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Pandemic to Podium: Return to Sport at CSIO (Series finale: The Specialists)

Canadian Sport Institute Ontario believes in the power of sport, and its’ globally unifying principles. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been forced to adapt to a new normal and come together to support one-another in a variety of ways. This 4-part article series, written by award-winning sport journalist David Grossman, was designed to highlight and showcase our resilient athletes, and the practitioners who were instrumental in their return to sport.


By David Grossman


You don’t hear their names enough, but their expertise is clearly evident.

They are known to many as “Specialists in Sport”.

To others, they are the foot soldiers, expounders carrying out important work and focussed on inspiring and building confidence. They are also the ones who make sure many of Canada’s elite athletes obtain the right support needed to assist them in their important goal of reaching the awards podium.

Jordan Clarke, Andrew Cochran, Aly Hodgins and Haginaa Sivapunniyan are champions in their own field of expertise. They all focus on knowledge and proficient experience, to zero in on strength and conditioning, physiotherapy, nutrition, exercise physiology, high performance and the overall myriad of services needed by high calibre athletes.

Aly Hodgins treating athlete. Photo: Nick Wammes

Even more of a challenge is the task of getting critical training and workout schedules, disrupted by a pandemic, somehow back on track. There is the physical skepticism to go along with the mental uneasiness.

Creative and energetic, these educated and experienced professionals focussed on the best for athletes, always seem to find ways to stay immersed and committed to doing their job – and a job done well.

Working for the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario (CSIO), they are the practitioners who are more than caring and compassionate. They are people who assist premier athletes focus on personal safety and successful accomplishments in competition with the best in the world.

This isn’t playground activity, but the sterling performances depicted in international matchups from the Pan/Parapan Games to the Commonwealth Games, the World Championships to the Paralympics and Olympics.

In each case, Canadian athletes are up against those who strive for the same thing as them.

And while medals sometimes don’t pan out, the positive impact as well as the effect these specialists have on trying to achieve on them, go a long way in a life of career and social development.

Motivationalists in many ways, they are just a few members of the team behind the team.

“It’s all about providing everything they can do for a superb group of athletes,” said Debbie Low, CSIO’s Chief Executive Officer. “Athletes work hard to get in excellent physical shape and in addition to the advice from their coaches, (CSIO) has an enthusiastic team of practitioners that add to that – and do a phenomenal job.”

Low has also done an incredible amount of work to get the CSIO facilities re-opened in June of 2020 – and remain open during the coronavirus attack on the world. Attribution is also warranted to Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture. She heard the call for assistance, and personally took part in the Government of Ontario endorsing the opening of facilities much needed by the athletes.

It was a spark of relief and a glowing opportunity to get the wheels in motion during a rather sombre period – especially with the delayed 2020 Summer Olympics set to re-start a year later in Japan in July and August.

“We each have our expertise, specialty and scope, but it’s the collective team working together that makes the difference” said Cochran, a strength and conditioning coach and sport physiologist, who earned his Doctorate in Exercise Physiology at McMaster University in Hamilton.

Andrew Cochran in a training session with Ontario athlete. Photo: Jason Burnett

“When you examine the big picture, I like to see it as a pyramid with the athletes at the top, and the coaches beneath them propping them up.  Below both the coaches and athletes, is the support team making up the foundation.  The more solid the foundation, the higher the pyramid can be built.  We build this foundation using the most evidence-based sport science available to maximize sport potential.”

Cochran, like others, is often looked at as one of those involved in the problem-solving process.

“We examine the performance of athletes and, as a team, prioritize those elements we feel could provide the largest performance benefit,” he said. “For me, it’s maximizing the athletes health, strength and power performance. I won’t hide the fact that I enjoy helping people chase down the thing they want the most.”

With strict policies and procedures put in place, Hodgins understands the positive impact people like her, can have on an athlete. These specialists also don’t make assumptions, or jump to conclusions, without taking time for serious review and analysis.

“We’re the silent support staff, the mechanics and fixers. We fine tune the athletes to help them achieve their full potential,” said Hodgins, who resides in the Halton Hills community of Limehouse, and works with cyclists at the Mattamy National Cycling Centre in Milton.

Aly Hodgins treating an athlete at the Mattamy Cycling Centre. Photo: Nick Wammes

“A big part of my job is to improve performance through mobility and flexibility. It’s balancing things for the athletes, so they are healthy individuals, and not just cyclists.”

With educational degrees from Western University and McMaster University, in Kinesiology and Physiotherapy, respectively, Hodgins focuses a great deal on posture, muscular tension, and exercise. She’s had experience with Canada’s team at two Pan Am Games, and worked as a volunteer at the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

“I need to ensure the athletes are prepared to complete the training prescribed by their coach,” she said. “A well balanced, and mobile athlete, is a healthy athlete – and it is my job to manage that with a positive impact.”

Clarke, also employed by CSIO, is intensely involved with Rowing Canada and Row Ontario.

As someone with an extensive background working with Junior, University, and National Team athletes across a wide variety of sports, his intellectual leadership focuses on genetics as well as the testing and monitoring the training of athletes. Then, it’s responding, where necessary, with adjustments.

“I think one of my biggest tasks is education – empowering and encouraging athletes,” said Clarke, who works at Western University in the NextGen program in London and provides physiological support to athletes.

Jordan Clarke setting up mass for stress testing; 2018. Photo: Instagram.

The NextGen program is committed to the growth and development of competitive athletes with the intent of putting them on national and international podiums for years to come.

“It’s all about improvement. I’m not in this role for recognition. The thing that really makes me happy is knowing that I helped contribute to the success of the athlete.”

Making sure athletes know about all the services available is something not found in a guide book, but through inter-acting with Haginaa Sivapunniyan.

Sivapunniyan is the Athlete Services Coordinator – the one everyone turns to for almost anything. She has observed the anxiety and stress on athletes, and sees her role as playing a small, but important part in their development.

“Athletes know who I am, as the go-to person whether it’s for certain services needed, the closest place to get a nutritious meal, business partnerships, a casual conversation or just to answer when they ask for help,” she said. “It’s critically important for me to build connections and do it in a positive way. I need to have a fresh mindset on things and an ability to communicate effectively.”

A graduate in Kinesiology from York University, Sivapunniyan is also involved in the recently formed CSIO Athlete Council that was put together to provide advice, guidance and recommendations to the organization. It’s also a forum in which athletes can share and develop information and ideas.

The job hasn‘t been any easier for Sivapunniyan during the COVID period. In fact, in many ways, it’s more difficult.

“Support tools for athletes is crucial,” she said. “You have to be on top of things and ready to help when help is needed. I really enjoy what I do and know that not everyone gets an opportunity to work with some elite people. While I have learned a lot, I also have to keep an open mind and be available for them. I know little things one does, can make a big impact.”

Haginaa Sivapunniyan in Athlete Services. Photo: Haginaa Sivapunniyan

In this concluding story to the CSIO five-part series, from “Pandemic to Podium”, a sampling of four outstanding athletes, and their special advisors, have shared their experiences, predicaments and the determination to strive for excellence during these challenging times.

Four previous stories, in the links below, focus on athletes Reese Morgan, Eric Rodrigues, Genevieve Sasseville and Renee Foessel, as well as some dedicated professional staff in Kris Robertson, Melissa Lacroix, Meena Sharif and Dr. Sari Kraft.









David Grossman is a veteran award-winning Journalist, Broadcaster with some of   Canada’s major media, including the Toronto Star and SPORTSNET 590 THE FAN, and a Public Relations professional for 45+ years in Canadian sports and Government relations.