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Five years ago, Marion Thénault would have laughed at the idea that she would end up finding glory with skis on her feet.

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“It would have been absurd,” said the 22-year-old skier from Sherbrooke, Que., who won an Olympic bronze medal in the freestyle mixed jumps in Beijing in February.

“I had no idea. I had seen jumps before in the Olympics, but I thought those people were crazy.

It’s funny how life turns. In a perfect match between X and Y, the former competitive gymnast stumbled across the under-the-radar sport during an RBC workout in her hometown.

On Sunday, the doors of the free program will be open to all Ottawa-area athletes aged 14 to 25 at the University of Ottawa’s Montpetit Gymnasium. All participants are put through a series of strength and speed tests as national sports organizations hunt for diamonds in the rough.

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Since the program launched in 2016, 10,000 athletes have been tested, of which more than 1,300 have received follow-up from national associations in bobsleigh, luge, canoe/kayak, rowing, cycling, rugby, skating speed and volleyball.

So far, 11 RBC participants have made it to the Olympics, winning seven medals between them.

Similar to Thénault’s story, former college soccer player Kelsey Mitchell didn’t own a bike when she showed up for a let’s see what you got session in Edmonton in 2017. Four years later, at 27 , she had cycled to Olympic gold in track cycling in Beijing.

Thénault says budding Olympians have nothing to lose by trying. She almost missed her chance.

“I had a gymnastics competition the day before and I was tired that morning, but my mother said to me: ‘you signed up, you should go’. Imagine if I didn’t go? The whole trajectory of my life would have changed.

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After the 2017 event, freestyle skiing officials looked at Thénault’s test results and, coupled with the skills and discipline she had developed as a gymnast, saw the potential. She told them she had no skiing experience, but with RBC funding in place, she gradually grew into the sport.

“There is a progression,” she says. “You are scared with every step, but you are building.”

Evan MacInnis, the program’s technical director, says it’s an ideal adventure for curious young athletes who want to try something different.

He says many Canadian kids play traditional sports like hockey and soccer because that’s what their friends do and it’s right in front of them.

But if and when the dream of glory in these sports comes to an end, the RBC Training Ground program comes into play.

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At the very least, it’s a free test for anyone on the street.

“Well, it’s not exactly a 3 mile couch,” MacInnis said. “But the idea is that there is no shortage of talented athletes in Canada. But does this talent know that there could be (another) sport for him? Maybe it’s someone who plays club soccer or midget hockey or a varsity sport.

MacInnis says the tests are similar to what happens at the combines for the NHL’s or NFL’s top prospects. National sports federations have basic standards in place and are reviewing the data for adjustment.

“Let’s say you’re 6-6 and have a good endurance test,” he said.

“You are interested in rowing, but are you interested in rowing? Do you like getting up early in the morning to train? You have to be interested.

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“It’s okay if you never rowed until you were 21, but I don’t think if you haven’t played football at 21 you’ll be in a national team.”

Tanya Dubnicoff, Cycling Canada development camp coach, was initially skeptical.

“To be honest, I was not a believer,” she said. “I thought there was no way to find an (Olympic-class) athlete. A story like Kelsey Mitchell? It’s not supposed to happen. But it gives hope.

Dubnicoff now works with Skye Pellerin, a former cross-country and long-distance track runner, who was also linked to cycling through the program.

She says sometimes change can be good, in that a competitive and determined athlete finds a new outlet for their talent.

“With the RBC program, there’s no pressure,” Dubnicoff said. “Try it, have fun, meet people and maybe bring all your education to another sport.”

This is the attitude Thénault initially brought to the Sherbrooke gymnasium five years ago.

“I was intrigued, I never knew what to expect,” she said. “It’s a good atmosphere. It’s not competitive, but everyone wanted to give their best.

Interested athletes should pre-register at www.rbctrainingground.ca. Over 200 have already registered for the Sunday session in Ottawa.

kwarren@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/Citizenkwarren

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