Marnie McBean won two gold medals at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. The Canadian rower followed with gold and bronze at Atlanta in 1996.
For the 2006 Games in Turin, I was collecting bowls of cereal in the athlete’s lounge.
It’s all part of the job of an athlete mentor on the Canadian Olympic Committee, a role McBean, 53, has played in four Games since he retired from competition in 2000 due to injury.
In the subjective game of mentoring, you never know when something will stick.
“You just need to be present… I think there is a hidden impact to mentoring. There is a hidden impact in being someone who listens, someone who shares a story, “said McBean.
She will again lend a hand at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, this time as head of mission, accompanied by athlete mentors Lizanne Murphy, a three-time Olympian in basketball, and Monique Kavelaars, a fencer at the 2004 Games in Athens.
It’s a downsized team due to COVID-19 restrictions – Murphy and Kavelaars will serve dual roles as janitors, at a time when athletes may need more support than ever before due to the challenges of getting to these postponed Games, where family members and friends cannot attend. .
In the run-up to the Olympics, McBean’s task has been to act as a spokesperson for the media and meet face-to-face with as many athletes as possible.
“I may have been the most suitable person for this role, as I have been practicing it for years,” he said. “I didn’t need to go to their sports settings to get a feel for their sports culture, because I’ve been doing it since 2006.”
McBean was already in the routine of communicating with athletes by email before the pandemic forced the Games to be postponed last April, but the tone of those messages changed, he said: from talking about shared ambition to reassuring athletes that, although isolated for safety, they were not alone.
“I was still getting this message out, like, ‘I supported you and I acknowledge your emotions, and we have support if you need it,'” McBean said.
That support continues on the ground in Tokyo.
“Sometimes (mentors) don’t say anything,” McBean said. “Sometimes they are there to pick you up on the right day, to tell you a joke, to distract you, or to tell you that you’re okay.”
Murphy, who works with the 55 Olympic and Pan American sports in his day job as a manager of national organizations for the COC, was a front-of-house janitor for Canada at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang. There was only one elevator for 13 floors in that town and people were always waiting, so Murphy created a room with benches, chairs, sandwiches, and a television. She said she became known as a “kind ear that gets it.”
“I’ve had the highs as an athlete and also the devastating lows,” said Murphy, 37. “I think everyone who goes to the Games has one or the other … In Pyeongchang I found out that I was in that role so many times, from seeing people after their Olympics were a failure, or it was the best day of their lives. ”
There will be no classroom this year. Team members will stop by the concierge desk for any needs.
“Usually that’s where the snacks are, that’s where the people are,” Murphy said. “So I don’t think they are going to come for me. I think they’ll come for the sandwiches, and I’ll be there if they need it. “
Murphy is a ball of energy whose basketball career has taught him to match people’s intensity.
“You can’t always get hot when someone isn’t there … But then if they need a boost, or they need a laugh, or they need something, I feel like I can naturally do that.”
She says she feels a responsibility to pay for it, having benefited from the support of mentors over the years: “For some athletes it is a blessing that the Games were postponed, if they had injuries or something. For many it was a devastating blow, especially if you are facing retirement and that is putting your life off for another year. I want to make these Games as pleasant, as supportive, as loving, as fun, as light as I can … I owe it to my former teammates, to my people ”.
In Tokyo, athletes can only enter the Olympic bubble five days before the competition and must exit 24 to 48 hours after. It is a different experience, with different challenges.
“We are really prioritizing how (the athletes) are going to drive after the Games …” Kavelaars said.
She applied to be a mentor about 18 months before the Olympics were supposed to start last year. After the postponement, she got a call asking if she was still ready for the role.
“I say, ‘Ten times, even more, because it’s more necessary than ever,'” he said.
The journey has been like no other. What’s easy to forget in the medal hunt, say McBean, Murphy and Kavelaars, is the stamina of the athletes. And the fact that no matter what restrictions are in place, it is still the Olympics and the culmination of years of dedication, win or lose.
When McBean first became head of mission, her hope was that Canadian athletes would come to Tokyo honest about the challenges ahead: arrogantly, but also with fear and doubt.
“It’s been really cool that they’ve had time, for the first time in decades, to explore who they are as people and athletes,” he said. “I think this team, more than any other, has discovered who their real self is.”
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