July 17th, 2024

Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile, a proving ground for Canadian athletes

By Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press on October 19, 2023.

SANTIAGO, Chile – One of three jewels in the multi-sport triple crown for a Canadian athlete is the Pan American Games.

Athletes who have already worn the Maple Leaf in Olympic and Commonwealth Games want to complete the set.

“I haven’t done a Pan Am Games yet,” said Olympic butterfly champion Maggie Mac Neil of London, Ont. “Just being in a Games atmosphere is so different than being at a world championship in a hotel with just swimmers.”

The 2023 Pan Am Games in Santiago, Chile, officially start with Friday’s opening ceremonies, although preliminary competition was underway Thursday.

The Pan Am Games will mean different things to the 473 athletes on Canada’s team.

For some, it’s a chance to qualify either themselves or their country for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. Of the 38 sports Canadians will contest in Santiago, 21 are Olympic qualifiers.

In sports such as boxing, breakdancing, sport climbing, surfing, and tennis, athletes can punch a direct ticket to Paris for themselves.

In others, athletes can qualify Canada in a sport for Paris and then chase that berth via trials or other avenues. Canada’s field hockey and water polo teams will pursue the gold medals that can catapult them to Paris.

Canada finished third in total medals (152, including 35 gold) behind United States (293) and Brazil (169) in Lima, Peru, four years ago.

Santiago is a measurement of how far world champion boxer Tammara Thibeault of Shawinigan, Que., has come since Lima.

She won bronze in Lima and was eventually upgraded to silver because of an opponent’s doping violation.

“Last time at Pan Ams, I was definitely not at my best. I take full accountability for that,” Thibeault said. “This time, I’m coming in way more prepared, way more focused. I’m a different boxer than I was four years ago.”

The Pan Ams can be an athlete’s first taste of a multi-sport Games. With Paris on the horizon in just nine months, Santiago is a both a dress rehearsal and a proving ground for over 6,800 athletes from 41 American and Caribbean countries.

Santiago is a Pan Am host city for the first time. It was awarded both the 1975 and 1987 Pan Ams, but pulled out.

The sound of last-minute hammering and sawing was prevalent Thursday in the area around Estadio Nacional, which is the site of the opening and closing ceremonies.

Canada’s team includes 100 Olympians, including 15 medallists, as well as 106 athletes who previously won Pan Am medals.

Mac Neil, Olympic weightlifting champion Maude Charron of Rimouski, Que. and world champion hammer thrower Ethan Katzberg of Nanaimo, B.C., are among Canada’s headliners.

Kristen Kit of St. Catharines, Ont., was the coxswain of the women’s rowing eight that won gold in Tokyo. She makes her Pan Am debut in that race as well as the new mixed gender eight event.

Some high-profile Canadians – sprinter Andre De Grasse, decathlete Damian Warner, swimmers Summer McIntosh and Kylie Masse and the Canadian women’s soccer team – aren’t in Santiago.

In soccer’s case, Canadian players can’t leave their international clubs for the Pan Ams. And if Santiago doesn’t offer an Olympic qualification component, the Pan Ams aren’t a priority in a compressed prep time for Paris.

The COVID-19 pandemic that pushed Tokyo’s Summer Olympics from 2020 to 2021 turned what was traditionally four years between Summer Olympic Games into three years.

In swimming, diving, artistic swimming and water polo, for example, February’s world aquatics championship in Doha, Qatar, will be the third world championship in as many years for what was previously a biennial event.

The competition glut contrasts starkly with the 2020-21 season that was devoid of events because of the pandemic.

“It’s definitely a lot, but it’s good to get back into that racing since we didn’t get to do it for a year and a half,” Mac Neil said. “You have to train to compete, but also part of competing is just racing over and over again so you can kind of see what’s working and we lacked that a lot.

“Especially being in Canada, leading into Tokyo, we didn’t really have any racing opportunities at all. I guess we’re just making up for lost time, but it definitely is insane how as opposed to just jumping back on track, we’ve tried to slot in a lot of extra meets.”

Mac Neil is among 17 international “athlete ambassadors” for Santiago alongside Brazilian gymnast Rebeca Andrade, Dominican sprinter Marileidy Paulino and BMX rider Daniel Dhers among others. Mac Neil is featured in a “Sport Lives In You” promotional video.

“I would love to add a Pan Am Games gold to my collection, but definitely not trying to put pressure on myself that way,” Mac Neil said.

Breaking, sport climbing and skateboarding make their Pan Am debuts in Chile. The latter two were included in Tokyo’s Olympic program, while breaking will be introduced in Paris.

Vancouver’s Philip Kim, known as B-Boy Phil Wizard, won the men’s world breaking championship in 2022 and finished second this year.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 19, 2023.

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