Canadian athletes pursued a mishmash of goals at Pan American Games

SANTIAGO, Chile — The 2023 Pan American Games meant different things to the almost 500 athletes competing for Canada.

Winning medals, qualifying for next summer's Olympics, competing for the first time in a multi-sport Games, competing for the first time in that environment without COVID-19 restrictions and getting in a dress rehearsal for the Paris Games were among the Canadians' many goals and objectives in Santiago, Chile.

For those athletes competing in non-Olympic sports, the Pan Am Games were their international multi-sport pinnacle.

"Everybody comes with different goals in mind," Canada's chef de mission Christine Girard said Sunday. "I think they all came to get what they needed from these Games.

"A lot of athletes I feel, are really satisfied, but there's no common denominator here in the sense that the goal varies quite a bit."

What that added up to was Canada's 164 medals, including 46 gold, to surpass the 152 and 35 of four years ago in Lima, Peru.

But Canada's ranking of third in the overall and fourth in gold in the medal table didn't change among 41 countries from the Americas and Caribbean.

The United States continued its customary Pan Am Games dominance with 286 medals, including 124 gold. Brazil ranked second with 205 and 66. Mexico finished ahead of Canada in the gold-medal count with 52.

"On the field of play for the athletes, we see results, medal results, qualification for Paris," Canadian Olympic Committee chief sport officer Eric Myles said. "There hasn't been that many big disappointments. A few tough or tight races or lost games, but globally I feel we're in a real good place.

"It's a challenging environment for different reasons. It's re-creating the pressure of delivering at the moment, delivering in challenging conditions sometimes. All of that's been tested on different fronts. If it was easy, we'd be up there with the States."

Santiago was also a chance for the COC's mission staff to fine-tune on-the-ground operations for Paris, Myles said.

Canadians collected five medals on Sunday's final day of competition.

Regina native Nicole Todd, Hollie Naughton of Mississauga, Ont., and Victoria's Nicole Bunyan were silver medallists in women's team squash. Simeon Martin, Edward Ly - both from Montreal - and Eugene Wang of Aurora, Ont., claimed silver in men's team table tennis. Winnipeg's Mitch Hupe took silver in men's singles bowling.

Alena Sharp of Hamilton, Ont., was a bronze medallist in women's golf, while Melissa Bratic of Mississauga, Ont., also earned bronze in karate's 68-kilogram division.

The top countries, including Canada, didn't send all of their top teams and athletes to Santiago in part because the awkward timing at the end of October and beginning of November, which is South America's summer. As Myles put it, "it's not easy to go fast in November."

But for paddler Katie Vincent, who won C2 gold with Sloan MacKenzie, the Pan Ams were a quality measuring stick because of the strength of field in sprint canoe.

"Whether it's me, America, Cuba, Chile, the competition is very high for us," Vincent said. "Knowing how much it means to the South Americans as well and how big of a deal it is for a lot of those countries, it made the competition definitely pretty fierce and fired up.

"Even though it's in a bit more of our off-season, we had a really good test to see where we're at against some of the best in the world.

The 27-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., and Vancouver breaker Phil (Wizard) Kim were named Canada's flag-bearers for Sunday's closing ceremonies.

"I've been proud to be a Canadian kind of my whole life and it felt like a moment of 'Oh, Canada is proud of me too,'" Kim said.

The 26-year-old from Vancouver claimed the first Pan Am gold awarded in men's breaking. He was among Canada's athletes for whom Santiago represented a direct trip to the Olympic Games in less than nine months.

Kim, surfer Sanoa Dempfle-Olin of Tofino, B.C., and boxers Tammara Thibeault of Shawinigan, Que., and Wyatt Sharpe of Kennetcook, N.S., were handed the coveted gold and white souvenir tickets to Paris after their events.

Another 19 athletes qualified Canada to compete in Paris in equestrian team dressage, eventing and show jumping as well as three sailing classes and two shooting divisions.

Maggie Mac Neil of London, Ont., emerged from the pool with a chest plate of medals — a Canadian-record five gold and seven in total.

She's an Olympic butterfly champion, but wanted to swim in Santiago to get a feel for a "normal" Games after the pandemic restrictions of Tokyo's Olympic Games.

"This is like a mini-Olympics," said Sarah Mitton, who won shot put gold in Santiago. "There's a lot of different factors that come with a multi-sport compared to just a plain old world championships.

"There's a lot of heightened emotions, there's a lot of extra noise. It's really nice to be able to learn how to manage yourself better in those situations. There's media, there's press and the meal hall is just a little bit crazier."

Toronto skateboarder Fay De Fazio Ebert, 13, got her first taste of a multi-sport Games in Santiago and was victorious.

For middle-distance runner Charles Philibert-Thiboutot, who dived and tumbled at the finish line for his electric victory in the men's 1,500, the Pan Am Games were "all about racing, getting the win."

"Moving through the peloton, making the right moves, finishing strong are all attributes that you need at worlds, in the Olympics to go through rounds and eventually make the final," explained the 32-year-old from Quebec City. "So this is like an amazing practice for me.

"I do think it's really important to come here and compete and be competitive."

Canadians will compete in the Parapan American Games for para athletes Nov. 17-26 in Santiago.

The 2027 Pan American and Parapan American Games are scheduled to be held in Barranquilla, Colombia.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2023.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press