Patience is not only a virtue in waiting out a pandemic. It’s a must.
Who better to preach it in sports than a two-time Olympian who didn’t make her first Games team until age 31? Hilary Stellingwerff has been named head coach of the University of Victoria Vikes track and cross-country teams at an extraordinary moment.
“It’s a moving target as to when we will be able to get back at it as a team, but it’s challenging for everybody in society,” said the mother of two.
“I’ve learned it’s a long-term process, regardless, and you have to have patience in laying a foundation.”
Stellingwerff ran for Canada in the 1,500 metres at the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Olympics, the latter at age 35.
She said she feels for the next group of Canadian Olympians, whose goals for this summer in Tokyo have been deferred to 2021. And also her Vikes athletes, who face uncertainty over their upcoming Canada West and U Sports seasons, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We don’t know when this is going to end so I am supporting my athletes the best I can through lots of phone calls, Skype and Zoom,” said Stellingwerff.
“We are conducting our season debrief via Zoom on Monday.”
It was a promising one under interim head coach Stellingwerff with the Vikes qualifying nine athletes for the U Sports national track championships in Edmonton, winning two medals through Vaughn Taylor’s gold and Brandon Vail’s bronze, while 75 per cent of the team recorded personal bests on the season.
It was enough to have the interim label lifted from her job description.
“As an Olympian twice, Hilary has a profound understanding of what it takes to succeed at the highest level,” said UVic athletic director Clint Hamilton.
“She did a terrific job as interim and cares deeply about the athletes.”
Stellingwerff takes over from the retired Brent Fougner, whose standout 31-year career with the UVic program produced nine U Sports national cross-country championships and 60 U Sports track medallists. Fougner was named U Sports cross-country coach of the year nine times and served as assistant Canadian track coach at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He remained with the Vikes this past year as an assistant coach.
This is a program Stellingwerff knows well after having served as a part-time assistant under Fougner from 2013 before becoming full-time assistant in 2016 and interim head coach last summer.
“Brent left quite a legacy for me to follow,” said Stellingwerff.
“The team culture is awesome and I want to support the athletes and continue vying for national championships. I have learned a lot the last seven years. I have such a love for the sport and this feels like the right position for me.”
Stellingwerff ran four years in the NCAA Big Ten with the University of Wisconsin Badgers and understands the juggling act faced by student-athletes. She noted she didn’t really bloom as an international athlete until after university when she could focus full-time on running and not have to divide her time between class and track. But she used her class time well. Stellingwerff is a national Level 3 coach and obtained her bachelor of arts from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in journalism and communication arts before earning her teacher’s certification at the University of Western Ontario and a diploma in French language at UVic.
“I tell them you can only do two things really well at a time, and that for them at this point as varsity athletes, it’s academics and athletics,” Stellingwerff said.
“Being a varsity athlete is about balance. You have to sacrifice other things, like a social life. When you are not in class, studying, training or competing, your social life tends to be with your teammates.”
Stellingwerff is immersed in sport even in her family. Husband and Cornell-grad Trent Stellingwerff is an applied sport physiologist, with a specialization in the area of performance nutrition, and is on staff at the Canadian Sport Institute-Victoria and consults the numerous Olympians who train on the Island.
“There is such a great and supportive environment in Victoria for sports training,” said Hilary Stellingwerff.
Trent was on the support staff for the Canadian Olympic team to Tokyo 2020.
“That will now be for next year,” said Hilary, again stressing the value of patience in this unusual time.