On home soil: Canada to field strongest Pan Am team ever

The Canadian women's water polo team poses for a picture on a giant chair inside the Pan American Games athletes village in Toronto, Friday July 3, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

TORONTO – Curt Harnett was having a horrible season in 1994. The three-time Olympic medallist in track cycling was struggling with his form and tinkering with his pedalling mechanics.

The Commonwealth Games in Victoria that summer salvaged his season.

It was the one chance in his illustrious career to compete in front of a Canadian crowd, and it was where he made some of his fondest sports memories – the type Canada’s top athletes will be compiling at the Pan American Games.

“Victoria was one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” said Harnett, Canada’s chef de mission for the 2015 Pan Am Games.

“When the majority of the stands are actually cheering you on versus some other competitor, that energy is really quite fantastic.”

“It was an amazing adventure, and for me it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and it’s what it’s going to be like for these athletes,” added Harnett, who won silver in Victoria, and went on to earn bronze at the ’96 Olympics. “This could very well be the only chance they get to race in front of a home crowd.”

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That rare opportunity has gone into the making of Canada’s largest – and arguably strongest – Pan Am Games team ever assembled. Some of Canada’s most recognizable athletes such as paddler Adam van Koeverden, a four-time Olympic medallist who’s never raced in a Pan Am Games, couldn’t pass up the opportunity to shine on home turf.

Adam van Koeverden is photographed at the Burloak Canoe Club in Oakville, Ont. The Globe and Mail

He’s one of more than 720 athletes – almost three times the size of the 2012 London Olympic team – who will represent Canada in 36 sports in the Games which open next Friday.

The U.S., which has dominated the Pan Ams, finishing first in total medals in all but one appearance, plans to field a team of about 625 athletes.

Canada’s goal is to finish in the top two in total medals. That could take, Harnett figures, between 190 and 200 medals.

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Canadian water polo athletes Monika Eggens, left, and Jacqueline Kohli take a “selfie” in the square inside the Pan American Games athletes village in Toronto, Friday July 3, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

Canada has finished second once before, in 1967 in Winnipeg. The team has finished third 10 times in its 15 Pan Am appearances.

Four years ago in Guadalajara, Mexico, Canada was fifth with 119 medals, but because of the timing of the event – it fell in October, which is very late in an athlete’s season – the team was a mixed bag of A-listers and developmental athletes.

A year before the curtain goes up on the Rio Games, Canada’s team for Toronto is a who’s-who of Canada’s Olympic medal hopes.

The list is long: Rosie MacLennan, Canada’s lone gold medallist in London, in trampoline; Mark Oldershaw, Olympic bronze medallist in canoeing and Canada’s flag-bearer for the opening ceremonies; mountain biker Catharine Pendrel; diving’s Fab IV of Roseline Filion, Jennifer Abel, Meaghan Benfeito and Pamela Ware, who’ve combined for a whopping 70 Olympic and international medals; Ryan Cochrane and Richard Weinberger, both Olympic medallists in swimming; and Patricia Bezzoubenko, who won six gold medals in rhythmic gymnastics at last summer’s Commonwealth Games.

The lion’s share of the medals should come from a star-studded track and field team that includes 20-year-old Andre De Grasse, who became the first Canadian in 16 years to go sub-10 seconds in the 100 metres; Shawnacy Barber, who regularly breaks his own Canadian pole vault record and is ranked fourth in the world; Damian Warner, world bronze medallist in the decathlon; world heptathlon silver medallist Brianne Theisen-Eaton; and Olympic high jump bronze medallist Derek Drouin.

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Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse reacts after winning the 200-meter race during the NCAA track and field championships in Eugene, Ore., Friday, June 12, 2015.
Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse reacts after winning the 200-meter race during the NCAA track and field championships in Eugene, Ore., Friday, June 12, 2015. AP Photo/Ryan Kang

For 10 sports – 16 events – the Pan Ams are direct qualifiers for the Rio Olympics. In men’s and women’s field hockey, and men’s water polo, for example, the gold medallist earns an automatic Olympic berth.

And with the Olympics on the line, there’s no place Justin Boyd would rather play than at home.

“It is a huge advantage,” said Boyd, a member of the water polo team that is looking for its first Olympic berth in eight years. “To be able to fly domestic to Toronto, the biggest city in Canada in front of a lot of fans who are really hungry for a big sport event, and just being at home, we can really have that mentality that, ‘This is our home, this is our pool, this is our Games.’

“I’m very confident we’ll come away with a gold medal and an Olympic berth.”

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A handful of sports will make their Pan Am Games debut including women’s rugby and golf. Canada’s golf team features one of the faces of women’s golf in Lorie Kane. Rugby sevens, scheduled for the opening weekend, should get the Games off with a bang as Canada’s men’s team is the defending champion, and the women’s squad – featuring stars like Jen Kish and Ghislaine Landry – was the first Canadian team to qualify for Rio.

Perhaps the one sport that hasn’t drawn the big names that fans looked forward to is men’s basketball. Because of conflicts with the NBA summer league and contract negotiations, just three players with NBA experience – Anthony Bennett, Andrew Nicholson and Sim Bhullar – were named to the 16-man roster for coach Jay Triano’s selection camp. He’s expected to name the final 12-man roster prior to July 18.

In all, over 6,100 athletes from 41 countries of the Americas will compete at the Pan Ams, double the number of athletes that competed at the Vancouver Olympics.

The United States leads the overall medal total over 16 Pan Ams, with 4,172 medals. Cuba is a distant second with 1,932, while Canada is third with 1,696.

Water polo kicks off the competition Tuesday, three days before the opening ceremonies at Rogers Centre.

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