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Expectations high for Nova Scotia’s Canada Games canoe-kayak team

Nova Scotia paddlers have dominated the Canada Games medal standings for years. In 2013, they collected nearly half of the province's 56 medals.

When Nova Scotia's canoe-kayak team hits the water at the Canada Games this week, the athletes know the expectations will be as high as Winnipeg's Red River is long.

Nova Scotia's water sports team members have dominated the Canada Games medal standings for years. In 2013, the province's paddlers collected 26 of Nova Scotia's 56 medals.

As the 2017 Canada Games heads into its second week in the Manitoba capital, those expectations haven't changed.

Guiding the team is veteran coach Jeff Houser, who is no stranger to the Canada Games.

This will be the fifth Games for Houser. So there's probably not a more qualified person to help the athletes reach the high level of expectations.

"We let them know it is supposed to be fun, but we also kind of like a little bit of that pressure," said Houser. "We want them to know when you are a part of Team Nova Scotia, there is an expectation that you are going out there to race hard.

"Back in the old days you would line up against someone from Ontario and go 'Oh jeez, I can't do that, I'm against Ontario,' and now it's the other way around and we like that. We let the athletes know that's how we look at it and there is an expectation, not that we're going to win every race, but that we never shut down, we always go after it.

"Fourth is better than fifth, third is better than fourth, second is better than third and first is better. We're always chasing the next step up."

Houser is quick to caution that medals are not automatic.

"It's just not Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec anymore. Alberta and Manitoba have some strong athletes. I tell the kids, 'Don't ever assume that there's no one good out there.' There's always good people out there."

However, this Nova Scotian team is deep and experienced.

Just last week, six members of the Canada Games team represented Canada at the under-23 and junior world championships in Romania. Competing at the under-23 event were Zane Clarke (kayak), Connor Fitzpatrick (canoe) and Anna Negulic (kayak). Marlee MacIntosh (canoe), Ashley Card (kayak) and Grace Whebby (kayak) competed against the world juniors.

Clarke is truly a Canada Games veteran. Winnipeg will be his third Games and will represent a homecoming of sorts.

He competed for Manitoba in 2009 before moving to Nova Scotia, where he medalled in 2013 and is considered one of the team's best medal threats.

"Zane has been at this a while and right now he is one of the top U23 men's kayakers in the country," Houser said. "Stacked up against the other under-21 kayakers in the country, he's probably No. 1 ranked in the entries for Canada Games."

The coach puts Fitzpatrick in the same class as Clarke.

"Connor is one of our big medal hopefuls. He's strong enough to medal in all of his events."

On the women's side, Houser is looking to Whebby and Card as the main contenders for gold medals.

The team's real strength is in the canoe and kayak fours. These are the races Houser expects to dominate.

"I don't think we have lost a 500- or 1,000-metre men's or women's fours in several Canada Games," said Houser. "So we are always looking to be strong in those events.

"It's never a done deal, but we are obviously thinking the fours are a good chance for us. We're one of the few provinces that has four or five strong athletes in every category. Some of the provinces will have one really strong athlete, but are pulling up the back with younger kids, working on development.

"We are looking very good in all eight of those races."

Other members of the team are: James MacPhee, Brett Himmelman, Mark Wiseman and Matthew Peachey, men's canoe; Jacob Steele, Mark Marschalko, Paul LaPierre and Robert Laureijs, men's kayak; Nicole Jessop, Julia Lilley, Ava Carew and Kate Hennessey, women's canoe; and Jessica Hogg and Olivia Denman, women's kayak.

Houser, who will be joined by assistant coach Anna Hetzler, manager Keshav Paliwal and boatman Brian Stever, credits the province's club coaches for the continued success of the athletes.

"We've got a great bunch of club coaches in Nova Scotia and the club coaches are responsible for this. I get to take over and be there when (the paddlers) win all the medals, but I didn't put them there. I give the credit to the club coaches."

But for this week in Winnipeg, the athletes are under Houser's watch.

"We've got a great bunch of kids and they all get along with each other. It's a good group to travel with. And they all like to win and that's fun for me."

And there will be plenty of winning with this talented group.

"Every Canada Games we try to fill up the roster and get everybody races, but sometimes there is a throw-away race, but we don't have any throw-away race. Everybody belongs when they are in the water."

Houser doesn't want to put a number on the potential medal haul, but says it will be high.

"We're not going to win every event, but we are going to be in the medal hunt in every event," he said.


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