Bring the noise: Canada's Pan Am athletes facing loudest crowds of their careers
TORONTO — As fencer Hugues Boisvert-Simard stepped into the epee semifinal at the Pan American Games, he heard the boisterously supportive crowd — and it might have caught him a little off guard.
The 33-year-old from Quebec City has competed in front of big crowds before, but never one so vocal, or so dramatically tilted in his favour.
Facing Argentina's Jose Dominguez, Boisvert-Simard knew there might be an advantage to playing passive, but he heard the noise and wanted to put on a show.
"It does put a bit of pressure," he said Wednesday. "(Dominguez) is a very defensive type of fencer, and maybe in a normal match, I would have maybe tried to keep it low and not attack so much.
"(I) felt like: 'OK, there's a couple hundred people, they're here to watch a match.' ... People are there to watch fencing, not to watch people not want to do anything, 'cause that happens a lot in epee."
Dominguez wound up winning the match and a silver medal, while Boisvert-Simard took bronze on Tuesday.
"Maybe it was a bad strategy, because he was being very defensive," mused Boisvert-Simard. "But I still wanted to make a fight happen, you know?"
Certainly, Pan Am audiences have been bringing the noise in these Games — and it's up to athletes to thrive amid the thunder.
Unanimously, the competitors are appreciative for the support; they're just unaccustomed to it.
In many events, athletes are frankly used to competing for sparse, relatively docile audiences — has anyone ever heard of an unruly archery crowd? — and must recalibrate for the cacophony greeting all Canadian competitors.
"It was something I haven't really experienced before," said Matt Hughes, an Oshawa, Ont., native who won gold in the 3,000-metre steeplechase.
"My coach did a good job of making me aware that it could be a little crazy: 'When they announce your name, everyone's going to be cheering for you.'
"Because a lot of times at major competitions, your name is announced and it's more or less a pity clap."
Hughes, whose family hollered support from their seats near the start line, loved the atmosphere.
"I think one of my biggest strengths is that I perform best under pressure," he said.
Toronto's Shawnacy Barber similarly met the moment, equalling a Pan Am record with his gold-medal performance in men's pole vault.
He's experienced larger crowds, "but never louder crowds." The energy fuelled him, even as he was careful to stay centred.
"That's the most overwhelming thing that can happen — sometimes you actually have to block them out a little bit to focus because they're so rambunctious, which is just an amazing quality for a group of fans."
For some, noticing the crowd at all can be a troubling sign.
Gold medallist water-skier Whitney McClintock was feted enthusiastically during preliminary slalom and tricks Monday. Afterward, she admonished herself for listening.
"I heard them when I was tricking and it bothered me," she said. "It made me mad that I could hear them, because typically if you're really focused and in the moment, you can't hear them.
"I didn't hear them when I was slaloming because I was focused — I did my job very well in slalom. In tricks, I was much more distracted," she added.
"So it bothered me that I could hear the crowd, but it doesn't mean I want them to hush-hush."
Alex Genest certainly felt the crowd's roar as he raced alongside Hughes in the 3,000-metre steeplechase.
And he savoured the clamour.
"We don't adjust to that — we use it," said the silver medallist from Lac-aux-Sables, Que.
"We could not NOT hear them — it was so loud. In the last stretch, when I passed the American, I was like: 'I think I'm turning deaf right now.'
"We're so happy to be performing in front of our home crowd, finally. Because it never happens."
Even with his bittersweet result, Boisvert-Simard was likewise appreciative of the support.
"It didn't turn out well, but it's not because of the crowd," he said.
"(The support) gives you confidence. You do a touch and you're going back to your line and you just feel this surge of emotion. And you're like: 'Well, I'm going to do another one for these people. They want to see more.'"
Besides, after spending 16 years in the Canadian military, Boisvert-Simard has endured certainly more extreme circumstances.
"Having a sergeant yell in your face — that's more stressful than playing in front of a big crowd."
The Canadian Press