Gael alumni prep for post-Olympic life

After the experience of a lifetime at this summer’s Olympic Games in Athens, Oskar Johansson and Bernard Luttmer are coming back down to earth. The Queen’s alumni were in Kingston last week after a well-deserved break in the Greek Isles, and they took some time to talk to the Journal about their Greek Odyssey and what comes next.

“The number one priority was Athens,” said Johansson, the skipper of the Canadian boat that placed 15th in the Tornado class of the Olympic Regatta. “But now we need to focus on business. Sailing is on the back burner this year.” He and Luttmer, the Laser class sailor who finished 30th at the Games, run the Course Cram program that has saved many a Queen’s student from failure at exam time. The pair conceived the idea while studying engineering at Queen’s and playing a major role in the Gael sailing team that finished first in North America.

“We brainstormed Course Cram on the long car trips to and from sailing events,” Johansson said.

“We were trying to figure out how to run the sailing team, train for the Olympics in the summer, be a student and make some money,” Luttmer said.

Funds were essential but hard to come by for the fast-rising athletes. The government stipend for amateur athletes only covers a third of the team’s costs, according to Johansson, and at the time the sailing team was getting by with alumni donations the pair had to scout out.

“It’s a matter of finding the right people,” Luttmer said. “You can complain, or you can just go out and raise the money you need. Alumni are key.”

Now the two Olympic athletes are proud alumni themselves, and very grateful for the support they continue to receive from the Queen’s community.

“I’m very proud to be an alumnus of Queen’s,” Johansson said. “It’s really good to see all the positive changes. [Queen’s is] really moving in the right direction. It’s a great community.”

Both Luttmer and Johansson maintain strong ties to Queen’s. They’ve hired several current students and one other alumnus to help them run Course Cram, and while the business has been ideal for balancing their intensive sailing training, they take it, and the contributions they make to Queen’s, very seriously.

“We really try for quality,” Luttmer said of Course Cram. “It’s important that students get the best review. And we’re not just some anonymous conglomerate; we’re just getting by, trying to support our campaign. It’s an expensive dream. And we’re always trying to give back to the school.”

For example, the pair fund an Engineering scholarship in honour of Nathan Cowan, who died in an accident in Feb. 2002 while driving to a regatta in Florida. Cowan was the third father of Course Cram, a very talented member of the sailing team in his own right, and an important part of the lives of Luttmer and Johansson.

“We knew we wanted the Olympics,” Johansson said of himself and Cowan, his first-year roommate. “It felt like his spirit was there [in Athens].”

You may have spotted Johansson, Luttmer and John Curtis, Johansson’s sailing partner in the Tornado, on TV in the Olympic opening ceremonies. They were carrying white flags bearing the legend “NC 1977-2002,” and they’d worked hard to do something to recognize Cowan.

“The opening ceremonies felt right to do something for Nathan,” Johansson said. “He would’ve been there with us.” “[All the athletes] sat in the Olympic Stadium [adjacent to the main stadium], and we watched the ceremonies on a big screen,” Luttmer said. “And it was surreal because you’re watching it on TV like you’re a kid again, and then suddenly you’re about to walk in. You go down this long, dark, black corridor ...”

“And then there’s this roar coming,” Johansson continued. “You’re almost running at the end; it’s a huge rush. And then we wanted camera time for Nathan, and eight or 10 rows back on the side was where you had to be. So there was a bunch of people jockeying for it, and it was all fun.”

“The important thing was that it was for Nathan,” Luttmer added. And when all the athletes pulled out their cell phones to start dialing their loved ones for this incredible moment, the first person the ex-Gaels called was Nathan Cowan’s mother, who was in the stands that night.

Luttmer and Johansson both loved the Olympic atmosphere and were awed by the sheer size of everything in the spectacle.

“The athletes’ village was pretty cool,” Johansson said. “It’s a bit like university—you don’t know what to expect, and everything’s on a much bigger scale than previously. The food hall was massive, ginormous— like Ban Righ times 50!

“The Canadian compound had a common area, and everyone hangs out together,” he continued. “Like Alex Despatie was there a lot, and he was pretty cool. The neat thing was you could meet someone and then go see their event.”

Both Johansson and Luttmer experienced that same type of closeness within the sailing community.

“The sailing community is very close. None of us could compete without that bond,” Luttmer said. “We all have a lot in common. It’s a very strategic sport.”

“Everyone sits around and analyzes their races at the end of the day,” Johansson added. “Everyone is always learning.”

Experience was key at these Games for both athletes. The race days were dominated by light sea breezes, the type of wind that makes for tricky strategic sailing.

“It’s like a chess game,” Luttmer said.

Johansson wasn’t entirely pleased with his boat’s results, but he was happy with all they learned.

“[John Curtis and I] had two really good finishes, and two really bad ones after a wind shift and a tactical error,” he said. “So it was good to know we were up there. With a few small things different, and more experience, we could’ve been 10th. But it was the experience of a lifetime.” Johansson said both he and Luttmer are going to use it all for the next Olympics.

“We’re both definitely thinking about Beijing,” Luttmer said, “but we have to focus now for a year or so on getting money to train.” Such is the life of the amateur athlete.

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