World and Paralympic champion cyclist Tristen Chernove believes the way of developing athletes to compete at elite levels needs to be revamped.
Chernove, who grew up in the qathet region, said his connection to the community and the Sunshine Coast area is strong and important, as is his continuing interest in sports, even after his retirement from elite-level competition following the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games (held in 2021), where he won silver before withdrawing from further competition.
Chernove said it has been an interesting process, competing in the Paralympics in Tokyo, realizing that his participation in elite level international competition was going to end soon.
“It looks like the timing of it couldn’t be better for making the impact and difference that I want to make in sport,” said Chernove. “It feels like, particularly nationally within a lot of the progressive sporting nations, there is a lot of momentum for the sport system to change in the many ways I have been wanting to see for a long time.
“I’m motivated to be more active in contributing to social change, change in the value set, and change in the whole way society and sport interplay. In as many ways as it’s wonderful, it’s also super harmful where it doesn’t need to be and quite archaic in a lot of ways. It has really come to light for me in the last couple years.”
Chernove said he was recently at the Cycling Canada annual congress in Quebec City, and it focused around how the organization is going to implement a new strategic 10-year plan.
“It’s been amazing for the past two years for me to have the opportunity to give input to the board around what I value and would like to see in the strategic plan; my thinking is a lot broader than just cycling,” said Chernove. “In this particular congress I was there predominantly as the athlete representative as the vice-chair of the athletes’ council.
“From the athletes’ perspective, the changes I am most excited to see are the strategic implementation of looking at the athlete lifecycle as a holistic part of the human development side of things, rather than just the sports development side, so that right from the time an athlete reaches the level of being in the national team program, there is a whole development chain happening alongside their athletic career, helping these athletes develop into being the best humans they can be.”
Chernove said competing at the pinnacle of international competition is a fairly short span of duration in relation to a person’s whole life.
“We need to be making sure that when athletes are not competitive at the level of being selected for events anymore, there are enough other positives that we’ve provided for them, so it is not harmful to their well-being the way it is now.”
Chernove said he would love to see all coaches trained to the point that whenever a selection is made for an athlete within a team to go represent the country at a world championship, for those who weren’t selected, they are told they weren’t selected at this moment for some listed reasons, but they have been selected for other projects instead, which might include visiting schools in their region, influencing kids, or speaking as an announcer at events.
“Hopefully, we can start telling stories that broaden the scope of what the nation would pay attention to,” said Chernove. “I would love to see a day when the story of the athletes who didn’t make it capture more media attention than the athletes who got the gold medal. It’s often more relatable, more human and more valuable.”
Funding rewards results
Chernove said within the sports system, no matter the intentions of the great people within the organizations, the structure is set up so the funding comes in a way set out by the government to reward podium finishes.
“Even the name of it, the Own The Podium program, is the main funding for Cycling Canada,” said Chernove. “It creates an environment, kind of like politics, where there are these four-year cycles, and if the coaches don’t get the podiums or performances they need to keep the funding, their job isn’t there.
Chernove said it’s impossible to look at the lifecycle of the athletes with the best interests in mind because they have to be driving for the financial contributions of the podium.
“Instead of owning the podium, if it was owning excellence, where the organization was paid X dollars for every athlete who reaches the top 10 per cent in the world, we would dramatically grow the pool of athletes reaching their very best,” he added. “What happens currently is, if an athlete has podium potential, they are not going to get the resources the one or two athletes who are targeted for podiums will get. We’ll have fewer people getting to be their true best. The long-term impact of having a support system that celebrated people being in the top 10 per cent, instead of celebrating the people in the top less than one per cent, is we would end up with more podiums in the end because we’d be drawing from a much larger pool.”
In terms of his own categorization, Chernove said it has become too easy to call athletes who are overcoming impairments as “para” cyclists or athletes.
“Para means beside; I’m not beside cyclists, I am a cyclist,” said Chernove. “I understand this all was borne from the fact that the Paralympics were originally set up in the early ’60s and it happened alongside the Olympics. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a Paralympics, but as an event, that’s not who the athletes are outside of that event. An athlete with an impairment should just be called that and you compete within the disciplines in a category of impairment.
“The pushback I often get is that it’s set up globally to be called Paralympics, so that’s what it is. I say it is that way because we accept it to be. Somebody has to be first to make the change. Why not have it in cycling?”
Chernove said Cycling Canada is looking at breaking down the silos of disciplines and having one team, with one pool or coaches, and one athlete pool. He said it would start to get rid of the notions of separation.
He said incorporating para athletes with Olympic athletes, rather than separating and segregating them, would be more inclusive.
“I never felt separated or segregated in my life until I went into elite sports,” said Chernove. “The first time I went to nationals to compete as a para-cyclist, I nearly left and came home because I remember the first day was a time trial and it was the first time in my life where I had ever been segregated. The reason why I was so upset was because my disability had never defined where I should fit before. We need to get past that.
“If we have a world championship, rather than para-cyclists having a world championship as their own event, it could have elite men, elite women and athletes with impairments competing. We use the same equipment on the same courses."