When a 23-year-old Silvia Ruegger finished eighth in the 1984 Olympic marathon, in only her second marathon, she believed it was just the beginning.
Then, when she ran 2:28:36 at the 1985 Houston Marathon – setting a Canadian record broken only this past fall – she thought that she was just on the cusp of her potential. “When people ask me what it was like to hold a record for so long, I tell them that part of me is surprised,” Ruegger says. “Actually, I believed that I was going to break that record several times.”
Then, tragedy stuck.
After completing a gruelling training session at Toronto’s York University on a cold February evening, Ruegger got in her car. She would regain consciousness several minutes later, laying on the side of the road, surrounded by paramedics. She had been in a collision that sent her through the front windshield. She had landed 60 metres from the car.
For the next several seasons, Ruegger tried valiantly to return to her record-setting form. She battled an onslaught of injuries, many triggered by the repairable damage done to her legs in the car accident. And although she was able to run another 2:30 marathon, she was unable to break that Canadian record that she saw as just a stepping stone for where her career was supposed to go.
The realization that she would never run faster was very difficult to accept, leaving her lacking motivation and wondering about her future. “When I retired from running, I thought that chapter of my life was over,” Ruegger admits. “After the string of injuries, missed Olympic Games, and an inability to live up to my expectations, I was ready to move on to something entirely different.” One of Canada’s greatest ever runners was about to give up on running.
As Ruegger transitioned out of competitive running, she began to attend a church in a rough section of Scarborough, Ont. Asked by a friend to volunteer in the children’s program, Ruegger encoun- tered something that she hadn’t seen before. “I always thought that poverty was something different: children in Africa or some faraway place,” Ruegger confesses. “But here were these children who had nothing. No food, no sports to play after school, no opportunities for the future.
“I spent a lot of time with those kids over the next several years and realized that those young children had the same kind of goals that I had,” Ruegger recalls. “But by the time these kids were eight or nine years old, they had lost hope. Their lack of resources led them to stop trying. It was perhaps the most saddening realization of my life.”
Ruegger met Brian Warren, a two-time Grey Cup Champion and CFL all-star, who had founded Start2Finish in 2000 in an effort to provide resources to less fortunate children throughout Canada. Warren sparked Ruegger to keep her own passion alive when he asked her if she had ever considered using her running background to connect with these kids.
To Ruegger, that was the flash that she had been looking for to steer her life in a new direction. In early 2004, Ruegger joined Start2Finish, whose work combines physical activity and academics to help kids. Ruegger then founded the first Running and Reading Club. Participants spend the first half of the session running and playing dynamic games and then sit down for an hour of reading.
Today, Running and Reading clubs are in 27 under- resourced communities nationwide, with 1,600 children engaged on a weekly basis. The 32-week program culminates with a 5k race at the end of the school year.
The results of the program have been astounding. Dr. Adele Diamond, Canadian research chair and professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia reveals, “the most efficient and cost-effective route to achieve the best academic outcomes is not to narrowly focus on academics, but also to address children’s social, emotional, and physical development. Programs that address the whole child – their cognitive, emotional, social and physical needs – are the most successful at improving any single aspect.” Diamond is just one member of Start2Finish’s scientific advisory group, whose 2011 national research report concluded that “the Start2Finish fitness literacy model compre- hensively and effectively addresses these needs.” According to the same study, cardiovascular improve- ments of participants went up 100 per cent, while 67 per cent of participants improved by one or two full academic grade levels.
Dr. Lee Ford-Jones, clinical researcher at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, says: “Given what is known about exercise, neuroscience, the outdoors and skill building, I don’t think it would be much of a stretch to say that the work of Start2Finish is akin to the polio vaccine in its ability to boost ‘the vitality alive’ system for children and youth.”
Start2Finish hosted the largest youth run in Canada this year, in which 6,000 students ran together on May 14 in the Run4Change. This 5k is part of Start2Finish’s 20/20 challenge, a 20-week intensive in-class exercise program being used to replace failing dpa programs.
For Ruegger, her own running profoundly shapes the work she does now. When asked about Lanni Marchant breaking her marathon record in October, Ruegger responds, “I didn’t need the record for my identity anymore. But I valued it because in our society, we value records. So it opened doors for me to speak for the children who don’t have a voice. My experiences allowed me to speak on behalf of kids and invite them to be part of something with us.”
And although she never did break her own Canadian record, she was absolutely right: that 1984 Olympic run was just the beginning.