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Training Ground program aims to unearth hidden athletic gems

RBC program coming to York University March 19, Georgian College April 15 in hopes of finding athletes with Olympic potential

Is there a kid or young adult in your neighbourhood who is an excellent athlete but lacks a platform or direction?

Perhaps you know someone with impressive physical skills but has never been given the opportunity to display them in a competitive environment.

History has a few sporting examples of great athletes who were discovered by accident.

An American football coach was once driving near the Canada-U.S. border when he stopped to ask a young man who was plowing a field for directions. That young man, Canadian-born Bronko Nagurski, was so strong he was able to pick up the plow and point it in the direction the coach needed to follow to get to his destination.

Not long after, Nagurski’s legendary football career was born, first at the University of Minnesota – it was the Gophers head coach who had been driving by that day – and then for the Chicago Bears.

Even closer to home, Conn Smythe was said to have become convinced that Syl Apps could play for the Maple Leafs when he saw a teenage Apps dominate on the football field at McMaster University in Hamilton. Apps, who had represented Canada at the 1936 Olympics in pole vault, was soon signed and won the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 1937. He later won three Stanley Cups in his Hall of Fame career, the last two as Leafs captain.

Nagurski and Apps’s life story could have been quite different had it not been for those happy accidents of their youth.

The world is now a vastly different place where it seems that little remains hidden for long. But the RBC Training Ground program will soon be making stops in this general area, including York University on March 19 and Georgian College on April 15, in hopes of uncovering hidden gems with Olympic potential.

The program is part of the bank’s longtime association with supporting Olympic athletes in Canada. Pumping the tires of a bank can be tricky. Banks’ primary business is something other than developing athletes. But giving athletes opportunities – even ones they may not yet be aware of – gives everyone a lift. It’s also good for business. Besides, RBC support of golf in this country has virtually saved the Canadian Open and boosted other links initiatives from elite-level competition down to the grass roots.

The bank’s Training Ground program has bore fruit across a host of Olympic sports.

One of its program graduates, Albertan Kelsey Mitchell, won Olympic gold in Tokyo in 2021 in track cycling. Mitchell had always been an outstanding athlete, most prominently by playing on the varsity soccer team at the University of Alberta. By her own admission, she lacked the technical skills to thrive at an elite competitive level, be it in team sports or individual ones she had also tried right up until adulthood.

Back from backpacking around the world after graduating university, Mitchell was driving a truck when she heard about the Training Ground. Mitchell didn’t even own a bicycle at the time. She is now an Olympic champion having won the women’s sprint in Tokyo and she has continued to dominate international competition.

Jerome Blake’s story is perhaps even more amazing. Growing up in Jamaica, Blake was a casual track athlete who had plans to join his mother, who had just moved to Canada, when he finished school. Once here, he hitched a ride with a friend’s mom to a local testing site in 2018, the same year he got his Canadian citizenship. He got invited back to the provincial selection process but had to take a bus through the night to get there. Dropped off at the bus depot, he walked the rest of the way to get to the testing site and showed enough to make the final slate of athletes.

Two years ago, Blake helped his adopted home country win a silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics in the men’s 4x100m relay and last year he was part of Canada’s dramatic upset of the powerful U.S. squad at the 2022 IAAF World Championship. Now, 27, he’s making inroads in the individual sprints, including a semi-final appearance at last year’s worlds in the 200m, missing qualification for the final by a whisker.

There are other notable individual stories, such as decathlete Pierce LePage, who is now one of the best in the world after finishing second at the 2022 World Championships; he was fifth at the Tokyo Olympics.

Beyond the examples of Mitchell, Blake and LePage, there are numerous less publicized cases of athletes being given opportunity they otherwise wouldn’t have even known about, even if it provides clarity how far they must improve to become genuinely national/Olympic-team worthy.

On-site, the Training Ground program conducts a series of physical tests. Representatives from a number of national sporting federations attend the testing to recruit/identify new talent and to help athletes who may need direction or who have questions. Sports ranging from boxing to wresting, climbing to volleyball are represented and the Training Ground website lists 12 national sporting organizations who are active in the process. According to the website, more than 12,000 athletes have been tested in the seven years the program has been active.

The program first visits the area in Toronto (York University) on March 19, Brampton (Sheridan College) on March 26 and Barrie (Georgian College) on April 15.

There is no charge to participate and is open to people aged 14 to 25. An athlete must be pre-registered to participate. To register or for more information, visit

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Peter Robinson

About the Author: Peter Robinson

Barrie's Peter Robinson is a sports columnist for BarrieToday. He is the author of Hope and Heartbreak in Toronto, his take on living with the disease of being a Leafs fan.
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