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Alex Baumann steps down as chief executive officer of Own the Podium

Concern for his family, a recent bout with cancer and a surprise job offer convinced Alex Baumann to step down as chief executive officer of Own The Podium.

Canada’s double Olympic gold medallist in swimming in 1984 announced Wednesday he is taking a similar position with High Performance Sport New Zealand.

With the 2012 Summer Olympics in London less than a year away, OTP now has an crucial job vacancy to fill.

The organization oversees virtually all aspects of an athlete’s competitive life and it was Baumann who ultimately made the tough choices on which athletes had enough medal potential to receive federal government funding.

Baumann had surgery for prostate cancer last winter, but the 47-year-old from Sudbury, Ont., said he hasn’t suffered a recurrence.

The procedure was stressful for his Australian wife Tracy and children Ashton and Tabitha, however. The experience made Baumann realize they need the support of Tracy’s extended family in Australia.

“During this time, it really brought back to me to have family close by and unfortunately I don’t have any family here and Tracy has a lot of relatives in Australia,” Baumann told The Canadian Press from Ottawa on Wednesday. “That’s when we started thinking we needed to be a lot closer to her family.”

Ashton and Tabitha, both born in Australia, are nationally-ranked age group swimmers. Ashton’s Ottawa coach moved to Edmonton. Ashton was considering moving back to Australia to train.

The job offer in New Zealand came “out of the blue” six weeks ago, Baumann said.

“I wanted to make sure I kept the family together,” he explained. “That, compounded by the fact these job opportunities don’t come up that often, that’s what made my decision for me.”

The family will move to Auckland where Ashton and Tabitha will train and where they’re a three-hour flight from Australia instead of a two-day trip from Ottawa. Baumann says both his children want to continue to represent Canada internationally.

Baumann’s bout with cancer was his second as he had surgery for testicular cancer in 1999. He says he’s healthy now and swimming three or four times a week.

He was planning to step down from OTP when his contract ended in December 2012. Circumstances accelerated his departure, but the man who has a Maple Leaf tattoo on his chest says leaving now was not an easy decision.

“It was very difficult,” Baumann said. “What really made the decision for me was when I was in Australia in August and really saw the closeness of the family and importance of family and that was critical for me. I think that put me over the edge and made me think about this position in New Zealand.”

Baumann will officially leave OTP on Oct. 1 and will start his new job in Auckland on Jan. 31.

He worked in Australia’s sport system for 15 years before returning to Canada in 2006 to oversee Canada’s summer sport program called Road To Excellence.

The summer sport side eventually united under OTP and Baumann took over as CEO after Roger Jackson stepped down following the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C.

Baumann wanted to help run Canada’s sports system 10 years ago, but it took Canada’s poor performance at the 2004 Olympics in Athens for the country to bring him back. Baumann brought an athlete’s drive, some would say ruthlessness, to the position.

Canada finished tied for 14th in the overall medal count at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing with 18 medals, an improvement on the 12 won in Athens. Canada’s goal for London is a top-12 finish among the 200-odd countries participating.

“Alex has played a pivotal role in Own the Podium’s evolution and positioning Canadian athletes for a record performance in London next summer,” Own The Podium chairman John Furlong said in a statement. “His uncompromising attitude to succeed at the highest level is a huge reason why support for Canada’s athletes, coaches and national sport organizations has never been stronger.”

OTP is responsible for athletes’ training between international events, but the Canadian Olympic Committee looks after them at Olympic Games and prepares them for the Games environment.

“We want to thank Alex for his outstanding contribution to the Canadian Olympic movement,” COC president Marcel Aubut said in a statement. “His leadership has helped create a strong and fruitful partnership between the COC and OTP that will endure.”

Baumann hopes the go-for-the-jugular attitude Canada displayed in winning 14 gold medals in 2010 continues.

“It’s what Australians say ‘you need to have the mongrel in you,'” Baumann said. “I do think we have that.

“You have to keep going down the same path where you don’t compromise on excellence and make sure that it’s a performance-based approach and there’s an accountability for performance without the bureaucracy.”