For most runners, 2020 was one of the strangest and most difficult years on record. But despite that, there was no lack of inspiring performances, events and people who made the running world a little better. In a series of stories over the next few days, we bring you a few that deserve recognition.
Community Builder of the Year
In 2018, Kurt Downes coached Brandon McBride to his Canadian 800m record of 1:43.20. As an elementary school teacher and head coach of Windsor, Ont.’s Border City Athletics Club (a previous version of which was started in the 1990s by longtime Windsor Lancers coach Dennis Fairall, who passed away on Nov. 6), Downes lives a full life. But for the past 10 years, he has also been thinking about how to help more young women (many of them newcomers to Canada) see a future for themselves in sport – and particularly in track.
Working on his master’s in kinesiology at Western University in 2011, Downes’s thesis involved developing a training program for 18- to 23-year-old women in the 400m and 400m hurdles, a large percentage of whom were dropping out of sports after leaving university. Many of the coaches he consulted as part of his research were women. “They were all influential in what I was doing, so I wanted to do something for developing female athletes,” he says. Teaching at St. James Catholic Elementary School, it had always troubled him that, while there were many sports programs for boys, he didn’t see the same opportunities for girls. “There are two in my class right now who are phenomenal runners,” says Downes. “We run every morning, one or two kilometres – but for a serious track athlete, that’s nothing. It’s really tough for the girls to see that this is for them.”
Downes had mounted initiatives to address the issue before, but as the Border City club grew, there was less and less time for passion projects. He took a sabbatical from teaching to help McBride prepare for the Olympics, which ended up being postponed by a year. An unforeseen benefit of the pandemic lockdown was having time to think deeply about how to revisit his other goal. “My thought process was, if there’s no Olympics, I can plan initiatives I’ve always wanted to do with kids,” says Downes. The Women can Summit Series, which took place in November with an in-person clinic for young female athletes and a virtual conference to “encourage and empower women and minorities in coaching,” was the direct result.
Downes was able to call on his many friends in the track community to help, with Canadian 800m record holder Melissa Bishop and 2003 IAAF World Championships 100m hurdles gold medallist Perdita Felicien moderating sessions, and appearances by superstars like world 100m champion and Olympics silver medallist Nia Ali. With the proceeds, Downes was able to provide running shoes for 90 young female athletes in Essex County. His plans for the future include creating the means to endow a scholarship for a female BIPOC athlete to attend the University of Windsor.
Downes is also a former sprints/hurdles coach at the University of Windsor, a certified performance coach and IAAF Level 5 coach who has represented Canada as a coach at the World Championships, World Youth, World Junior, Pan American Games and NACAC Championships. He was Athletics Canada’s coach of the year in 2019.
This story originally appeared in the January & February 2021 issue of Canadian Running.