Baumann takes over Road to Excellence


From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail

The red maple leaf tattoo over Alex Baumann’s heart never faded.

The swimming icon is returning to Canada to help steer the country’s summer sports back toward the Olympic podium.

Baumann, 42, will be introduced today as the head of the Road to Excellence program for summer sports, the $58.8-million-a-year initiative to end Canada’s backslide at the Summer Olympics and bring it into the world’s top 12 medal winners by 2012 in London.

“The Canadian sport community couldn’t have found a more respected person to head up the program,” a Canadian Olympic Committee source said. “He’s been revered in Australia and turned their sport around, but now he’s coming home and moving his life and his family with him.”

On his watch, Australia has climbed to be the world’s No. 1 swimming nation and a rising power in a number of sports. Aussie swim captain Grant Hackett and Olympic champions Libby Lenton, Jodie Henry Alice Mills, and top divers from Brisbane all are Queensland products.

“There’s few people in the country who can open doors like Alex can, not just as an athlete but as an individual,” Pierre Lafontaine, chief executive officer of Swimming Canada, said. “There’s an air about him that’s powerful.

“When guys the quality of Alex Baumann and Sylvie Frechette [a synchronized swimming gold medalist] come back into the Canadian sport system, it says you can dream again in Canadian sport.”

Baumann is best remembered as the brilliant star of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

He was Canada’s flag-bearer for the opening ceremonies. He then won gold medals in the 400-metre individual medley, setting a world record time of 4:17.41, and the 200-metre race, setting a world record of 2:01.42. They were Canada’s first golds in men’s swimming since 1912.

He was chosen Canada’s male athlete of the year for 1984 and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. He retired in 1987, coached briefly but lamented the decay he saw setting in at Swimming Canada. He was openly critical of the lack of leadership in a 1990 letter to Swimming News: “Why do we make excuses when we fall short of our expectations?”

He opted to go to school in Australia, married there and let his expertise shine. He survived a bout of testicular cancer in 1999.

Baumann’s name has cropped up frequently in searches for Canadian sport leaders since 2001, when former Canadian Olympic Association chief Carol Anne Letheren died, and when the top job at Swimming Canada was open.

Canadian sport was still in a downward spiral, from its dearth of leadership, to diminishing funding, to its lack of presence from government agendas. Baumann was used to programs designed for success, not subsistence, Lafontaine said. And Baumann wouldn’t come unless he could see change.

“It’s got to come from the top, someone has to say winning and being great at sport is good for Canada. That’s all the government needs to say. Set up an environment that’s good for sport and the message comes into schools, into corporations with money,” Lafontaine said.

“It’s a huge coup to get [Baumann] back from Australia,” Lafontaine said. “Now, we have to watch that we keep our coaches here. Australia’s putting $5-million into coaching support because they’re losing people.

“It helps that Alex is joining the dream. … If you can’t dream, you get nothing.”