© Copyright – 2011 – Athletics Illustrated

Bertil Johansson’s title at Lethbridge College may read as ‘Athletics Coach’, but there is so much more to his position and his passion for the sport that the label Athletics Coach just seems inadequate; his position goes well-beyond recruiter and coach.

He is a former Swedish Junior Champion in the sport of decathlon and is a former multi-sport athlete. Johansson moved to Canada via Calgary before settling in his current home for the past 25 years in Lethbridge, Alberta.

Johansson has led his Lethbridge College Kodiaks to a total of seven national championships with both the women’s and men’s teams using a mix of local and regional Canadian and international recruits from places like Holland, Japan, Colombia and Kenya, for example.

The Kodiaks compete in the Canadian Collegiate Athletics Association (CCAA) and the Alberta Colleges Athletics Conference (ACAC).

I first met Bertil at the Victoria Track Classic in 2009, where we discussed a potential interview. We more  recently corresponded back and forth and managed to cover a broad range of subjects within the context of his coaching and mentoring duties at the College.

The Interview:

Christopher Kelsall: Your men’s teams won national cross-country titles from 2005 through 2009. What were the difference makers during the championship years?

Bertil Johansson: Well it took me a few years to build the team to where we could compete at the national level. I had at least two-to-three strong Kenyan runners each of those years able to run under 26:00 for the 8k distance. The overall depth was also good as I have two-to-three strong Alberta residents who came primarily from the Lethbridge Track Club ranks.

We actually won in 2002 as well. That was the first time CCAA was hosted. We had an ACAC team only, but since LCC (now LC) had three out of seven runners we were awarded the CCAA banner. So five CCAA titles for men (02, 05, 06, 08, 09) and two for the women in 2003 and 2004, that’s seven of nine years.

For the men it was a “problem” in 2007 when Willy was sick with a case of hypothermia, as it was snowing in Grand Prairie. Last year, we just did not have a good enough team. Obviously having talented runners provides the base foundation towards getting a “shot” of a winning program. It is because hard work from these young runners from Lethbridge Track Club, and many walk-ons and all international students from Colombia, Japan and mostly from four to five top male and three to four top female Kenyans out of 16 Kenyan runners over these last ten years.

CK: And the competition has grown?

BJ: I assume the competition from other provinces was only just developing and as of the last two years we have struggled to win. Fewer strong locals and with Ed Kangogo and Willy Kimosop graduating it has been tough. Peter Kalya won this year at Alberta Colleges Athletics Conference (ACAC) by just a few seconds, so the level of competition has narrowed. Other College teams from Ontario (Fanshawe) and Quebec (Ste. Foy) have surged and really made it a Canadian fight for supremacy. Mixing in with Alberta colleges from primarily Edmonton, Camrose and Red Deer who are staying strong each year, has contributed to a provincial battle over this last decade of CCAA running! Which has created a great competitive focus!

CK: Tell me about your recruiting practices.

Canadian student athletes:

Most come from Lethbridge Track Club, some from Cardston, Magrath, Raymond, Foremost area, Medicine Hat and Crowsnest Pass Track Club. I have been fortunate to have some of the best local runners stay at home, choosing the programs we offer at Lethbridge College; obviously we lose some to universities all over western Canada. I used to coach for ten years with the Lethbridge Track Cub, so we have some positive connections with them. Often, I recruit the fittest on campus P.E. students from the courses I teach, always looking for a keener to join our team…..mostly nursing/criminal justice P.E. students; triathletes and road runners! In 1997, Derek Kroeker (CIS athlete) transferred from U of S (Saskatchewan) and ran one year and won the individual title at the ACAC provincials for the Kodiak team.

International recruits:

Since year 2000 we have recruited runners from Holland, Japan and most apparent our Kenyan contingency; which is nearing 20 runners. Ten years ago, I responded to an email from Thomas Mutai, and he knew Kip Kangogo (later NCAA all American for BYU and TCU), then Kip helped me recruit Mary Kamau (NCAA all American at Univ. of Idaho), and Kip’s brother Ed Kangogo, who helped me recruit Willy Kimosop and so on.

Most of the Kenyan recruits have family members or friends arriving, as they need strong local support and with my various connections we are able to place them with families, friends and the community at large. Obviously a system that takes several years to develop, as Canadian post-secondary student athletes are limited to a grant covering only full tuition and fees. Furthermore, these last few years have been difficult to recruit due to “Visa granting irregularities” and political unrest in Kenya. I often work with two-to-three contacts in Kenya, who provide names from training camps in Eldoret, Kaspbarnet etc…The most important is to recruit a runner with strong and positive personal characteristics, and who is dedicated to academics and career goals! They need a 1.5 GPA to stay eligible to compete and a 2.0 GPA to receive scholarships, so the race is two-fold.

CK: Who are your biggest competitors when recruiting, Canadian Inter-University Sport (CIS) and NCAA?

BJ: Neither actually! The runners themselves at (that stage) have chosen to come to Canada and study, and run with the Kodiaks. They are interested in the “Canadian opportunity”  towards personal care and excellence in both academics and athletics. They can earn a living from road races, sponsors, accepting gifts etc….and be able to work outside campus (after six months) which is not available in NCAA (most conferences). That was one of the reasons I found a job for Kip at Flaman Fitness and his vision to bring his family across to the “Canadian opportunity”. Only Kip and Mary left the Kodiaks to run in the highest division of the NCAA for another three years and most recently Moses Kipgoskei (younger brother to the famed steepler Bernard Barmasai) left for an NCAA division two school. Most of them stay after graduation, get married and have kids, just like the rest of us.

CK: Have you kept up with your first Kenyan athletes, like Mary Kamau.

BJ: Mary Kamau (CCAA Champ 2004 and ‘05), did get married after (Univ. of Idaho) and moved back to Kenya, working in the college administration field. She wanted to come back to Canada, but has not been successful. Kip Kangogo and Thomas Mutai have both been back. However, many of them have not been as fortunate due to various reasons (war, work, school, finances etc). Many of them support their families back in the Rift Valley and are building houses for their possible return one day. They also help their brothers and sisters pay school fees and books. Four of them are married (Kip Kangogo, Thomas Mutai, Rogers Sergon, and Stephen Njoroge), college national champions Ed Kangogo, Gladys Kochei, Purity Kandie (ACAC only), Willy Kimosop, and this year’s Peter Kalya (ACAC) are still living and working in Lethbridge, all are graduates from Lethbridge College.

CK: Does the Lethbridge terrain with the coulees and rolling nature of the land lend itself to cross-country running, is this a contributor to the cross-specific success you have achieved?

BJ: Yes, the undulating hills and coulee trails have been a factor. The Alberta altitude and many dirt trails and red shale trails (yes the traditional methods) are also important. Training on the pavement is not recommended and they don’t like it or feel good after the runs (knee or shin). They have also learned how to run on the highest pace on the treadmill, which helps with tempo (indoor) training. We don’t train on indoor track that much due to the hard surface (same as pavement). I also do some cross training and plain muscular skeletal exercises (hips/legs and core training). I am certified as an AFLCA Fitness Trainer as well. I try to periodize the training as much as possible and allow for rest and recovery both mentally and physically. I also use the “winning instincts” of training intensity/methods and competiveness from my years of decathlon training. Obviously adopting, the Swedish “Fartlek principles” of pulsating hard and easy runs mixed with short and longer burst of metabolic emphasis just as the famed guru Arthur Lydiard did.

CK: Do your athletes compete in three seasons seriously? If so how do you keep them fresh for outdoors?

BJ: The top ranked (half dozen) international runners have committed to all year running; which includes indoors, spring road races, and a few summer track meets. Over the years…Thomas, Kip, Willy, Ed, Mary, Gladys and a few Canadian runners, Travis Epp, Stephen Viola and Derek Kroeker running for local track clubs have seriously committed to all three seasons. The rest of them had to work all summer to support themselves.

CK: You were a competitive decathlete and then national-level coach in Sweden. What prompted the move to Lethbridge, Alberta?

BJ: First of all Canada became my adopted country due to marriage to my wife, Julie Bender from Montreal. I also trained at Complexe Sportif Claude Robillard for a while before moving to Calgary (Southland Leisure Centre). I was coached by Olympic coach John Cannon for a few years and competed at Nationals, and Western Canada Games in high hurdles in the mid-1980’s.

After retiring from Track in 1986, my priorities shifted to a Lethbridge College posting for a Phys Ed faculty instructor commencing in January of 1987. Besides earning a sport science degree from BYU, along with my Swedish military experience, track and cross-country experience and decathlon (multi-sport/activity) background, it became a perfect fit for my young family to re-locate from Calgary to the “windy city” of southern Alberta, Lethbridge. I personally, have the College experience to thank as well, as I have been able to achieve a B.Ed. degree (U of Lethbridge) and a Master’s Degree at the University of Victoria and a national level four NCCP certification from the National Coaching Institute in Victoria, along with many other fitness leadership and self-defense certifications. I have been coaching and teaching in Lethbridge for 25 years and will be retiring in a few years, I guess.

CK: You “guess” you may retire soon, but I guess you love what you do too much to retire yet, yes?
BJ: Yes. I was determined to retire at age 57 (next year), but we will see as my mind-body-spirit feels like 25..(laughing). It will depend on other opportunities that may arise and how much I am needed to carry through the “Canadian-Kenyan movement” assisting these young African recruits to help bring their academic and athletic dreams come true; as…yes, I enjoy coaching and teaching and if the passion of competition and observing personal growth still remains on a high.

Most of my efforts with these runners are to make sure I support their academic pursuits, and provide for financial aid in tuition and fees. The College and I fundraise to make this happen. The Kodiak cross-country teams have been well supported as the community have stood by runners like Kip and Willy at the highest level on the national road racing scene, as you know. Employment, equipment, rental (housing), finding a church, community connections etc…is all part of the whole picture of my devotion to these athletes. I have achieved similar support as a former BYU recruit and enjoy giving back as they also get married and have children here in Canada. Thomas Mutai, Steven Njoroge, and Rogers Sergon are all married. I no longer coach Kip Kangogo as he has moved on but heard that he is getting married this Fall.

CK: And the women?

BJ: The women are a different development, being a “Life coach” is important as they usually only run for two years and move onto a career path. Mary Kamau, Gladys Kochei and Purity Kandie are all champion medal runners at ACAC and CCAA.

Mary Kamau ran for University of Idaho (Wayne Phipps) for three years and got her Masters and now works in Kenya and is married. Gladys is done (four years) where Purity has two left.

CK: Any current recruits to speak of?

BJ: We have recruited four Kenyans for the fall. In 2009 we would have won provincials with just my A and B Canadian runners, so every three years or so I am able to build on my local and regional talent as well. My runners know that pursuing excellence is the plan at Lethbridge College.

Join the Forum discussion on this post

Comments are closed.