Diane Cummins has on 10 occasions won gold at the Canadian national championships. The 40-year-old will be retiring at the end of the 2014 season. With two Commonwealth Games 800m medals to her name and a Pan American Games gold medal, she retires as one of Canada’s most decorated middle distance athletes.
Cummins will be pacing the women’s 800m at the Edmonton International Track Classic before racing the Victoria International Track Classic and Vancouver’s Harry Jerome Track Classic this week.
We talked with her about what her long career has taught her and what’s up next.
Canadian Running: You’ve been an elite athlete for a long time and a role model to many of the younger 800m women. What has it been like racing against the younger generations of athletes as they grow up?
It’s very exciting, especially in the 800m because it’s deep. This is one of the deepest fields of women we’ve ever had at the national championships. I think I was ranked sixth going in with a time of 2:02. A lot of these girls I’d seen compete in their junior years as 2:10 or 2:06 runners, so for them to be down under two minutes is pretty remarkable and pretty special for me.
Some of these girls I know pretty intimately as friends and when they do well I’m very happy for them. I don’t know so much that I’m a role model. I hope so, but I’m just friendly and a few of them have had problems and asked me questions, so I’ve given my advice. If that’s been helpful than that’s great.
CR: Is there anyone you looked up to when you were beginning your career?
Growing up in South Africa, I was pretty separated from most of the world’s sporting heroes, especially through the sanctions and apartheid time in the country.
My hero was Zola Budd. I was 10 years old when she was competing in Los Angeles in the 1984 Olympics and, more than anything, I connected with her on an emotional level. She was obviously a really great runner, also. She was so young and so good. She had the whole of South Africa on her shoulders because, even though she ran for Great Britain, we knew her as one of our own.
I think growing up into my adult years, I always aspired to be like Charmaine Crooks because she was the great Canadian 800m runner, and also Vicky Pounds, one of my best friends. I think everything I’ve done in sport has led to a relationships with someone and a connection. The goals have always been there for me to achieve, but more than anything I leave the sport with a lot of love and a lot of friendship and that’s what counts.
CR: You’ve had a long career with a lot of highlights. Is there anything that stands out among all the accomplishments?
Obviously the medals; that’s something to prove that you worked hard and achieved something, but my highlights through the sport have definitely been more emotional.
I remember, in 2002, when I won the silver medal at the Commonwealth Games, I had no idea where my dad or my family were sitting in the stands. I looked down for a second and looked back up and looked straight at him, one of 40,000 people, and he came down to the track and gave me a hug.
The highlights for me have been really the connections I’ve made with people. Every single coach I’ve had, I appreciate. My agents, Marion and Ricky, from Pace Sports Management, have seen me through the long haul. They’ve stuck by me through the the very end and in 10 years time I’ll still have a relationship with them.
Sport has always been a way for me to connect with people. One thing I have learned is that what we do is so fleeting and the glory days are so momentary. We’ll always remember Usain Bolt and Mo Farah, but when you try and think back to who won the bronze medal at the 2000 Olympics in the women’s 800m, nobody remembers that stuff. Most of us would have to go back in the history books to see what happened. You enjoy the moments while they’re there but they’re very short lived.
CR: What are some things you’ve learned as an athlete that you’ll take away and apply to the next chapters of your life?
Definitely, if I go into coaching, one of the things that’s been a huge lesson for me is that things happen for a reason. If you’re doing all the little things correctly things happen for a reason. So, if you have a bad race, it happened for a reason. Don’t stress, just figure it out and move.
CR: Are you planning on coaching?
Yeah, there’s a group in Missoula, Mt., where I’m based and they’re 12- to 18-year-olds. I never thought I could identify with young adults, but I’ve worked with them now for a couple of years and I would like to be involved with them in a more full-time capacity.
It’s really joyful seeing a bunch of uncoordinated kids get it right and run PBs. It’s a really great age group because each week they run a PB and are excited. When you have a kid saying to you ‘Oh, this is the best day of my life,’ that’s something you can’t walk away from.
Even though I never thought I would be involved in the sport afterwards, I think I’m sort of destined to be.
CR: Are you excited to be able to do things you couldn’t as a professional athlete?
Absolutely! I’m healthy now. I’ve struggled for the last four years on and off, and this is actually the first season I can honestly say nothing hurts, so everyone is asking ‘Why are you retiring?’ I’m not broken, so why leave? Well, I grew up in South Africa, I never did any winter sports and I am desperate to try downhill skiing and snowboarding, cross-country skiing, mountain biking — where I live there is a lot of mountain biking and I’m always too chicken to go out in case I fall off. I also want to get back involved in field hockey, which is one of my passions. There’s just a ton of sports and activities that I’ve avoided over the past 20 years for fear of injury.
Also it’s great that now I can have that extra glass of wine and stay up later, or stay in the sun for another 30 minutes. There are a lot of sacrifices I’ve made that I’m looking forward to correcting.
CR: But Canadians can still expect to see you around meets and championship events?
Oh, yes, absolutely! I’m hoping that if the coaching thing works out that I’ll be at the national championships with an athlete, cheering them on to a gold medal.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.