Recruiting cross-country and track and field athletes is an arduous task for Canadian university coaches. They search far and wide, compete for incoming rookies and endure rejection between each new commit. Recruiting becomes even more onerous when dealing with a language barrier.
Though it is an uncommon hurdle to encounter for Canadian varsity programs – most institutions in bilingual areas offer bilingual curricula – it’s the reality for the University of Moncton, an exclusively French institution in New Brunswick where less than a third of residents call French their mother tongue. Since the French-speaking demographic is slowly decreasing in size in New Brunswick, one might expect the French-speaking team’s relevance in the AUS conference to follow suit. Curiously, however, the distance program has been thriving.
Jean-Marc Doiron is Franco-New Brunswick’s running renaissance man and University of Moncton’s newest cross-country and distance track head coach. A French-Acadian runner from Collette, N.B., Doiron, 29, has long served as a role model for young francophone runners growing up in the Maritime provinces, thanks to his ubiquity and success on multiple running platforms. His notoriety around the Atlantic Canadian cross-country, track, and road racing circuits has aided in giving a voice and identity to the French-Acadian running community. Moreover, his involvement on the running scene seems to have enhanced University of Moncton’s recruiting.
Doiron is a running journeyman. He won multiple AUS (Atlantic University Sport) conference medals with Moncton between 2007 and 2011, was named the University of Moncton Athlete of the Year in 2010, ran 1:49.87 for 800m at the 2009 World Francophone Games and has since largely taken to road running.
“After graduating from the University of Moncton in 2011, I kept training with the group we had here,” says Doiron. “By 2014, our distance coach, Jules Comeau, was planning to step away from coaching. He was looking for a replacement, and thought I might be up for the challenge. I was really interested.” Comeau oversaw the program in Doiron’s first year to help him adjust. The number of athletes being recruited and committing to the team, however, was underwhelming.
“In my first year of coaching,” remembers Doiron, “we only had three distance athletes returning to the program. We were struggling. We had a few walk-ons, but they were not strong runners. My coaching consisted of introducing people to the sport of running and I had to tailor the program down to the beginners level.”
From there, Doiron knew a steep hill lay ahead. “The challenge we constantly face is that the recruiting base in French schools is not the strongest or most populous. Additionally, recruiting gets more complicated because most French athletes we hope to recruit also speak English, and so we must convince them to stay and study in French.”
Doiron has led the team a long way from 2014 when the men’s cross-country team finished second-last at the conference championships to a program that no longer exists. In 2016, Moncton won team bronze at the same conference championships.
On the women’s side, Carol-Ann Macdonald of Moncton has made huge strides since coming into the program. She struggled to break 20:00 for 5K as a rookie in 2015 and has since blossomed into a perennial conference contender. After representing New Brunswick at the 2017 Canada Summer Games, she captured bronze at this year’s AUS cross-country championship. She recognizes that Doiron has had a huge impact on her progress.
“Jean-Marc is very positive, and always motivating,” she says. “When he gives feedback, he looks for things to improve on rather than criticizing what we do wrong. Since I started being coached by him, I’ve taken minutes off my 5K and 10K.” MacDonald finds an increased cohesion has also strengthened the team culture. “Jean-Marc believes in incorporating fun stuff in our training. We’ve travelled to the United States for a training camp, we meet up for meals – once he hosted a BBQ at his house.”
Now that some of Doiron’s athletes are becoming competitive at the conference level, the young coach is fortunate to have the necessary knowledge to cater to them. He has had the privilege to learn the ropes from his former coach and mentor, Joel Bourgeois, a two-time Olympian in the 3,000m steeplechase. Though Bourgeois now lives and works in Quebec City, he was the head coach at the University of Moncton from 2004 to 2010. Like Doiron does now, Bourgeois not only prescribed practice to his athletes, he did the workouts with them. He is confident in Doiron’s ability to supersede him, but appreciates the hurdles that come with the position.
“In the AUS, anglophone schools can recruit from Ontario, Vancouver, and elsewhere,” Bourgeois says. “Moncton, conversely, even struggles to recruit from Quebec, because not only is U de M a French university, it is a French university with Acadian specificity rooted in its education. Therefore, we are limited to a small population of not simply French, but Acadian athletes in recruiting. Further, when Acadian athletes reach a high level of competition in high school, as did [Olympic finalist] Genevieve Lalonde and [multiple-time Canadian national team member] Ryan Cassidy, they are recruited elsewhere and often leave the Maritimes.”
Having been in Doiron’s shoes, Bourgeois understands the time commitment. “For a coach to achieve greatest results in growing a program, he or she needs to completely invest their time and themselves into it. Though Jean-Marc has the passion for it, he cannot permit himself to do that. He is not paid as a full-time coach, so he needs to work, too.” Indeed, Doiron a full-time columnist for L’Acadie Nouvelle, an independent New Brunswick newspaper.
Doiron plans to continue to be as active as possible in the growth and development of running in the Francophone and Acadian Maritime communities. He recognizes that there is still some work to do in recruiting.
“Athletes in bigger provinces are exposed to high levels of competition,” says Doiron. “In Ontario, there is OFSAA. In our French community, we have Les Jeux de l’Acadie (the Acadian Games – a competition for athletes between the ages of 12-15), which end when runners reach high school. What we need is to create a link between that and high school programs. We need to do all we can so that young athletes here have the same opportunities to improve as do others. People in New Brunswick like [Athletics New Brunswick’s technical director] Gabriel Leblanc are doing a good job with that, and we have to keep working at it. It’s an uphill battle, but it’s doable.”
Whether it be in developing athletes in the French-Acadian running community, or in recruiting them, Doiron will be hard at work for years to come.