Federal government extends NextGen funding

TORONTO — Sarah Mitton is spending the summer in Toronto to train with one of the strongest groups of Canadian throwers ever assembled.

The 20-year-old shot putter from Brooklyn, N.S., has been identified as a “NextGen” athlete, and at Athletics Canada’s East Hub at York University, she has access to everything from top coaching, use of the weight room and track, sport medicine and science, down to nutritional supplements.

“Everything like that is covered, so your sole focus is just training,” said Mitton, who will compete at the World University Games this summer in Taiwan.

The federal government announced Friday that it has extended its commitment to athletes like Mitton, who are expected to reach their peak performances in 2022 and beyond.

The $5 million per year earmarked specifically for athletes known as “NextGen” is no longer limited to the initial four-year term pledged in the 2016 federal budget, but is now an ongoing, annual commitment.

“We identify high-performing athletes with the potential to have big success on the podium at international competitions five to eight years out,” Minister of Sport Carla Qualtrough said at Friday’s announcement. “It’s a real challenge to make ends meet as an athlete, especially when you haven’t made a national team, but you’ve gone beyond the provincial team, and you’re trying to figure out how you can bridge the gap between the provincial support you were getting and the national support you know you’re going to get.

“This is exactly the gap this money is trying to fill, so our athletes don’t quit because they can’t afford to keep going.”

The federal government money came on the condition that Own The Podium, the Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee collectively match the $5 million via their own corporate fundraising and thus double the money going to NextGen athletes. COC chief executive officer Chris Overholt said Friday the Royal Bank of Canada is contributing to the matching funds.

“This new funding means that truly promising athletes, whatever their means or background, can find the financial support they need to pursue their Olympic dreams,” Overholt said.

Anne Merklinger, the CEO of Own The Podium, said stats from the 2012 London Olympics showed that top-eight performances were beginning to flat line.

“That was an indicator to us that if we didn’t provide investment recommendations a little bit deeper, that eventually it would start to decline,” Merklinger said. “So after London, we made a very deliberate shift in the investment strategy to go a little bit deeper in the pathway, so to actually in those actually invest in those athletes that are in the five to eight year kind of space.”

OTP funnelled more funds for development towards sports with the biggest potential — namely track and field and swimming, which between them captured 12 of Canada’s 22 medals at last summer’s Rio Olympics.

“To see that impact on those particular sports really was encouraging in terms of this is right way to go about this,” Merklinger said. “So now this new funding will allow us to have that same kind of impact on a much longer list of sports.”

Growing up with divorced, thus single-income, parents, Mitton said she used to work part-time as a waitress to help pay for her sports.

“My mom and I had a deal that I could do sports and whatnot, but I had to help pay for it,” said Mitton, who won bronze at the recent Canadian championships. ”When money is an issue, it really makes a difference of the level that you can put in.”

Mitton will return to the University of Windsor in the fall for her fourth year, but will periodically travel to Toronto to train with the throws group that includes Canadian record-holder Brittany Crew and is headed by coach Richard Parkinson, whose salary is partly paid through the “NextGen” program. The group also includes Trinity Tutti who set a Canadian youth shot put record Thursday in winning gold at the Commonwealth Youth Games in the Bahamas.

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