Canada will send its biggest team ever to the 26th World University Games in China.
The hope is the squad will come back with a large medal haul.
Chef de mission Peter Baxter is looking for a strong Canadian performance when the world’s second largest multi-sport event after the Olympics opens Thursday in the glittering new facilities and sweltering heat of Shenzhen, the rapidly expanding city of about 10.5 million in southeastern China.
That would be outside of the record 38 medals the team won the only time the event was held in Canada in 1983 in Edmonton.
That year, Canada was third in the standings behind the 113 medals won by the Soviet Union and the 54 by the United States.
They are unlikely to threaten even the top five this time around, but Baxter expects strong performances in swimming, athletics, water polo and taekwondo.
The goal is to win more than the 15 medals Canadians took home in 2009 at the last Summer Universiade in Belgrade, Serbia.
“It will be quite an experience for our student athletes,” Baxter, the athletic director at Wilfrid Laurier University, said Monday from Shenzhen.
“A lot of them will going to the 2012 Olympics in London, or to future Olympics. And for others, it will first and maybe the only time they will wear the Canadian uniform.”
The Canadian delegation has 246 athletes plus 103 coaches and other staff, who join more than 8,000 athletes from about 150 countries for the two-week event. They will compete in 24 sports.
Among them is Canada’s fastest man, 22-year-old Sam Effah of the University of Calgary, whose best time to date in the 100-metre sprint is a very promising 10.06 seconds.
He was seventh at the Commonwealth Games last year.
Also on the team are Kimberley Hyacinthe of Montreal and Amonn Nelson of Calgary, who were part of the gold-medal winning 4×400-metre relay squad from the 2099 University Games, taking Canada’s first track gold since 1983.
There is also Genevieve Lalonde of Moncton, who set a North American junior steeplechase record at the world junior championships last year in her home town.
Track coach Claude Berube of the University of Manitoba said his team will be stronger than usual because some will stay on in the region for the world championships Aug. 27-Sept. 4 in Daegu, South Korea.
Canada has won more medals in swimming than any other sport since the first Universiade in 1959 with 95, including 21 gold. The swimmers won seven in 2009 after taking 10 medals in 2007 in Bangkok.
This year’s team includes McKenzie Downing of Whitehorse, a butterfly specialist who won three medals at the 2007 world championship.
“With less than a year to go until Canada’s Olympic trials, this will be the first step to making the main show in London in 2012,” said coach Mike Blondel of swimming powerhouse Calgary.
The women’s water polo side hopes to improve on a fourth-place finish in Belgrade and will have seven returning players.
They include four members of Canada’s silver medallist team from the 2009 world championships — Whitney Genoway and Jenna Crook of McGill, Marissa Janssens of Concordia University and Carmen Eggons of Pitt Meadows, B.C., who attends university in Hawaii.
The taekwondo team includes Ivett Gonda of Port Moody, B.C., who reached the world championship quarter-finals in May, and UBC’s Yvette Ying, who was ninth at the worlds.
The men’s basketball team was the pride of Canada when it knocked off the U.S. in 1983, but a young squad led by Calgary’s Boris Bakovic will be challenged this time out in a preliminary round group that includes Serbia, Turkey and Australia.
The Canadian men were ninth two years ago.
The women’s squad that was 15th in 2009 has one returning player, Megan Pinske of Coquitlam, B.C., but she is joined by four others with national team experience — Julie Seabrook of Vancouver, Elyse Jobin of Moncton, Kendel Ross of Sarnia, Ont., and Justine Colley of East Preston, N.S.
Their preliminary group has Poland, Russia and South Africa.
The men’s volleyball side, now led by six-foot-eight Graham Vigrass of Calgary, was sixth in 2009, losing to eventual gold medal winner Russia in the quarter-finals. They also hope to get into the top three.
Golf returns to the Games after skipping Belgrade, with CIS champions Mark Hoffman of Hunter College and Kylie Barros of UBC leading the Canadian teams.
The first Canadians in action Thursday will be the men’s and women’s soccer teams, who will each play Britain.
The University Games don’t have enough of the big names to come close to the Olympics in terms of world wide attention, especially in North America, but Baxter said they provide invaluable international experience for athletes.
He said they would likely be watched more closely if they were held in Canada again, but Edmonton’s bid for the 2015 Universiade lost to South Korea.
Baxter was also chef de mission for Canada at the Winter University Games in Harbin, China, in 2009, when the Canada-China women’s hockey final drew a television audience of 90 million in the host country.