Niche sports get registration bumps thanks to Olympic medal halo

OTTAWA — Weightlifting, judo, trampolining: They’re sports typically confined to gym class, but they’re the events that have put Canadians on the podium in London.

But in a burst of medal excitement, local judo dojos and weightlifting clubs started receiving calls from Ottawans inspired by Team Canada’s Olympic success within days after athletes picked up a bronze in women’s weightlifting and men’s judo.

“There’s definitely been a spike in interest,� said Brian Kalsen owner of Ottawa Judo Club. “Usually there’s zero interest in August, but I’ve already received several calls.� Judo is popular in Europe and Asia, but the sport rarely gets airtime in Canada. When Antoine Valois-Fortier scored an unexpected bronze, though, footage of the little-known Quebecer toppling his American opponent was played and replayed on national television and splashed across online and print media.

The publicity and medal halo certainly helps, said June Takahashi, who said her dojo has also experienced an increase in interest. Martial arts are popular among elementary school aged children, but taekwondo and karate are far more popular. Takahashi said she hopes the Olympic spotlight will add to the small but dedicated number of Ottawa judokas.

“I think people are subconsciously thinking, ‘I want to get my kid into martial arts,’ and they hear ‘judo’ six times a day and call,� Kalsen said.

Weightlifting is even more foreign a sport to those outside the circle. “There are so many misconceptions about weightlifting that keep people who would be perfect for it from trying,� said Tom Macneil, coach at Canuck Athletics. For one, weightlifting has almost nothing to do with bodybuilding.

“Bicep curls, bench press — we do almost none of that,� Macneil said. Parents often worry weightlifting will add too much bulk to their child’s figure or be too dangerous to start at a young age. Macneil disagrees. His 11-year-old daughter, Emily Kate, started lifting as soon as she turned nine and can already lift more than her own body weight above her head.

Macneil is proud of Team Canada’s achievements, but said if more people tried weightlifting, Canada could achieve even better results in future Olympiads.

For local weightlifter Nancy Kozorezova, 18, watching Christine Girard win the bronze for Canada made her own Olympic dream suddenly feel like a very real possibility.

“It was definitely emotional when I saw Girard’s reaction when she got off the stage: she started crying so I started growing teary eyed and it hit me too,� Kozorezova said, who competes in the 63-kg weight class and has placed third in junior national competition and second in provincial senior competition. The recent Nepean High School graduate was recruited by Ottawa coach Pierre Auge, who came to the school looking for students who might venture into weightlifting — a seminar Kozorezova decided to attend on a whim with a friend. After one year at School of Champions weightlifting club, she is capable of lifting 172 lbs. clean above her head.

Kozorezova never imagined she would be a potential weightlifting Olympian. In fact, the first time she tried weightlifting, she couldn’t help but laugh at the unnatural feel of the squat.

“When a person first starts out it’s awkward and weird, honestly,� she said. “It’s a funny sport, if you think about it.�

While weightlifting is not commonly taught in schools, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be, with one of the lowest injury rates of any Olympic sport.

“As long as you have a technically trained coach, it’s a safe and enjoyable sport,� Coach Greg Chin said, who has also seen an Olympic-driven uptick in registration at his JustLift training centre, especially among females.

Trampoline athletes have won medals at the past several Olympics, but have yet to receive any afterglow effect in terms of registration. Maybe Rosie MacLennan’s gold in London will change the trend, but Spring Action trampoline club program director Sandra Floyd said it’s still too early to see whether the London games will contribute to any registration increase, but the awareness certainly helps.

“People start to realize that trampolining is a sport — an Olympic sport — instead of just part of gymnastics,� Floyd said.

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