Road To The Olympic Games

Guelph, Ont., club turns out track stars the old-fashioned way

There are 26 members of Guelph's Speed River Track Club competing this weekend at the Canadian Track and Field Championships in Windsor, Ont., where the final selections for the Beijing Olympics will be made.

Teamwork and community involvement keys to success, coach says

There are 26 members of the Speed River Track Club competing this weekend at the Canadian Track and Field Championships in Windsor, Ont., where the final selections for the Beijing Olympics will be made.

Speed River, which is in Guelph, Ont., is one of the largest club contingents entered.

The club's Eric Gillis (10,000-metre race) and Taylor Milne (1,500) both have met the minimum criteria for their respective events and are likely to be named to the Olympic team when it's officially announced at the "Breakfast of Champions" event Monday at the St. Clair Centre for the Arts in Windsor.

Another Speed River athlete, Hilary Stellingwerf, who lives in Switzerland most of the year, hopes to achieve the A-standard qualifying time in the women's 1,500 on Sunday afternoon.

She ran the time a year ago but that doesn't count for Olympic team selection purposes.

Others, such as 3,000 steeplechaser Robin Watson, are well off the Olympic qualifying times but still hope to be crowned Canadian champions.

Gillis will compete in the 5,000-metre race. The 10,000 championship was held in Toronto last month and he won easily.

In an age when elite athletes generally train alone or with few training partners, the club created by coach Dave Scott-Thomas is a throwback to the clubs of yesteryear, where youngsters in their early teens shared the track with Olympians in the making.

Speed River also has unique community support.

The club held a community barbecue at the University of Guelph stadium on Wednesday night. Following a light workout, members of the community, many of whom share local running trails with Speed athletes throughout the year, enjoyed burgers, watermelon and a chance to meet the athletes.

"It's just really a chance for people in our community to come out and get close to our group," Scott-Thomas said.

"We see a lot of these people out on the roads. They come to our road races and so we want to find that energy.

"I love the feeling we have as a group going to the nationals.

"We did have some good sponsorship from the community, but the interesting thing is there was an article in the local paper about Reid Coolsaet being injured and how he needed to get to over to France [to meet the Olympic qualifying standard]. We had people e-mailing us, saying, 'I have got airline points to get him there for free,' or 'I will put in $100 towards it.'

"It just warms your heart when you see gestures like that," Scott-Thomas said.

While most of the athletes are associated with the University of Guelph, where Scott-Thomas is the Gryphons athletics team head coach, Gillis and Milne are both new residents in the community.

Gillis moved to Ontario from his home in Antigonish, N.S., after meeting Scott-Thomas and Reid Coolsaet at an international cross-country meet. Originally he would spend only summers with the Speed River group.

After graduating from St. Francis Xavier University, he moved to Guelph permanently in summer 2006.

"There is a lot of support here," Gillis said. "You learn a lot from a group like this.

"You can get help day in, day out, and go to the track and see what others are doing and you always have someone to run with."

Club helps Ontario runner near international success

Milne has been transformed from a good Canadian athlete to one on the verge of international success.

Milne, originally from Calendar, Ont., attended High Point University in North Carolina. After graduation two years ago, he had no idea where to go. An invitation came from Scott-Thomas and now he has made Guelph home.

"Guelph is a great running community," Milne said. "There are a lot of people out there doing it.

"We do it at a high level, obviously, but there's a lot of them out there banging the pavement after working all day. I will be in the grocery store and get the odd person coming up and asking me about the group. 

"You pretty much get heckled when you run down the street in some other communities I have lived in, but not in Guelph."

Among those on hand Wednesday was Coolsaet, the injured four-time Canadian 5,000 champion, who will journey to Windsor to lend support to his teammates.

Coolsaet, who last year ran six seconds shy of the qualifying time, has continued to feel pain during workouts and won't make it to Beijing.

Robbed of his Olympic dream, he intends to try again in four years.

As the Guelph running community is fully aware, there are many youngsters in the group who might very well join him.