Ready for their Olympic moment

Meet three of the McGillians determined to make their mark at the London Games

by Daniel McCabe, BA'89

It’s the biggest, splashiest sporting event in the world, and for the athletes who take part in the Olympic Games, it’s a test of their nerves as much as a forum for demonstrating their physical gifts.

Having competed at the 2008 Beijing Games, rower Douglas Vandor, BSc’98, MSc’01, has this advice for first-time Olympians: Don’t “get psyched out about all the hoopla surrounding the event.”

Rower Douglas Vandor will be competing in his second Olympics (Photo: Facebook)

In some respects, says Vandor, the Olympics aren’t all that different from the competitions that top international athletes regularly take part in. “We race at World Cup and World Championship events every year. This is just another race against all the same crews we race [against] every year. The major difference is the attention the media and the country place on this competition. If you [don’t] let that rattle you, it will help tremendously.”

Synchronized swimmer Jo-Annie Fortin, who will arrive at McGill this fall to begin work on a psychology degree, has received similar counsel from the more seasoned members of her team. The London Games will mark Fortin's Olympic debut.

"Their main advice is to stay focused on our game plan and block out any thoughts that could distract us," says Fortin. "The only moment [before our event] where we will be able to take it all in is at the opening ceremonies. We will literally get to live the dream, feel the energy of the crowd and celebrate before focusing on the competition. I'm so excited!"

Wrestler Martine Dugrenier, BEd'08, also took part in the Beijing Games. "The size of the event is indescribable," she says. First-timers like Fortin won't be disappointed. "To walk into a stadium, as an athlete representing your country in front of more than 80,000 people, is just a magical moment."

Former McGill athletes who will be competing in London include rower Derek O'Farrell, BSc'07, swimmer Victoria Poon and ex-Martlet volleyball star Marie-Andrée Lessard, BCom '01, who will be representing Canada in beach volleyball.

Vandor will be taking part in the lightweight double sculls event at the 2012 London Games with teammate Morgan Jarvis. The duo has a definite shot at Olympic glory this year. Vandor performed well in Beijing, finishing sixth with his previous partner, Cameron Sylvester. More recently, Vandor and Jarvis placed fourth at the 2012 World Cup in Switzerland. Vandor has earned two bronze medals at the World Championships over the course of his career.

Now that he knows what to expect from the Olympics, Vandor believes he is in a better position to succeed than he was four years ago. “I feel confident this time around of getting on the podium,” he says. “Everything was a new experience for me in China, since it was my first time there. I have been several times to London and have rowed on the Olympic course numerous times, so rowing at the Games will feel almost familiar.”

Vandor came to rowing relatively late in life, taking it up as a McGill student when the allure of a particularly nifty-looking piece of sports attire altered the course of his life. “I didn't know anything about rowing until I started at McGill,” he says. “I used to be a speed skater, but stopped when I went to McGill. I felt restless not training for a sport and was looking for something to replace it. I saw people wearing McGill crew jackets on campus and thought they were cool. I wanted one of those jackets.”

According to Vandor, his time with the McGill Rowing Club provided the foundation for the Olympic-level abilities he would go on to develop. “McGill showed me the importance of working as a team. Whether at the novice or elite level, the same principles apply. Hard work, synchronicity and power will always pay dividends in the end.”

When Vandor isn’t busy training, he has plenty of outside interests to pursue.

Martine Dugrenier, BEd'08, (red) on her way to defeating Kazakhstan's Elena Shalygina during the women's 67 kg free style gold medal match at the World Wrestling Championships in 2010 (Photo: Grigory Dukor/Reuters/Landov Media)

“It is nice to forget about rowing for a bit and totally immerse yourself in something else. Painting does that for me. I also love to cook and I spent this past year volunteering on my one day off a week in the kitchen of a local restaurant in Victoria. I wanted to learn as much as I could about a restaurant kitchen and its inner workings while working on my chopping and dicing skills. I also like writing, especially children's books. I am still looking for publishers who are willing to take a chance on me and publish some of my books. So far, only rejections!”

Like Vandor, Dugrenier switched sports as a young adult, but in her case, the shift might strike some as more extreme. A former gymnast, Dugrenier describes her move into wrestling as a "fluke." When she entered Vanier College as a student, she desperately wanted to take at least one physical education class with the school's Victor Zilberman, MA'79, a highly regarded coach known for working with Olympians. But the only Zilberman class that fit into her schedule was wrestling.

"It took him three years to convince me to switch from gymnastics to wrestling, but Victor was right when he was saying that I would reach higher results in wrestling than in gymnastics."

Dugrenier is a three-time world champion in the 67 kg category. She finished fifth at Beijing, but came close to capturing a bronze.

While strength and endurance are obvious assets in a wrestling match, Dugrenier says the sport also requires an alert mind. "The mental aspect is very important -- [things like] creativity, being able to find solutions or adapt during the match are very essential qualities. The fact that you don’t know what strategy your opponent is going to use makes it more challenging. Wrestling is a very intense sport where some mistakes could cost you the match."

After earning her education degree at McGill, Dugrenier began teaching physical education at Vanier. "I always liked to give back my knowledge and to help other people," she says. Are her students intimidated when they discover that their teacher has been a world champion and an Olympian? She usually doesn't say anything about her exploits, "because for me it was important that they see me as a teacher first," but, inevitably, the students figure out who she is and what she has done.

"I think that most of the time they are very surprised that I could train, compete and teach at the same time. So, they can’t ever really use the excuse that they didn’t have enough time to do their homework."

Synchronized swimmer Jo-Annie Fortin will begin work on her McGill degree in psychology in the fall

For her part, Fortin is looking forward to beginning a new chapter in her life at McGill this fall. But first, she has some business to attend to in London. The Canadian synchronized swimming squad is regarded as one of the stronger teams in the competition. Last year, Fortin was part of a gold medal-winning effort at the Pan American Games in Mexico and a bronze medal performance at the FINA World Aquatic Championships in China.

"We are known as the team that comes out with the most original choreographies," says Fortin. "[We] push the limits of synchronized swimming a bit further every time. Our biggest competitors are Russia, China and Spain."

Fortin’s first exposure to her sport came at the age of six when she spotted some synchronized swimmers at the pool where she was taking swimming lessons. “I fell in love right away.” Synchronized swimming “combines flexibility, coordination [and] strength, and while it is extremely physically demanding, you have to make it look easy by smiling, which is one of the hardest things about the sport.”

It helps that she isn't enduring it alone.

"My favourite thing about synchro is definitively the team aspect. Working with 11 other women more than 45 hours a week towards the same goal makes us so close. We have built our trust in one another [over] the last four years. We are like a big family."

Fortin says her decision to study psychology at McGill was prompted by encouragement from Wayne Halliwell, MA'73, a sports psychology consultant who works with her team and with other Canadian Olympians, such as Alexandre Bilodeau and Joanie Rochette.

"I have been working with sports psychologists my whole career, so I really understand the importance of mental strength. I'm looking forward to studying psychology because I always wanted to help other people achieve their daily goals, or even their biggest dreams, just like I did."

She says Halliwell has been an important resource as she prepared herself for the London Games.

"Wayne often says that performance is a combination of the physical part, the mental part and the emotional part. The goal is to control what you can to be able to be in a good state in order to perform at your maximum. Feeling confident, focused in the moment and happy is the state of mind that we try to achieve before competing in any big event."

Fortin recently watched the triumphant gold medal swimming performance of Mark Tewksbury, now the Canadian contingent's chef de mission, from the 1992 Barcelona Games. "I got really emotional watching him win his race in the last 25 metres of it. He had an amazing Olympic moment and I can't wait to live mine as well!"