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The worlds team includes largely Canadian-developed distance athletes

92 per cent of the women named to team Canada in long distance events got their start at Canadian universities

The World Championships are just around the corner, and Canada is sending one of its strongest teams to date. There has been a perception among Canadian high schoolers that to find great athletics, you have to attend an American school. However, the 2019 version of team Canada suggests that that perception could be shifting–and shows that home is where many Canadian athletes are choosing to get their start.

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Of the female athletes selected to the 2019 worlds team on the long-distance side (800m to the marathon), 11 out of 12 were developed at universities located in Canada (Simon Fraser is a Canadian university but they compete in the NCAA).

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Matt Hughes is the Canadian steeplechase record-holder and has spent time training in both Canada and the US. He competed as a varsity athlete in the NCAA and then trained with the Bowerman Track Club as a post-collegiate athlete. This summer he made the decision to move back home to Canada and leave BTC.

Hughes said that his decision to compete in the NCAA was primarily a financial one and that the NCAA worked well for him, but ultimately that it’s a very personal choice. “I’m one of seven kids, so the draw of an athletic scholarship was big for me. I barely had to pay for any of my schooling.”

Hughes also said that he believes the choice of which university a runner attends, whether in Canada or America, is largely about choosing a good coach. “I left my coach at Louisville on good terms, and we still talk from time to time, but I was very straightforward about what I expected from the programme and what I wanted to get out of running while we were working together.” Hughes says he sat out certain races at championships so that he could be ready to qualify for big races outside of the varsity season, like the Olympics. He and his coach were able to make decisions that didn’t always directly benefit the school’s programme, but that were aligned with Hughes’ personal goals.

It’s worth noting that while athletic scholarships are available through Canadian schools, they’re capped at $4,500 a year. Beyond an athletic scholarship, there are provincial and national grants that can also provide financial assistance to athletes.

Matt Hughes (centre) and Alex Genest on the podium after finishing first and second in the 3,000m steeplechase.
Matt Hughes (centre) and Alex Genest on the podium after finishing first and second in the 3,000m steeplechase.

Hughes feels that there used to be a perception, at least in Ontario, that if you want to be an elite runner, you needed to be training in America. “I’ve noticed since coming back [from Portland] that people are surprised I’m training in Canada. But from my experience, you can certainly have a very elite group in Canada, you can develop and train here really well. I’ve been training in and around Toronto since 2013.”

Continuity in coaching

Hughes believes that the coach-athlete relationship is paramount, and this rings true when you look at successful Canadian athletes. When considering athletes who did well in the NCAA and beyond, several stayed with their university coaches after their collegiate careers were over–Nicole Sifuentes and Justyn Knight both come to mind.

Gen Lalonde and Kate Ayers. Photo: Maxine Gravina

Lindsey Butterworth, who was named to the women’s 800m team for Doha, has worked with her Simon Fraser University coach Brit Townsend long beyond her time in school, Gabriela DeBues-Stafford now trains in Europe but was with coach Terry Radchenko for nearly 10 years out of the University of Toronto, Gen Lalonde attended the University of Guelph and remains a Speed River athlete, and it’s a similar story for Regan Yee with Trinity Western coach Mark Bomba.

RELATED: Athletics Canada selects 2019 World Championship team

The NCAA certainly holds lots of promise for young runners, but what’s interesting about this statistic is that Canada seems to be catching up.

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