Q&A with Own the Podium CEO Anne Merklinger

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She’s one of the top executives in Canadian sport, but Own the Podium CEO Anne Merklinger is no stranger to the swimming pool.

An elite athlete for most of her life, Merklinger was a member of Canada’s national swim team from 1977 to 1981. Her accomplishments include a silver medal at the 1979 World University Games in the 200-metre breaststroke.

After a distinguished swimming career, Anne focused on curling, winning the Ontario Women’s Curling Championships in 1993, 1994, 1998 and 2000. She has twice led her team to the final of the Scott Tournament of Hearts (1998 and 2000)

Swimming Canada recently caught up with Merklinger to discuss the tough decisions facing swimming and all sports as we compete to be the best in the world. Sometimes being the best in Canada just isn’t enough in today’s ultra-competitive global sport environment. Merklinger believes Canada will be better off in the long run by raising the bar and Own the Podium is leading that charge.

SC: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. To start, can you explain Own the Podium’s mandate?

AM: Our mandate is very clear, it’s to help more athletes and coaches win more medals for Canada. We work closely with national sport organizations to develop and implement high-performance programs that will improve our medal haul over the longer term. We are working very closely with Canadian sport organizations, much deeper than in the past. We are very focused on the upcoming set of Games, but also focused on subsequent games. From a summer perspective for swimming we are in preparation for both the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics in Rio, and also for 2020 in Tokyo.

OTP’s overall vision is for Canada to be a world leader in high-performance sport. How we go about doing that is to win more medals over the long haul through a very collaborative approach with various partners. National sport organizations are one of our key partners. We use a very evidence based approach in identifying those sports that have the potential to win medals.

SC: When you talk about a collaborative approach, how does OTP interact with the national sport organizations?

AM: We’re a performance partner, an independent technical agency. Our responsibility on behalf of the funding partners is to provide recommendations around investment. That investment approach is very focused on the medal potential of athletes for the upcoming set of Games and subsequent Games.

With Swimming Canada for example, we are side-by-side with swimming’s technical staff to assess the high-performance plan, identify changes to the plan to increase medal production and provide technical advice and counsel as to how swimming might be able to implement those changes. We have a partnership relationship with the technical staff in swimming that is really based around achieving more medals longer term.

SC: What are some similarities and differences between how OTP works with the various sports?

AM: One of the messages we convey to sports is, “You can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results.” That often requires sports to make some bold decisions and we have certainly been challenging swimming to continue to push the system in a way that medal production increases over the long term in both the Olympic and Paralympic programs.

Another area in which we are fairly aggressive with each of the partner sports is to challenge them to provide evidence and data that athletes are tracking for a podium performance. Each sport is different. In swimming that analysis needs to take place for each gender and each event. The analysis would focus on: “This particular athlete is tracking for a podium performance in 2020. Here are the variables we’re looking at. Here’s evidence this particular athlete is on track.” In a time-distance sport it’s simpler to do that than, say, a team sport, or a judged sport where data may not be as objective. 

Predictive modeling based on time progression in swimming is critical in order to validate podium potential, for example : “This athlete six years out is clearly on path for podium performances.” Once we have that data, the recommendation we’re providing on behalf of the partners would be to invest in that particular athlete. It’s about focusing investment on those athletes that are tracking for podium performance.

We are already down to six years from Tokyo. We expect (Swimming Canada High Performance Director) John (Atkinson) and the team already have a clear understanding of what athletes in the system are tracking for podium performance.

SC: But don’t all athletes develop differently? What about exceptions who haven’t shown that potential?

AM: There are a couple of things to consider. Take an athlete who is clearly tracking for a podium performance heading into Rio. That athlete needs a great daily training environment. What does he or she need in the daily training environment to push him or her and stay on track for a medal in Rio? He or she would need other athletes to train against and with on a daily basis. Those athletes may not be particularly on track for a podium performance but the nature of that training group is important. Our funding recommendation might be to support that training group because of what he or she needs to perform in Rio.

The second piece is, the closer and closer we get to Games, the easier it is to identify whether an athlete is in fact on track. At the mid-quad point, the evidence becomes clearer. Are there exceptions? Yes there might be some athletes that emerge as we get closer and closer to Games, certainly the farther you go away. We’re six years out of Tokyo, so I would say it’s greyer, the track to the podium is not as defined perhaps as the athlete evolves through their high-performance career.

We expect the sport would be able to identify the threshold where it is clear that this athlete’s performance is far enough away that it’s highly unlikely they would be tracking for podium performance. We revisit that every year and through the course of the year, so if an athlete was not identified as podium potential four or eight years out but then put in a performance that indicated they were closer to podium track we would certainly revisit that. In a time-distance sport it’s certainly easier to be able to monitor performance.

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