Small Towns Producing Some of Eastern Ontario’s Best Olympic Hopes
They come from small towns, the kind of dots on the map where you might stop for gas, a quick meal or to stretch your legs on your way to the big city.
But don’t be fooled by the quaint stores, four-digit population signs or the heart-healthy slower pace on Main Street. Somewhere down the quiet streets, in schools, fieldhouses and parks, young and energized athletes are defying the odds and developing into regional, provincial, and national sports figures.
Meet four athletes who have had their athletic dreams created, nurtured and developed by after-work coaches and neighbourhood bake sales before their skills elevated them to bigger centres for the final finishing touches. And now it’s time for 800-metre runner Melissa Bishop of Eganville, golfer Brooke Henderson of Smiths Falls, wrestler Erica Wiebe of Stittsville and shot putter Tim Nedow of Brockville to step onto the grandest stage, the Summer Olympic Games.
And, based on their 2016 rankings and results, they may even be called to step onto the medal podium.
Hundreds of Ottawa and area athletes have tried to make Canada’s Summer Olympic team over the years. But only an elite group of 15 athletes from the region have ever won medals, since Canada entered the Summer Games in 1900. The Gold Medal Club is exclusive to golfer George Lyon, 1904; canoeist Frank Amyot, 1936; pistol shooter Linda Thom, 1984; and relay sprinter Glenroy Gilbert, 1996.
“I was sitting at a press conference and the athletes I was with were all from small towns,” said Bishop, who is from the village of Eganville, the main hub of the Township of Bonnechere Valley (pop. 3,763). “You don’t need to be from the big city to make it.
“I don’t want younger athletes to think that they can’t get to where they want to be. It is totally possible. It is something they have to find out and make opportunities. This is possible and there is light at the end of the tunnel. You can do it.”
Spoken like a true representative of Nike. It’s a long way from the days when Bishop started sports as a speedy soccer player, travelling to Pembroke for games because there was no league in Eganville. But thanks to coach/optometrist Dr. Michael O’Grady of Pembroke, Bishop will compete in her second Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“He said, ‘You’re really fast; you’ll be an Olympian one day,’” Bishop recalled. “That planted the seed. That was my dream — to be an Olympian.”
After almost a decade of dedicated training with the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club, the University of Windsor and coach Dennis Fairall, Bishop raced in her first Olympics in 2012 in London. She entered the international pressure cooker as only the third Canadian woman to run under two minutes for the 800 metres. But her first heat was an eye-opener. She placed fifth in 2:09.33 and was eliminated.
She continued learning and developing with Fairall and joined the Nike team of pro athletes three years ago. She consistently started to run under two minutes and broke the long-standing Canadian outdoor and indoor records. She won the 2015 Pan Am Games in 1:59.62 and followed with two sensational races at the world championships in Moscow — the silver medal in the final at 1:58.12, and the fastest time in the semifinals with a national record 1:57.52.
Bishop lowered her Canadian mark to 1:57.43 at the 2016 national championships and Olympic trials last month, and is ranked No. 3 in the world. But she likely will need to go faster at the Olympics to contend with runners like South Africa’s Caster Semenya, the 2012 Olympic silver medallist who has run three of the four fastest times this year, including a world-leading 1:55.33; Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi, who has posted a 1:56.24 and Margaret Wambui of Kenya, whose season-best is a personal-best 1:56.52. None of these runners qualified for the 2015 world championship final.
Bishop will run her women’s 800-metre preliminary heat on Aug. 17. The semifinals are scheduled for Aug. 18 with the final on Aug. 20.
Erica Wiebe, Stittsville, wrestling, freestyle
(Aug. 18, women’s 75-kilogram class)
The Sacred Heart High School grad, who joined the Huskies co-ed varsity program in Grade 9, will finally go to an Olympics … to compete. At the 2012 London Olympics, she was the training partner for teammate Leah Callahan, and volunteered to work at Canada House for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
The world No. 2-ranked women’s 75-kg class wrestler is in the medal mix with three-time world champion and No.-1 ranked Adeline Gray of the United States and No. 3 Vasilisa Marzaliuk of Belarus. Wiebe, 27, was the Pan-Am Olympic qualifier, German Open and Canada Cup champion in 2016 as well as runner-up to Gray at a Rio test event, posted a 29-1 international record in 2015, and had a 36-match international win streak in 2014, including Commonwealth Games gold, and a No. 1 ranking for a brief time.
Brooke Henderson, Smiths Falls, women’s golf
(Aug. 17, first round; Aug. 18, second round; Aug. 19, third round; Aug. 20, final round)
Learning the sport from her father Dave and shadowing her sister Brittany before benefiting from national team program, Brooke Henderson captured the Cambia Portland Classic in record-setting fashion at age 17, giving her LPGA Tour membership. She maintained her dynamic play for the first five months on the 2016 tour, but has been unpredictable in the two-month lead-in to the Olympics.
In June and July, Henderson had only two top-10 finishes in her eight tournaments and both were victories — becoming the second Canadian to win an LPGA major (the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in a playoff) and defending her Cambia title. The six other tournaments have been much less sparkling for the world No. 2 golfer — a fie for 45, T21, missed cut, 64th, T38, and T50. In her last 29 rounds, she recorded a total of 17-under par for an average of 0.59-under par per round. In Henderson’s first 52 rounds during 13 tournaments from January through May, she was a combined 99-under par, averaging 1.90-under par per round. Henderson, however, is No. 3 on the money list, $1,413,153, No. 1 in birdies at 305, and No. 1 in total rounds at 81 and total events at 21. Is fatigue setting in?
Tim Nedow, Brockville/Ottawa, track and field, men’s shot put
(Aug. 18, qualification and final)
Having exceeded 21 metres on the indoor circuit in 2016, the Nike-sponsored Tim Nedow knows he must surpass that magic mark for the first time outdoors to be a significant player at his first Olympics. The product of the powerhouse Thousand Islands Secondary School track and program in Brockville, Nedow won the shot put title on the inaugural IAAF World Indoor Tour, placing first in Stockholm, a personal-best 21.33 metres, and Karlsruhe, Germany, at 20.89 metres. He is tied for fifth place on the IAAF outdoor Diamond League with distances between 20.40 to 20.44 metres.
Nedow, 25, won a silver medal at the 2015 Pan Am Games and a bronze at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. His best outdoors toss is 20.98 metres in 2014.
Meanwhile, here are some other medal contenders with local ties.
Cristy Nurse, Georgetown, Ont., Christine Roper, Montego Bay, Jamaica, Antje von Seydlitz, Smithers, B.C., all Ottawa Rowing Club members, rowing, women’s eight
(Aug. 8, heats; Aug. 10, repechage; Aug. 13, final)
The eight is to rowing what the 100 metres is to athletics. It’s the spotlight race or as Nurse told The Canadian Press, the eight is “the ultimate expression of teamwork; it takes nine minds and nine bodies working together.” She helped Canada win a silver medal at the 2011 world championships, but missed the 2012 Olympics because of a back injury.
Nurse and Roper were part of the successful Canadian eight, when it earned world championship medals for the last three years — silver in 2014, and bronzes in 2015 and 2013. Nurse, Roper and women’s eight newcomer von Seyditz will be aiming to give Canada its fifth Olympic medal since the 1992 Games.
Mark Oldershaw, Burlington/Ottawa, sprint canoe-kayak, men’s C-1 1,000 metres, (Aug. 15, heats; Aug. 16, final)
The Oldershaw surname is synonymous with canoeing in Canada. In the aftermath of his grandfather Bert (1948, 1952 and 1956 Olympics), father Scott (1984 Olympics), and uncles Dean (1972 and 1976 Olympics) and Reed (1976 Olympics), Mark will race in his third Summer Games, after becoming the first family member to win a medal, the men’s C1 1,000-metre bronze at the 2012 Games.
The Carleton University grad (a BA in English in 2010) was Canada’s opening ceremony flagbearer and men’s silver medallist at the 2015 Pan Am Games.
Martin Cleary’s High Achievers column appears bi-weekly on Wednesdays. If you know an athlete, coach, team or builder you consider a high achiever, contact Martin at