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Canadians at the Australian Institute of Sport

CANBERRA, Australia – When Peggy McBride hugs her oversized mug of tea – emblazoned Queen’s University, her alma mater – and articulately describes the beautiful sights in Victoria, it takes a moment to recall that she and I are standing in Australia, and that the Victoria in question is the Australian state, not the British Columbian capital.

Halfway around the world from their homeland, two Canadians have settled into important positions at Australia’s national sport training and research centre, the Australian Institute of Sport. “Foreigners” at AIS are hardly uncommon; the embattled coach of the women’s gymnastic team, under criticism for allegedly abusive methods, is Chinese, while a swimming coach is Russian. AIS is home to technicians from Finland and Germany, and to a contingent of athletes and officials from Africa and Oceania, two regions for which AIS runs athletic programs. But for Peggy McBride, a biomechanist, and Jim Fowlie, a swim coach, the long road to Oz was an easier path than the dead ends they felt lay ahead of them back home.

As we linger in the hangar-like testing hall of AIS’s Sports Science and Medicine Centre, McBride delivers a brief bio in what her colleagues must consider a Canadian accent. A Vancouver native, McBride grew up in metropolitan Toronto but studied biomechanics at the University of British Columbia, where she also rowed.

McBride’s specialty at AIS is, not surprisingly, biomechanical research into rowing. She recalls that “as an athlete, I got very frustrated, and as a graduating sport scientist, there was absolutely no opportunity beyond academia. And so I went to where I could be effective, where I could be fulfilled, stimulated – and actually see positive results, you know?”

I had bumped into McBride while enjoying a tour of the AIS sports-science facility. She was working with technicians on final settings for a system that can wirelessly transmit deflection readings from an oar to a computer, enabling biomechanists to track an athlete’s performance remotely, in the water, rather than in an artificial testing bay indoors (which AIS also uses).

“With the telemetry system I’ve developed,” says McBride, “it’s been five years in the making, that’s the third version of it, and we finally have something working reliably.... I’m not going to turn around and sell that to Canada, you know? Even though I’m a Canadian, the fact is that they don’t have a structured career path for sport scientists; they don’t have a very systematic, professional approach to sport. So all of their experts come here.” (When pressed, McBride admits she knows of only three other Canadians working in sport sciences around Australia.) She’s been at AIS for five and a half years, having been offered a job a mere two weeks after meeting with AIS recruiters at a conference in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, across the AIS campus at the modern Swimming Centre, Jim Fowlie stands at a whiteboard and graphs the hoped-for results of the experiment his “squad” is now undergoing – taking typhoid vaccine, necessary in any event for an upcoming overseas trip, to boost the athletes’ immune systems just in time for competition. For this test, swimmers have to provide a saliva sample, and it is perhaps a small mercy that most of them choose to do so in the washroom rather than at poolside.

Originally from Prince George, B.C., Fowlie swam at UBC, where he would later move into coaching. He’s also coached in Calgary, Winnipeg, and Toronto; Fowlie has been the sprint coach at AIS for “two years, eight months, and nine days,” he said when I visited in June. “My program’s been up and runing for two years now. I’ve got more kids on the national team than any coach in the country.”

You’re never at a loss for information from Fowlie. Asked to explain why he came to AIS, and to compare the two countries’ sport bureaucracies, Fowlie has a lot to say. “Sport Canada is ten years older than the Australian Sport Commission, and so they’re ten years further down the track of making mistakes, and Sport Canada didn’t have a model to hold itself up to and look at what the pitfalls were and what the advantages were. They were basically developing a system that has itself been modelled all around the world. So the real leader for the Australian Institute of Sport... was Canada.”

Five of Fowlie’s swimmers (all female) actually have office jobs at AIS. “The athetes are there every day. The administrators have to adjust their [schedules] because the athletes have to go and train and then come back, or they need to go and rest or get a physio or something. Whereas in Canada... what they ended up doing was just building two office towers and filling [them] full of adminstrators. I would bet to say that half of them haven’t been to a Sport Canada sporting event or to a major competition or even seen an athlete in much of that time – 20 out of those 21 or 22 years. They may have not been involved at all, whereas here it’s impossible for them not to get involved with the athletes. So every decision they make, every time they think about it, they’re there.

“The Australians are known for being much, much tougher and [more] dogmatic than Canadians are, and I can vouch firsthand that they are,” he says with a chuckle. “They’re just much, much more able to make a decision, and whether they agree with it or not, to go down the path and follow it, so as an end result, they get a result.”

And is it an uneasy task to train athletes to compete against your home country?

“It’s not a big deal at all. I’ve taken out my Australian citizenship,” he says with a grin that suggests he’d take out Vatican citizenship if it would give him a good squad of swimmers. “It’s a very friendly rivalry between the countries, and certainly nothing like the war or anything serious, you know. It’s just kids getting up and having the experience of their lifetimes.”

Sidebar to story on Australian Institute of Sport

[Originally published 1995 ¶ Sidebar to story on Australian Institute of Sport Updated here 1999.07.25, 2009.07.30 15:31]

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