UBC Thunderbirds

Photo: Steve Dipaola.

It’s official! Almost, at least.

The University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, previous members of the U.S.-based National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), will be joining the Canada West cross-country circuit in September 2018. So, once again, UBC will be racing against other Canadian universities beyond just invitational and open competitions. (Think of invitationals and opens being the regular season and Canada West and nationals being the post-season.)

The Canada West Universities Athletic Association board members unanimously approved UBC’s entry into the conference following their annual meeting in early February. A final decision on whether they can compete in U Sports (Canada’s governing body for university sports) is still to be made.

UBC, in 2017, was the best cross-country team in the NAIA, having won the 2017 NAIA Cross-Country Championships. If they compete in U Sports, they should be medal contenders as a team. (It should be noted that UBC used to compete within the Canadian system before moving to the NAIA, an association primarily for small U.S. colleges and universities.)

The Vancouver-based university’s cross-country teams previously competed in the American conference because they share a budget and coaching staff with the school’s track and field teams. In track, the team benefits from Vancouver’s temperate weather and competes in the NAIA’s outdoor season (which U Sports does not offer). For that reason, the UBC track and field team will remain in the NAIA. (In Canada, there is a track and field championship, albeit indoors.)

Thunderbirds cross-country head coach Laurier Primeau believes his cross-country teams will be granted permission to join Canada’s varsity sport governing body, but still awaits the official verdict. “We believe we will be accepted into U Sports, but we do not want to make any presumptions,” he says.

UBC Thunderbirds

Photo: Steve Dipaola.

Fourth-year runner and multiple-time national team member John Gay sees an upside to this probable transition. “We see the value of competing in Canada,” Gay says. “In the past years, I would feel like a bit of an outsider at national competitions outside of university racing, because other Canadian runners would get to know each other through U Sports. There is a sense of camaraderie missing for us. I always thought it would be cool to compete against the same athletes we measure ourselves to in the summer months.”

And compete they will, on both the men’s and women’s sides.

The women’s team will likely, if they are to, leave the NAIA in the middle of a dynastic era. They’ve won the NAIA banner five times in the past six years and own the second-most NAIA women’s cross-country titles in history. Nicola Symonds was the top placer at the November championships earning individual bronze.

In 2017, after winning the conference (AII) championship, Kieran Lumb finished third and Gay fourth at the NAIA Cross-Country Championships. UBC’s top-five tallied 41 points as a team. Lumb would then go on to win the Canadian junior cross-country open title.

There is already speculation about where the Thunderbirds stack up, should they get the chance to compete against other top teams in U Sports. Coach Primeau knows that these answers can only come in the fall. “It’s hard to know how we’ll fare against U Sport competition until our team lines up against others on the day,” he says. “Any comparative analysis is fun but subjective. I do think that a fifth-year of cross-country eligibility may alter our current playing field.” Because NAIA athletes only get four years of eligibility, graduated runners could have the opportunity to return for a fifth-year with the Thunderbirds, which could give them a hefty boost in their inaugural Canadian campaign. “Historically,” continues Primeau, “we have had many students come to UBC for graduate work after completing only four collegiate years at another Canadian school.  They’ve not been able to run for the team, but this now changes.”

U Sports is expected to review UBC’s application and reach a decision by March.


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