ambitions, he says, “but if you’ve got a kid who’s that gifted, are you really going turn to him and say, ‘Sorry, nationals is the end of the line’? You can’t go to France or Miami, because we just can’t pay for it?’ ” So out would come Mark’s well-worn Visa—he was sure he could hear it groaning with each new charge—and off Nick would go to his next meet in Singapore, or Lethbridge, Alta. Gradually, the investment began to pay off. At 19, Nick won his first national championship. A year later, he got carded as a national-team athlete, ensuring minimal financial support from the federal government.

Then, at the 2008 Pan-American Judo championships in Miami, a moment of magic: Nick surpassed the point total necessary to qualify for the Summer Games in Beijing. Mark had expected him to qualify, and had scraped together enough cash for a plane ticket so he could watch. Still, the emotional force of the moment took him off guard. The scraping and saving; the all-night treks to local tournaments; the after-supper lessons in a high-school portable, where the desks had been pushed to one side: all were now prelude to something greater. Something you might even call grand.

He denies tearing up as his beaming son left the mats that afternoon. But even now, there’s a discernible husk to Mark’s voice as he recalls their shared sense of accomplishment. “All the way from that classroom in Lanark,” he marvels, “my kid was actually going to the Olympic Games.” Nick, who has qualified again for the Games this summer, was no less awestruck. “You take a step back at a time like that and realize you’re one of only 300 Canadians going to this event,” he says. “I’ve worked hard all my life to get where I am. Without my dad I wouldn’t be where I am. Let’s just say it’s been a long journey.”

More than the world’s greatest athletic display, the Olympics is a tournament of stories. A triple-medallist might take a back seat in media coverage to a distance runner whose lung capacity was forged during foot journeys across the Horn of Africa. A troubled star who has returned from drug problems to contend in his sport—as Canadian show jumper Eric Lamaze did so inspiringly four years ago in Beijing—might steal headlines for days on end.

Canada has been a reliable producer of transcendent tales, as you might expect from a rugged land with a hardy, far-flung population. If the diverse cast of competitors headed to London is any guide, the pattern will hold. Tritton will be joined this summer by athletes who charted equally improbable rises from this country’s islands, inner cities and Aboriginal reserves—some by dint of sheer talent, some through desperate ambition. To Mark Tewksbury, the gold-medallist swimmer and Team Canada’s chef de mission in London, it is the glue that binds them to the folks back home. Running a marathon in two hours and 11 minutes might be an alien experience to most Canadians, he says, but running the dirt trails outside a small town in the teeth of a biting wind, well, that’s something a lot of us can grasp.

He points to Carol Huynh, a child of Vietnamese refugees who settled in Hazelton, a logging village in northwestern B.C. She became an overnight sensation in 2008 after winning gold in, of all things, wrestling—her hardscrabble story told and retold by fans who until then hadn’t heard of Hazelton. It helped that Huynh had snapped an early Games medal drought for Canada. Now, on the eve of the London 2012 Olympics, Tewksbury is eager to see who will inherit Huynh’s mantle (the wrestler herself has qualified). “Someone is going to have a breakthrough when it counts the most and we’ll get to find out all about that person,” he says. “And truly, that’s what we love about the Olympics. It unleashes the old storyteller in all of us.”

Of course, not all athletes see themselves as protagonists in a heartwarming tale. At least, not at first. Jared Connaughton, a 200-m sprinter from New Haven, P.E.I., couldn’t wait to leave behind the rust-coloured railpaths where he once trained in his home province. He was a bulldog of a kid—five-foot-nine and raised by an Irish-American dad to give no quarter. At 16, he’d been embarrassed at the Canada Games by taller, more elegant sprinters from Ontario and Quebec and, over time, he became convinced that P.E.I. was holding him back. There wasn’t a track on the entire island with a standard rubberized surface for him to train on. In winter, he was reduced to running in the hallways of a vocational college in Charlottetown—the only indoor space he could find with 100 m of open floor. “There was a hairdressing school there at night,” recalls Connaughton, now 26. “I’d be running past rooms where women were learning how to do perms. I had to hold my breath so I didn’t inhale the chemicals.”

When the University of Texas at Arlington came calling during his senior year, Connaughton gladly bugged out. A season marred by injury and a stormy breakup with a girlfriend would follow. And when he returned to the island the next summer, all the ill feeling rushed back. At a training session at Bluefield High School, his alma mater just outside of Charlottetown, Connaughton vented about the frigid air and lousy footing, and whined about being “stuck in the Stone Age.”

It took his father Neal, a transplanted Bostonian, to snap his head around. “You wanna win?” he growled. “Well, you’re going to have to put up or shut up, because this is all we’ve got.” Chastened, Jared buckled down, throwing himself into training no matter the setting. He ran the knobby soccer field of his old school, and the dunes of Cavendish Beach, not far from Green Gables. Slowly, P.E.I. began to feel like a secret weapon. That August, at the Canada Games in Regina, he won gold in both the 100- and 200-m, and experienced a moment of clarity. “I realized that I could come back to P.E.I., train on the softball diamonds or whatever, and still be focused enough to win,” he says. “I knew I could take things to the next level.”

Three years later, Connaughton did just that, qualifying for Beijing and placing seventh in the semifinal (a respectable finish in the summer of Usain Bolt). And he’s done nothing but improve since. At a meet in Brazil last May, he ran a personal best 20.30 in the 200-m—short of the year’s best outdoor time of 19.94 recorded by Jamaica’s Yohan Blake, but enough to suggest he’ll be in the mix when the heats are done in London. “For me it’s become about blazing a trail,” he says. “I couldn’t stay where I grew up and succeed at track—there’s no getting around that. But I’ve done what I like to think are P.E.I.-only workouts, and I’m truly proud to say I’m an Islander.”

If Connaughton proved that an athlete can rewrite an unhappy narrative, boxer Mary Spencer might have done the opposite. The 27-year-old had been a darling of the press and Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) prior to her qualifying matches in May—an obliging interview who was more than happy to share her curious story. Raised in blue-collar Windsor, Ont., she’d been suspended from high school for fighting (“It was about a boy,” she says, smiling), and washed up at the club of legendary Windsor boxing coach Charlie Stewart. Spencer had a teenager’s sense of entitlement, but Stewart transformed her. “That first day, he told me he was going to get me up at 5 a.m., Monday to Friday,” she recalled last winter to Maclean’s. “You don’t argue with this man. You just make sure you’re ready to train at five in the morning.”

Within a year, the provincial and Canadian titles were flowing her way, thanks in part to Spencer’s God-given ability to load all of her 75 kg into a punch. When the International Olympic Committee announced in 2009 that women’s boxing would be a full-fledged event in London, Spencer seemed a shoo-in. She was the reigning world champion, with three titles to her name. At the 2011 Pan-Am Games in Guadelajara, she’d won a gold, and left the ring to the sound of Mexican fans chanting her name. The COC was so confident in her medal hopes they began making a video documentary about her to run on their website. Procter & Gamble made her their pitchwoman—the first fighter, presumably, to endorse CoverGirl mascara.

Then, without warning, disaster: at the women’s world championship in May, the only qualifier for London, Spencer lost in her opening bout to a lower-ranked fighter. Explanations were hard to come by. She spoke of a letdown following her January fight in the Canadian finals against her close friend, Ariane Fortin (who complained after the match of biased judging). “Everything else, the Continental Cup and the world championships, just came so quick after that,” she told the Windsor Star. Others felt the photogenic Spencer had spent too much time feeding her publicity machine, hopscotching the country for TV interviews and endorsement appearances. “I’d see her talking about shampoo in downtown Toronto and wonder when she got time to train,” says an athlete who knows Spencer but asked that his name be withheld. “Even if you’re in shape your mind has to be in the game. You have to keep your edge.”

Only Spencer’s track record salvaged her dream. That and boxing’s dubious qualification process. In June, the International Amateur Boxing Association awarded her a “wild-card” berth in London, the sort of discretionary consideration athletes in other events can only wish for. Spencer now seems determined to seize her shot at redemption. Two weeks ago, she admitted she was glad to leave the hurly-burly behind, and left to train for the Games in Europe. This spot of adversity may go down as a penultimate twist in Spencer’s legend—just the thing publicists love. For now, though, it’s the supreme test of character Spencer says drew her to her sport. “The great thing about boxing,” she told Maclean’s, “is you really get to see what you’re made of. Some people are afraid. Some people can hit, but don’t want to get hit back. I believe that what you do in the ring represents how you will fight in any kind of struggle in your life.”

The motel is gone, its bleak parking lot and paper-thin pillows missed by no one. Even if the price was right—about $50 a night—Mohammed Ahmed’s family was glad to move out after their first couple of weeks in Canada, wheeling their worldly possessions in suitcases to a subsidized housing complex down the road.

Today, Ahmed proudly wears the red maple leaf as one of this country’s top distance runners. He won the 10,000m at last month’s Olympic trials in Calgary, and he’s a threat to contend in England. But that soulless motor inn in St. Catharines, Ont., was the first taste of a land that would test his resolve—a clear sign of where a Somalian family fresh off the plane ranked in the Canadian pecking order. “We didn’t have a car, we didn’t have beds, we didn’t have anything those first few years,” recalls Ahmed, who was 10 when he arrived. “We were homesick, and financially unstable. There was a lot of anxiety.”

The immigration experience is woven as deeply into Canada’s Olympic lore as to any facet of the country’s life. Medals won by Lori Fung, Nicholas Gill, Carol Huynh and others feed our happy rhetoric about diversity and tolerance. And we’ve taken some bad with the good. It was a 100-m sprinter from Toronto’s Caribbean community, Ben Johnson, who laid us low in 1988, and another, Donovan Bailey, who raised us back up eight years later. Not all tell hardscrabble stories. But precious few were born to privilege.

Ahmed still stands in wonder at where fate landed him. Somalia had spiralled into civil war a few weeks after he was born, forcing his father, Said Yusuf, and mother, Halimo Farah, to join a flood of refugees into camps in Ethiopia. The family hunkered briefly in Addis Ababa, then moved on to Nairobi, living on the generosity of relatives who worked abroad. When their applications for residency in Canada were accepted in 2001, Farah moved quickly, contacting extended family members living in Ontario’s Niagara region. By fall she’d arranged plane tickets for herself, her four sons and a female niece, while Yusuf stayed behind in hope of finding work. They arrived in November, a month when St. Catharines’ nickname—the “Garden City”—seems at best aspirational.

Money, as ever, was scarce. Farah, who fled Somalia before finishing high school, found a job cleaning hotel rooms, while the family subsisted partly on donations from members of St. Catharines’ growing Somali-Canadian community. Ahmed, the eldest, tried to help, lugging groceries on foot down the slushy streets to their apartment, packing lunches for his siblings. But the stress piled high. “A few times my mom broke down crying,” he recalls. “I remember losing it once myself, standing out on the street, wondering why we came here, telling her it was just too hard.”

Yet all five kids—Mohammed, Ibrahim, Kadar and Hamza; and their cousin Amina—thrived in school. And it was in Grade 6 that Ahmed discovered his metier. He’d first seen track on CBC television, and the following year joined his middle school’s cross-country team, rocketing up the Niagara district standings. “I really had no idea where I was going to end up,” he says, “but my love of the sport just grew and grew.” He led the high school track team at St. Catharines Collegiate Institute, and joined the Niagara Olympic Club, where expert coaching shaved minutes off his times. “In the end, I made nine or 10 Canadian junior teams,” he says. “I literally saw the world.”

Enough, at least, to put that first desolate winter into perspective. Now a star on scholarship at the University of Wisconsin, Ahmed’s been taking political science, specializing in international and Middle East studies. Last winter, he had a chance to go back to Somalia and survey the wreckage wrought by a decade of war and turmoil. He returned sobered by the sight. Canada has been good to him, he says, but he directs his deepest gratitude toward his mother for setting him up to succeed. “I honestly don’t know how she did it,” he says. “She’d hold two and three jobs at one time, and save and save for the things we needed. It was the classic life of an immigrant. No education, just her life experience to fall back on. Today, I’m living her dream.”

“Rich or poor, your family has to be there,” says Nick Tritton, between bites of fried egg. “They can’t just send you to practice and expect you to be good. They have to be there when you get home, and support you no matter what happens.” He’s speaking over a well-furnished platter at a breakfast joint in his adopted hometown of Chateauguay, Que., his cauliflower ears tucked beneath a fighter’s hoodie. Across the table are his common-law wife, Tomoko Mori—herself a former national team judoka—and their two-year-old daughter Emma. Their baby girl Taylor sleeps in a bassinet behind Nick’s chair.

Judo is not the sort of sport that gets sponsored by Gatorade. So Tritton’s homily goes beyond cliché. If everyone in an athlete’s household is not wholly on board, the demands of competing will tear it apart. Like his father a decade ago, Tritton spends a lot of time thinking about money. The combined $2,000 per month he gets from Athletics Canada and the province of Quebec isn’t nearly enough to fund the travel necessitated by judo’s schedule. So he scrambles, doing trade show appearances for a B.C. flooring company, holding judo workshops, working as a landscaper on the side. Today is a Sunday. Yet after breakfast, he’ll slather his ears in sunscreen and spend the afternoon riding a lawn mower on a sprawling acreage belonging to a Chateauguay businessman.

Once again, his dad is playing the part of saviour. Last winter, Mark Tritton struck upon the idea of building and selling a house to fund Nick’s trip to London. “As a builder it seemed the logical thing for me to do,” he says. “You can only hold so many fundraising barbeques.” Planning authorities in Perth, Ont., where he hoped to build, were skeptical. So he repackaged the proposal as a joint fundraiser for Nick and a half-dozen local charities. The result: a 1,425-sq.-foot “eco-home” in Perth, constructed with the help of Algonquin College students to maximize energy efficiency. Mark sold it in May for $285,000, generating a $65,000 profit, $36,000 of which went to the charities, while Nick received $30,000 for his Olympic journey. The younger Tritton shakes his head at his father’s inventiveness, and his stamina. “He was there working on it ’til 2 a.m. and back at 6 a.m., for weeks on end,” Nick says, “and he’s making zero money.” As thanks, he took enough from the proceeds to buy Mark’s ticket to London.

With that, Tritton’s attention turns to the Games, and a chance to rectify an early departure from the mats in Beijing, where he drew a tough opponent in the early going. It won’t be easy. Ranked just a couple of years ago among the top judokas in his 73-kg weight class, Tritton slipped to 14th this year due to nagging injuries that kept him from competing. In early 2011, he broke a rib, recovering just in time to tear a knee ligament. Elbow and back injuries stopped him from doing weight training for 18 months, and only a shot of cortisone allowed him to return to the gym in time to get ready for London.

But his aches have since healed, and his confidence is running high. “People have told me they knew when I was 15 years old I was going to make it, because I had the most drive,” he says. “That’s always been the way with me. It wasn’t form or technique. I just worked to the point I was sick. I’ll be ready for London.” If hard training isn’t enough, he can glance to the stands where his father will be watching—anxious as ever, but with all doubts erased as to how far a kid might travel from a converted schoolhouse in Lanark County, Ont.


 
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