Canada

Opinion | Damian Warner, the world’s greatest athlete with a pretty good back story, is the right choice to carry the Canadian flag at Tokyo’s closing ceremony

TOKYO—In the end it was about the struggle. There were a lot of athletes who could have carried Canada’s flag into the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Games; more than usual. Though with so many having been hustled home directly after competition as a part of a pandemic Olympics, there were complications there.

That said it all, though. The pandemic added layers of difficulty to the challenges of global sport, but Canada had a remarkable Games. They chose gold-medal decathlete Damian Warner, of London, Ont., to carry the flag. He was worthy of it.

“The story,” Canada chef de mission Marnie McBean said. “I think what resonated for me was … Damian’s training at home, and the environment in Canada, and his community. Everyone had challenges, no matter where you were in the world, every plan was different. But I think that’s what did it for me.”

It’s not that it was easy for anybody to get here, but Warner’s story feels like someone wrote it for him. He was a kid without great aspirations who was spotted by his high school teachers and basketball coaches Gar Leyshon and Dennis Nielsen. They challenged him to try, and set a goal of gold in 2010, when Warner couldn’t name all 10 events. He rose toward the top.

And with the pandemic closing off his options, people arranged for him to train in an unheated hockey area, retrofitted and jury-rigged for his training; some days, he couldn’t feel his hands or feet. It almost feels like a hackneyed Canadian movie trope.

Then Warner came to Tokyo and dominated, defeating French world record holder Kevin Mayer, setting a Canadian record and an Olympic record. Warner is only the fourth decathlete to top 9,000 points.

And he was grateful.

“It is the honour of a lifetime,” said Warner. “(When I was asked) I remember going back to my room and I started to think about it a little bit more, and it was one of those things where I couldn’t help but feel like I didn’t deserve the position in a way, because I’ve watched these Games and I’ve followed these athletes for so long, and I understand that this honour could have went to anybody on this team.”

Maybe not anybody. It still would have been easy to tab sprinter Andre De Grasse, who won six medals in six career Olympic events, including his first gold in the 200 here. He is a legend in the making. So is 2016 closing flag-bearer Penny Oleksiak, who became Canada’s all-time leading medal winner with her two bronzes and a silver, and wasn’t even the most highly decorated Canadian swimmer at this meet: backstroker Kylie Masse won silver, silver and bronze, and butterfly specialist Maggie Mac Neil won one of each: gold, silver, bronze.

And if you presumed Christine Sinclair was retiring — and we shouldn’t, yet — Sinclair was Canada’s closing flag-bearer in 2012, and could have been again, nine years later. It would have been symbolic, but so is the job.

Choices. Six golds is the second-most won by Canada at any non-boycott Games: Canada won four in Rio, two in London, and three each at Beijing, Athens, Sydney and Atlanta, after the record seven in Barcelona in 1992. Canada’s 23 medals entering Sunday is a record for a non-boycott Games, one more than Rio, though in Brazil Canada finished 10th in the table, versus 11th here. But overall, this was better.

“In my opinion, this is the best team result that Canada has ever had at an Olympics,” McBean said.

It wasn’t just Warner who had to fight his way here. Weightlifter Charron, like Christine Girard before her, trained in a garage that Own The Podium paid to have insulated. MacNeil tethered herself to a backyard pool and swam in the snow, because our swimmers were out of the pool more than in any nation on Earth. The rowing women’s eights were the first Canadians to win that event since 1992.

Soccer was Canada’s sixth gold, after the women beat the United States for the first time in 20 years to get to the final. It was indelible.

But Warner deserved this. At 31, he says he still has plenty to learn, and intends to compete in Paris. In the hockey arena they tied tarp after tarp to a metal frame until they could stop a javelin. Warner didn’t think he could do this, train well enough, be great under those conditions. He said he was losing it by March. “My girlfriend (Jen Cotton, a former national team hurdler), she’s huge, she should have a degree in psychology,” he said.

And then baby Theo arrived in March. Suddenly the obsession that was eating Warner up wasn’t the main thing.

“He came out like the perfect time,” Warner said. “And I honestly don’t believe that I would have performed as well as I did, or even won the gold medal, if he didn’t come at the time that he did. Because it was kind of like a breaking point.”

Here, he was an example of Canadian resilience, ingenuity, and more than anything, possibility.

“People kept asking me about how it felt to be a gold medallist,” Warner said, “and the thing that I kept thinking back on, and when I was running down the last 100 metres of the 1,500, you’re thinking back on those tough moments that you had.

“And when you finally get to go out there and compete and live your dreams that you’ve had, and you think back on how you got there, that makes it that much more special. So I think that the struggle that we went through definitely made these Games that much more special.

“This is one of my favourite experiences. And I think that with how COVID went over the last year and a half, one of the things that me and my coach wanted to take away from these Games was to enjoy the experience. Because the last year and a half has been so tough on people, and I think it would be almost a shame to come to these Games and not enjoy it.”

He meant to take joy in it, to be grateful for the chance, and in a way that sums up the best of these Games: to find joy not despite the struggle but because of it. He was inspired by sprinter Donovan Bailey and speedskater Catriona Le May Doan, two coaches changed his life, he worked and never stopped, a community lifted him here, and he won gold in Tokyo. You could have written Damian Warner’s story, but who would believe it? Turns out, he did.

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