Training Ground program aims to unearth hidden athletic gems

The RBC program is coming to York University on March 19 and Georgian College on April 15 in hopes of finding athletes with Olympic potential

Is there a child or young adult in your neighborhood who is an excellent athlete but lacks platform or direction?

Perhaps you know someone who has impressive physical abilities but has never had the opportunity to demonstrate them in a competitive environment.

History has some sporting examples of great athletes discovered by accident.

An American football coach was once driving near the Canada-US border when he stopped to ask directions to a young man who was plowing a field. This young man, Canadian-born Bronko Nagurski, was so strong that he could pick up the plow and point it in the direction the bus had to follow to get to its destination.

Not long after, Nagurski’s legendary football career took off, first at the University of Minnesota — it was the Gophers head coach who drove by that day — and then for the Chicago Bears.

Conn Smythe is said to have been convinced Syl Apps could play for the Maple Leafs even closer to home when he saw a teenager dominating Apps on the McMaster University football field in Hamilton. Apps, who represented Canada in the pole vault at the 1936 Olympics, was soon signed and won the 1937 Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. He later won three Stanley Cups during his Hall of Fame career, the last two as captain of the Leafs.

The life story of Nagurski and Apps could have been very different if it hadn’t been for the happy coincidences of their youth.

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The world is a completely different place now, where little seems to stay hidden for long. But the RBC Training Ground program will soon be making stops in this general area, including York University on March 19 and Georgian College on April 15, hoping to uncover hidden gems with Olympic potential.

The program is part of the bank’s longstanding collaboration in supporting Olympic athletes in Canada. Inflating the tires of a bench can be difficult. The main business of banks is different from the development of athletes. But giving athletes opportunities – even ones they may not already know about – gives everyone a boost. It’s also good for business. In addition, RBC’s support of golf in that country practically saved the Canadian Open and boosted other links initiatives from elite-level competitions down to the grass roots.

The Bank’s Training Ground program has borne fruit in a variety of Olympic sports.

One of the program’s graduates, Albertan Kelsey Mitchell, won Olympic gold in track cycling in Tokyo in 2021. Mitchell had always been a standout athlete, most notably by playing on the University of Alberta varsity soccer team. By her own admission, she lacked the technical skills to succeed at the elite competitive level, whether in team sports or individual sports, which she had also tried into adulthood.

Back from backpacking around the world after graduating from university, Mitchell was driving a truck when she heard about the training ground. Mitchell didn’t even own a bike back then. She is now an Olympic champion, having won the women’s sprint in Tokyo, and she continues to dominate international competition.

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Jerome Blake’s story is perhaps even more amazing. Growing up in Jamaica, Blake was a casual athlete who planned to join his mother, who had just moved to Canada, after he graduated from high school. When he arrived here, he was hitchhiking with a friend’s mother to a local proving ground in 2018, the same year he received his Canadian citizenship. He was again invited to the provincial selection process, but had to travel there all night by bus. He was dropped off at the bus depot, walked the rest of the way to the test site and showed enough to make the final list of athletes.

Two years ago, Blake helped his adopted country win a silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics in the men’s 4x100m relay, and last year he was part of Canada’s dramatic upset against a strong US team at the 2022 IAAF World Championships. Now 27, he’s making strides in the individual sprints, including an appearance in the semifinals at last year’s 200m World Championships, narrowly missing out on qualifying for the finals.

There are other notable individual stories, such as decathlete Pierce LePage, now one of the best in the world after finishing second at the 2022 World Championships; He finished fifth at the Tokyo Olympics.

Aside from the examples of Mitchell, Blake, and LePage, there are numerous less publicized cases of athletes being given opportunities they otherwise would not even have known about, although it does provide some clarity as to how far they need to improve in order to truly compete for one to become worthy of national team/olympic team .

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On site, the Training Ground program conducts a series of physical tests. Representatives from a number of national sports federations attend the tests to recruit/identify new talent and to help athletes who need guidance or have questions. Sports such as boxing, wrestling, rock climbing and volleyball are represented, and the Training Ground website lists 12 national sports organizations active in the process. According to the website, more than 12,000 athletes have been tested in the seven years that the program has been active.

The program will first visit the Toronto (York University) area on March 19th, Brampton (Sheridan College) on March 26th and Barrie (Georgian College) on April 15th.

Participation is free and open to people between the ages of 14 and 25. An athlete must be pre-registered to participate. To register or for more information, visit

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