- Associated Press - Sunday, July 12, 2015

TORONTO (AP) - Winning a Pan Am gold medal would be great, but for some athletes that keepsake provides something more important - direct qualification to next year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“Some of our athletes are definitely on the road to Rio, but for some this is their Olympic Games,” said Curt Harnett, head of the Canadian delegation, in an interview Sunday with The Associated Press. “This is particularly true for some of the Pan-Am only sports.”

The Pan Am Games offer competition in some sports you won’t see in the Olympic. It’s a hodge-podge that includes baseball, water-skiing and wakeboard, racquetball, squash, softball, karate, roller sports and bowling.

Several of those, like baseball and softball, are under consideration for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, but will not be in Rio.

A three-time Olympic medalist in track cycling, Harnett is heading the largest delegation in Toronto with 720 athletes. That is 100 more than even the powerful Americans who have dominated the Pan Am Games since they began in 64 years ago.

“The goal is to be in the top two in the total medal count,” Harnett said. “With the number of athletes we have committed to these games, and the chance to be here before the home crowd, we think this will help carry us.”

Harnett said the thunderous ovation that Canadian athletes received in the opening ceremony before 45,000 fans “gave them some swagger and the realization there is a task to be done.”

Harnett said the typical Canadian Pan Am team was about half this size.

Sports vary enormously in their Olympic qualifying process. Simply stated, 10 sports in the Pan Am Games offer direct spots to Rio, and five other sports award ranking points toward qualification.

Direct spots go to: canoe/kayak, equestrian, field hockey, pentathlon, shooting, synchronized swimming, table tennis, water polo, diving, and triathlon.

Mexican diver Paola Espinosa booked her ticket to Rio with a gold medal in the 10-meter platform. Espinosa was a silver medalist three years ago in London and took bronze in 2008 in Beijing. But recent injuries made her uncertain about reaching Rio.

“I’m happy, I didn’t expect such a cool comeback,” she said. “I came to the Pan Am Games to test myself.”

Chilean triathlete Barbara Riveros won gold - she took silver four years ago in Guadalajara - and is also headed to Rio for her third Olympics.

“In Guadalajara I was close to gold. This time the race went my way,” Riveros said.

Harnett, the Canadian head, described the challenge of dealing diverse athletes from bowlers to basketball players.

“Some of our athletes have been in a giant multi-sport events before,” Harnett said. “For others it will be the first time in this atmosphere.”

He used the example of women’s baseball, which is being played for the first time in the Pan Am Games. The Olympics are a long, long shot, but dreaming is free.

“You could sense in their eyes and in their hearts what was in front of them, the opportunity that is in front of them to have women’s baseball shine at these games.”


Stephen Wade on Twitter: https://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP

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