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Island Olympians bid adieu to Rio

Somehow, they pulled it off. The Rio Olympics creaked but they didn’t crack.
Victoria swimmers Hillary Caldwell and Ryan Cochrane were among hundreds of Canadian athletes celebrating during the closing ceremony in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday.

Somehow, they pulled it off. The Rio Olympics creaked but they didn’t crack. Canadian athletes, several with Island ties, have bid farewell to the Brazilian metropolis and left the Cariocas to worry about the bill and their myriad civic problems which remain in the wake of the big party.

But for Sunday night, at least, all that was forgotten as Brazil staged a spectacularly multi-hued and emotive closing ceremony to send-off the athletes it had invited from around the world.

“The closing ceremony makes you feel like an Olympian. It makes you feel a part of something that is greater than just your performance . . . that you are a part of the long history of the Olympic Games,” said Patricia Obee, who won silver in Rio with fellow-Victoria rower Lindsay Jennerich in the lightweight double.

“The closing ceremonies were amazing. Rowing doesn’t attend the opening ceremonies because we compete so early in the Games. The closing was an experience I will never forget.”

As usual, all the problems got shoved to the back pages once the athletes took over the show. New pool wonder girl Penny Oleksiak carried the Canadian flag in the closing ceremony, following in the closing ceremony flag-carrying tradition of Island sporting legends Silken Laumann at Barcelona in 1992 and Simon Whitfield at Sydney in 2000.

“This entire experience is a dream come true,” said Oleksiak.

“I never expected any of this. I've never been more proud to be a Canadian.”

Oleksiak, who is only 16, is proof that legacy facilities pay off. She is a product, as were most of the young swimmers who helped account for Canada’s six swim medals in Rio, of the pool built for the 2015 Toronto Pan Am Games.

That’s just as swimmer Hilary Caldwell, who won backstroke bronze in Rio, and Ryan Cochrane, who kept Canadian swimming afloat during the previous two Olympics before the medal outburst in Rio, are products of Saanich Commonwealth Place built for the 1994 Commonwealth Games.

But the Rio Games’ four-medal winning swimmer Oleksiak, three-medal winning sprinter Andre De Grasse and gold-medal high-jumper Derek Drouin are from southern Ontario, signalling a noticeable shift from former Olympic-medal producing Canadian strongholds such as Calgary, Victoria and the Lower Mainland.

Canada won 22 medals in Rio, tying Atlanta 1996 for the most in a non-boycotted Summer Olympics.

Centralization of teams was also a key factor. The Langford-based Canadian women’s rugby sevens team and the Vancouver-based Canadian women’s soccer side won Olympic bronze medals, while the Canadian men’s volleyball team, captained by Fred Winters of Victoria and based in Gatineau, Que., made it to the quarter-finals in Rio.

The Canadian mountain-biking team, centralized on Bear Mountain, produced Rio Olympic women’s bronze-medallist Catharine Pendrel and fourth-place finisher Emily Batty. The community of Langford, justifiably proud, has erected a sign on the Trans Canada heading north congratulating the rugby team and is in the process of erecting another commemorating Pendrel’s and Batty’s achievements on the second-to-last-day of competition Saturday in Rio.

With the women’s volleyball team set to centralize at the Richmond Oval beginning this fall, look for communities to continue to aggressively vie for these national sides and to hold them up as sources of community pride — as Edmonton has done with the Rio quarter-finalist Canadian women’s Olympic basketball team.

Rowing Canada is centralized at Elk Lake and Lake Fanshawe in London, Ont., but faces some serious questions and a rebuild as the usually reliable provider of Canadian Olympic medals produced the lone silver medal by Obee and Jennerich this time at Rio.

Meanwhile, the first group of Island Olympians arrive back from Rio today at 10 a.m. at Victoria International Airport.

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