Core Sports

Grappling with the future

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In a throwback to Abbe Bekilla of the 1960 Olympics, Centennial’s Dalisto Mzinganjira raced around the track at Scarborough’s Variety Village barefoot (Photo by Ed Hitchins

The uncertainty of competing in traditional sports the OCAA does not host.

BY: ED HITCHINS

Wrestling and track would seem to be one of the forefront sports in the OCAA with its popularity at the secondary school level, but surprisingly for some it is not.

At the OCAA level, aside from cross country during the fall, the winter’s track and wrestling season comes to a screeching halt.

But, if for the efforts of few, it may be only a matter of time before track comes to the forefront once again.

John Stevenson ran long distance at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and ventured into the world of marketing and advertising after graduating in 1990. After nearly two decades, he returned to track as a coach at York University.  He came to the helm with the Centennial Colts in 2016. He  commutes over two hours from his home in southwestern Ontario, where he is the coach of club team London-Western Track Club. In addition, he serves on the board of Athletics Ontario.

“Before I threw my back out three years ago, I’d have been up and stretching,” Stevenson says. “I’d even have run a couple of circuits myself before my coaching prerogative took over. But it’s an exciting time in the sport right now.”

Stevenson has an immense passion for track and field. From the sidelines he was  screaming “Track!” which is the translation of traffic shuffling around a corner like street hockey players yelling “Car!”, his brow slopes down as he instinctively shouts out instructions to his charges during training circuits.
Stevenson’s vision is simple: to allow cross country athletes in the OCAA to train year-round. As it stands, the OCAA does not sanction track and field, a cornerstone event of the modern Olympics since its inception in 1896.

The hope is that through some ingenuity and cost-effective methods, the OCAA will be ready to hear what Stevenson calls ‘phase one’ of his project, at the OCAA’s annual general meeting in April.

“It’s really about not re-inventing the wheel,” Stevenson says.

‘Phase one’ includes every event, from

60 metres right up to 3,000 metres including a 4×400 metres relay.  Events will be held similar to the ‘IAAF Diamond League,’ the world’s premier track and field circuit. Teams will be awarded points based upon athletes’ finish (eight points for first, seven for second, etc.) going toward their school, with top athletes qualifying for the season ending finals. Eventually, he hopes an outdoor circuit will follow.

Currently, teams in the GTA have a pair of invitational extramural meets, including teams from Humber, Seneca, and George Brown. The practice at Monarch Park in Toronto is in preparation for the extramural meet at Variety Village on St. Patrick’s Day.

Helping Stevenson in his coaching efforts is Kwame Nelson. Nelson, who’s expertise is in sprinting, takes pride in helping the team in their efforts to streamline their running with sprinting techniques.

“I started coaching when I was 17.  I’m 45 now,” Nelson says. “It’s not because I can’t run, but it’s the best way for me to transfer what I know.”

The colleges have been weary of the looming costs of another sports program. Infrastructure must be built and coaches have to be hired.  However, Stevenson and Nelson aren’t deterred.

“If we build it, the athletic directors will say, ‘hey these guys are dedicated’,” Nelson says.

“Schools say ‘hey, I need a new coach’, but they don’t need a new coach. You just need a coach that’s committed.”

Stevenson is so committed that that he drew from his pool of resources and connections around the track community, with a commitment from schools such as, York and U of T, to allow some ‘OCAA exclusive’ races at their big events, if such a proposal is reached such as the season ending OUA track finals.

Several Centennial athletes ran at the famous Hal Brown Memorial at U of T in February, competing in varying disciplines.

Their bodies completely spent from lap after lap around the track at Monarch Park, the team of five were put through the motions of stretches administered by Nelson.

Each athlete comes from a different walk of life, with a unique story. One trains on the weekends as a boxer. One came to sprint from a high school career in football and had to adapt to the vigorous routine of cross country. And another ran as a means of gaining confidence and becoming a better person.   

All would love the idea of representing their school at the varsity level, and in doing so, being trailblazers in a move that would bring their sport to a grander stage.

“A lot of people like the sport. Not everyone is a cross country runner,” says football player Kahleel Allman.

“It would be good, because some people, if they don’t get a scholarship to [U.S.], they just give up and stop running.”

Runner Casper Josufi, whose performance at Hal Brown earned him a spot in the top 20, hopes the powers that could be pull out the one hurdle that exists in that race: politics.

“If they can come to an agreement, they can make this a sanctioned sport that everybody can participate,” Josufi says. “It really depends on the size of the college and the number of students involved. Some colleges are mid-towns, sometimes it’s ok, but more runners would be better.”

An attempt to bring track and field to the OCAA isn’t something new. In fact, two decades before Stevenson, Mike Corniffe gave it a shot.

The coach of The Speed and Agilty Group in Aurora had a career in the mid to late 1990s, competing against the likes of Bailey and Bruny Surin and on the NCAA level as a member of the University of Nebraska’s track team.

Corniffe pitched to have Seneca build a track team, but it never got out of the starting blocks.

“I’m truly saddened by it,” Corniffe says when asked about his efforts. “The benefits that come from training for track and field as an individual sport. Even if it is an activity, those lessons are being lost.”

Wendy Roberts-Simpson, Athletic Coordinator at George Brown College, organized the event on St. Patrick’s Day at Variety Village in Toronto. She agrees with the fact that long-term, year-round training in track and field, is something that is important for these unique athletes.

“There aren’t enough indoor track meets happening,” Roberts-Simpson says.

The event, which George Brown has hosted since 2011, only housed four schools: George Brown, U of T Mississauga, Seneca and Centennial. It takes support from five schools to get a sport sanctioned at a varsity level.

Events that took place included co-ed combined track races, where men competed against women.  The event is organized by Ontario Colleges Recreation (OCR), itself a separate entity from the OCAA.

The low turnout is something that other sports could relate to – namely wrestling.

At a fluorescent, antiqued gym in Brampton, the sound of rubber soles against gym mats is prevalent as you get closer to the closed off gym run by club team Real Amateur Wrestling (RAW). It’s run by coach Chris Kelman.

Kelman first became attracted to wrestling as a child growing up in the 1970s in Hamilton.

“I was a kid that used to fight a lot,” he says as we venture down the hallway to show his crowning achievement: A hall of fame wall, adjourned with ribbons, plaques and pictures, showcasing several past champions.

Kelman was the first black coach to win the ROPSAA (Region of Peel Secondary Athletic Association) wrestling title.

“A nice feather in my cap,” he jokes.

Countless individuals, including two of his children, have won championships. His two coaches are also former pupils, Bill McInroy and David Piazza.

Now an electrician, McInroy was the first individual Kelman led to a wrestling championship and says with the cut of some sports out of the OCAA itinerary, it’s a difficult task for some to grasp.

“There are quite a few athletes that graduate high school and go to university,” McInroy says. “There are some that go to college. They already assume that hey, their career is over.”

Kelman says the infrastructure offered to other high school sports is not offered to wrestling, but he’s determined in his efforts to bring a varsity program to the OCAA level.

“Maybe when I retire, in about five years, I’ll head to Sheridan [which is becoming a university] I can start a club team there.”

An interesting proposition, to say the least.  Kelman sounds like he shares a similar drive and determination as Stevenson. Their passion for their sports with an Olympic pastime, track and field and wrestling, is unrivaled.

Despite the OCAA saying there is a moratorium on new sports, Stevenson is focusing on the 2018 calendar: April, when the annual general meeting is taking place.

“I have a commitment from Darcy [Brioux, Centennial’s Athletic Director] to present my proposal regarding track and field,” Stevenson says.

It will be only be a matter of time before winter may mean thinking about indoor track at Ontario’s Colleges.

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