You realize pretty quickly that the Toronto Olympic Club is one competitive group when, on their website, their coaching philosophy is summed up by this quote from UCLA’s legendary basketball coach Tom Wooden, who guided his teams to 10 NCAA Championships in a 12-year span during the 60s and 70s.
Founded in 1954, the club has a history of backing up that competitive spirit with a long line of top-flight athletes who have gone on to compete at the highest levels, including Olympians John Craig (Moscow, 1980), Abigail Hoffman (Mexico City, 1968) and the legendary Jerome Drayton (1976).
Based in the city’s west end, Toronto Olympic Club members gather each week at their home base in vast and running-friendly High Park. The club’s adult running program has around 120 members and includes a number of highly competitive athletes; among them is Berhanu Degefa, selected to Canada’s 2019 World Championship in Doha, Qatar in October, competing in the marathon, and hometown standout Liza Howard, a top-10 female finisher at this year’s Ottawa Marathon, followed by an army of masters runners still capable of throwing down fast times.
Paul Poce, the club’s executive director, head coach and highly-respected fixture in Toronto’s running scene for decades, runs the adult program, while TOC club president and coach Greg Purkis focuses his efforts on the club’s youth members.
Purkis employs a decidedly different philosophy when guiding his young runners, ranging from 10-to-17 years of age, with a focus on learning how to run in a fun, welcoming environment.
“Our senior program is really geared toward a competitive mindset,” Purkis says. “Those coming out to the workout are there to improve their performance in races. The junior program is different. We’re taking a long view with a lot of the kids and hoping to develop a lifelong love of running.”
A number of the club’s junior program members participate in the popular Spring Run-Off race held in High Park each spring, as well as various Athletics Ontario track and cross-country meets across the province throughout the year. Among them is Olivia Roussel, who took bronze in the Senior Girls 3,000 meter at this year’s OFSAA finals (Ontario’s provincial high school track meet) held in Guelph, Ont. this past June. Yet Purkis encourages the kids to enjoy running for the sake of running, over pushing them to compete. “I’m much more concerned about their attitude,” he says. “Are they enjoying themselves?”
Purkis grew up in Toronto and ran in high school until a chronic Achilles tendon injury forced him to take a few years off, during which he gravitated toward playing team sports. Purkis picked up running again in his early 30’s when he fell out of shape and the owner of his favourite local coffee shop put a fine point on his physical condition by telling him he looked really sick. Shortly after, Purkis went down to his local track and ran a few laps. “I thought I was going to die,” he says.
He stuck with it, though, and gradually built up to a running a kilometre, then five. “Soon after I contacted an old buddy of mine, who I saw on Facebook was running marathons,” Purkis says. “Before I really knew it, he told me when to show up for his club workouts. I showed up, and it was tough, but really fun.”
Since then, Purkis hasn’t looked back, and currently in the process of becoming a trained running performance coach through Athletics Canada; hopes to become fully certified in the next few months. “There’s hundreds of books on running, coaching and training. The subject fascinates me,” he says.
For Purkis, every athlete in the Toronto Olympic club is important. Yet what really drives him is when one of his young runners successfully pushes themselves beyond their comfort zone and they “get that look on their face.”
“I can play a role in helping them overcome the obstacles in front of them. It just feels amazing to watch it happen,” Purkis says. “It gives me chills, and a feeling of joy.
For more information on the Toronto Olympic Club’s Adult and Youth running programs, go to their website at www.torontoolympicclub.com.