Posted by Editoress on 02/17/17
Pierre Lafontaine became the CEO of Cycling Canada at the beginning of this year, taking over from Greg Mathieu, who retired after nearly eight years leading the national federation. Lafontaine comes to cycling from, most recently, cross-country skiing, and before that swimming. He held the position of CEO at both of those Canadian federations. We spoke with Lafontaine when he visited the Mattamy National Cycling Centre for the first time.
Pierre Lafontaine at the Mattamy National Cycling centre, the home of Canadian Cycling
Canadian Cyclist: Can you give us an overview of your background in sport.
Pierre Lafontaine: My original world was swimming, where I started in a suburb of Montreal with the Pointe Claire Swim Club, which was probably one of the best swim clubs in the world in the '70s, where I was a club coach while at university. I was also quite involved with a disabilities program we had at the club, for kids with Down's Syndrome and autistic learning disabilities.
In the early 1980s I became the head coach at a club at the [Montreal] Olympic stadium and we became one of the top-10 clubs in the country. But I remember thinking to myself that I don't want to always finish ninth, so when I was approached to be the assistant coach at the University of Calgary, I decided to give it ago and stayed there for four years. Our club became number one in the nation and I had a chance to work with an Olympic coach.
In 1988 I was approached by a guy in Phoenix, Arizona, who said they wanted to build the best swim club in the world, and asked if I wanted to join their coaching staff. In 1989 the head coach left and I was offered the chance to become the head coach. We built this club so that by 2000 we had 12 kids on the Olympic team and eight medals at the Olympics [3 gold, 3 silver, 2 bronze]. After the Olympics in 2000, I was approached by the Australian Swimming Federation, to move to Canberra and become the assistant coach at the Australian Institute of Sport [AIS]. In 2001 we moved to Australia, and a few months later the head coach left and I was offered the job.
In 2005 I received a call from Swimming Canada, asking me to come home. I agreed to come back to be the Head Coach and the CEO. I came back in 2005, and I basically redesigned the ten year plan. But after the 2012 Games, I had been at it [swimming] for 40 years, and I felt that I needed to use my energy for something else. I worked for a short time to help redevelop the University sports system [formerly Canadian Interuniversity Sport, now University Sport], which was a great experience, and not long after I was offered the position [of CEO] with Cross-country Skiing.
CC: What made you decide to come to cycling?
PL: I was based for a year in Canmore [Alberta] with Cross-country, but it was too hard on my family, with four kids living just outside Ottawa. So, when I was approached to apply for this position [CEO of Cycling Canada] I thought 'cycling is an iconic sport in Canada, it's a growing sport, it is a sport for all'. Plus it was based in Ottawa, so I thought that all these things meant the stars were aligning for me to come back to Ottawa. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to help grow the sport in Canada.
CC: What do you see as your role at Cycling Canada?
PL: I have two roles here; the first is to support national high performance programs and figure out what needs to be done to be among the best in the world. The other role is to put more people on bikes, so that we become Cycling in Canada and not just Cycling Canada.
CC: Swimming is always one of the top ranked activities; is that something you can see for cycling?
PL: In swimming we worked for a long time to align ourselves with the Red Cross and the YMCAs, so that the programs were about getting as many kids as we could in the water. The belief is that drowning is a preventable trauma, so teach kids to swim. So the goal was to have kids inspired by the performance of our national team. A great program that we began just as I was leaving was the Canada Swim Team, sponsored by RBC. The idea was that anyone who could swim 25 metres for the first time was certified as being on the Canada Swim team.
I think there are four sports in Canada that should be the base sports. One is to be swimming ... in the summer it is about being in the backyard pool, being in the lake, canoeing ... as a parent, if your kids know how to swim then there is a new world open to them. I also think cycling in the summer opens a world; there's a right of passage when a dad or mom teaches a child to ride their bike; I remember that myself with my own kids. There is a whole world of independence when you can ride your bike to the pool, or the park, or your friend's house; you become this independent person. So, to me, in the summer you are looking at cycling and swimming, and in the winter you are looking at skating and skiing.
So, I am excited that I can help the national program. Yes, my world has been high performance, but my social world is also about getting Canadians more active, and getting 35 million Canadians as proud as hell of the performance of our national team. Yes, we are in the cycling business, but we are in the people business. We are about building leaders, we are about building ambassadors for Canada. Riders can learn all sorts of things - being leaders, being team mates, dreaming big. These are all great skills for the corporate world also.
CC: This is much broader than high performance.
PL: An important aspect of what we do is how can we get more kids on bikes? What can we do about bike safety? There is an advocacy role; for bicycle trails and routes. When I lived in Australia, my kids could ride their bikes 12 kilometres to their gym and they only had to cross two roads; there were tunnels underneath everything else. Part of my role is helping create the structure to make Canada one of the best cycling nations in the world. Why can't we be there?
CC: What do you see as some the key areas where Canada needs to work over the next four to eight years to become one of the best nations?
PL: Well, we need to be successful on the track; 10 of 18 Olympic cycling medals are on the track, so we need to focus on that. But, if you look around the world, road cycling is front and center. And not just the Tour de France and the [WorldTour] races in Quebec and Montreal; it's the mom and dad tours, the gran fondo tours and all the popular rides. The road aspect of cycling is a brand that we need to find a way to support more. Our women's road program has huge potential to enhance and brand road cycling, so we need to look at that. In mountain biking we have so many places to ride in this country, so there is no reason we can't be among the best.
Do I have all the answers? No, I've got to do my due diligence and we have to figure out what works. I don't have all the answers, but I believe that the sum of people, from the provincial bodies, to the cycling communities ... part of our work is to bring people together, to find the Canadian answers. I feel my role in the next four, to eight, to 12 years, is to build a structure so that we don't win by luck; there is a system, from the local clubs to the provincial bodies to the all-star team, to our work with USA Cycling. We've got to stop thinking that we always have to go to Europe when in our development programs we could be developing a relationship with the northern States; to have kids camps with them down there and up here.
There is Eastern and Western Canada, but it can be a lot easier for people in Ontario and Quebec to go down to Vermont or Maine or New York, or to go to Washington for the western provinces. There is work to do there, and I have already connected with the CEO of USA Cycling [Derek Bouchard-Hall]. I don't have to reinvent the wheel. There's a lot of passionate people around the country in cycling. I just have to slowly bring everybody back into a family. There is a great quote from [U.S. basketball star] Lebron James, when they were training for the Olympics: 'We need to build a family before we build a great team'.
If we can build a plan that involves the clubs, the regions and the provincial bodies, then I think people will celebrate the [development] pathway. When we don't take the time to recognize and involve young coaches in our mentorship program, to celebrate the family that created a great athlete, then for sure people are going to be annoyed and feel left out.
We are in the final stages of our strategic plan going towards 2020, and I said to our staff that the 2024 athletes are already on bikes and the 2028 athletes are mostly on bikes, so we need to work on structure for the 2014 athletes and that the inspiration for the 2028 group is planned now.
There is a word in French - rassembleur - and it is about bringing people together under one vision. That is the work I have to do.
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