Stellingwerff spring 2016 – Victoria Track Classic. Photo credit: Christopher Kelsall

© Copyright – 2016 – Athletics Illustrated

Hilary Stellingwerff, one of Canada’s all-time best middle-distance runners, has decided to hang up the spikes for good, but the racing flats will surely be kept by the door. She hasn’t completely dropped competing yet. Although she has nothing left to prove in international track racing, she is still very fit of course and is looking forward to seeing what she can do on the roads from 5K to the half-marathon.

“Yes, I still feel I have some fast racing left in me. This summer I was fitter than I’ve ever been in my life, which shows me I’m still at my peak.” said the 35-year-old. “However, I’ve found the last couple years of training on the track have been harder on my body with more injuries. I’ve also found it tough to be away racing so many weekends a year when we have a two year old. I still love training and racing so I’m looking forward to doing some road races and seeing how fast I can run if I focus on some longer races. At this point in my career, I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished and don’t feel like I have anything to prove, so my motivation is honestly for the pure love of running.”

She owns an 800-metre best of 2:01.22 and in her specialty, the 1500-metre distance, she has run as fast as 4:05.08, but with little attention or focus on distance racing, she has run quite well. For example in the Bazan Bay 5K road race that takes place just outside of Victoria, BC, she ran 16:53 in rainy conditions this past March. In the 2015 edition she finished in 16:26 and in 2012 she crossed the line in the time of 16:32. Clearly 15-something is on the horizon.

She has run the GoodLife Fitness Victoria Half Marathon twice, in the times of 1:16:00 and 1:16:11, which are nearly identical in performance value to her road 5K times, according to the IAAF points scoring system. It will be interesting to see what she can do on the roads with more focus towards those distances, perhaps national age-group and course records await.

After the GoodLife Fitness Victoria Half Marathon. Photo credit: Christopher Kelsall

Stellingwerff, a native of Sarnia, Ontario made her way to Victoria after living in Lausanne, Switzerland with her husband Trent, who is a Canadian physiologist currently working for the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific. In Lausanne he was working for Nestle (Powerbar) as a Senior Research Scientist in Sport Nutrition, Energy and Performance.

Although they are currently a long way from Coach Dave Scott-Thomas, who is located in Guelph, Ontario, over 4,300K eastward on the short route through several states – Trent has been an effective co-coach and Victoria provides an excellent training environment.

She is the mother of two-year-old Theo and now helps coach the University of Victoria Vikes athletics teams, which are headed by Brent Fougner.

Stellingwerff was inspired to run at an early age. In Grade 3 she won a race that her teacher Ms. Grimes had organised. “She had our whole class line up for a race in gym class and I ended up winning. Ms. Grimes said to me after the “race”, “Great job Hilary, maybe one day you can go to the Olympics.””

Ms. Grimes’ conjecture was spot on, Stellingwerff (née Edmondson) ended up competing in the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

Asked about her influences Stellingwerff said, “I’ve had many influences at various points in my running career, but my interest in running was really sparked by Ms. Grimes. I took her comment to heart, 20 years later becoming an Olympian and four years after that doing it again. That’s not to say I didn’t have several detours or bumps along the road, but I have been extremely fortunate to have a family who have supported and encouraged me, as well as many influential coaches and supporters. In fact, Ms. Grimes came to watch me in the London Olympics!”

After 2015 BC Cross Country Championships – Nanaimo. Photo credit: Christopher Kelsall

Stellingwerff grew up active in various sports including soccer.

“In elementary school I played every sport I could and then I played competitive soccer until my last year of high school. Looking back on my own experiences, I really believe in trying to expose kids to various sports. I think being involved in a few different sports early on helped me develop different fundamental skills, taught me how to work in a team environment and gave me access to diverse opportunities. There were many sports I wasn’t very good at (I’m short and my hand-eye coordination isn’t great), but my parents always pushed me to try everything, work at getting better and stick with things I started; because of those experiences I learned to deal with adversity and defeat, as well as develop a strong work ethic.”

While 70% of kids drop out of competitive sport by age 13, Stellingwerff was one who continued. Analysis indicates that many kids leave sports because they no longer “own the experience”; their parent or coaches own the experience for them. A classic sign is in the adult’s phrasing of the sporting experience, “we won/lost today’s game….” rather than allowing the child to own the moment.

“When I’m talking to young kids or parents, I always try to impress upon them that I didn’t make the Olympics because I was the best at my sport from childhood or even throughout my career. I didn’t make my high school cross-county team my Grade 9 year, I played soccer instead of cross-country my Grade 10 year and finally by Grade 11 I made my cross-country team and placed 38th at provincials, the next year I was more dedicated and trained harder, which benefitted me and I placed second at provincials. At each new level: high school, university, national, international, I’ve had to work my way up through the ranks, but I think because it didn’t always come easy, that made me more motivated and determined to improve and challenge myself to see how good I could be, that’s what ultimately got me to the Olympics.”

“When my high school coach Mark MacDonald told me I had the potential to make national teams and get a track scholarship to go to university, that definitely got my attention. I think it was a natural progression from there where I improved steadily in high school, made my first junior national team and got a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin.”

During 2016 Bazan Bay 5K. Photo credit: Christopher Kelsall

The Wisconsin Badgers have a long history of recruiting and producing talent and winning as a team. They compete in the Big Ten Conference of the NCAA’s first division and have produced talented athletes like Chris Solinsky, who is a onetime American record holder in the 10,000-metres as well as Simon Bairu, who likewise held the national record for the 10,000-metres as a Canadian.

Kathy Butler, who is both a Canadian and Scottish citizen, was an NCAA Cross Country Champion in 1995, while a decade earlier the team won back-to-back titles. Four years later Erica Palmer won the NCAAs. The Badgers are tied with having the third most appearances in the NCAA Cross Country Championships with 26. Butler was a five-time NCAA Champion and a 13-time All-American

In cross-country the men’s team won five national titles, while finishing second 10 times.

“While at Wisconsin, my coach Peter Tegen helped me improve my high school times of 4:22 for 1500m and 2:08 for 800m, to 4:14 and 2:05 by the end of university. During university I had spent summers in Guelph, Ontario when my now husband Trent was doing his PhD and I trained with Speed River and Dave Scott-Thomas.”

Sarnia is a two-hour drive from Guelph…

“So after graduation I moved to Guelph and started training full-time with Dave. In my first year post-collegiately I ran 4:08 and 2:03, and by the next year I ran 4:05 – at that point I was in the position to get into pretty good races to make some money, I got carded from Athletics Canada, and I signed a contract with New Balance – all of those factors allowed me the opportunity to commit to being a professional athlete and pursue my running goals.”

Stellingwerff made the Rio Olympic team by finishing top-three at the Canadian Track and Field Championships that took place in Edmonton in July. Finishing top-two guarantees a spot, if the athlete has run under the mark of 4:07 before or during the championship race, which doubled as the Rio trials.

She knows exactly when to perform at her best; when preparation meets opportunity, for example she had run 4:05.61 in Greenville, South Carolina the month before, which represents the second-fastest time of her career. Her fastest was run during the lead-up to the 2012 London Olympics in Rome, finishing in the time of 4:05.08.

Over the past 11 years her annual bests were always faster than 4:09.00. It is a standard of consistency due to careful preparation that has seen Stellingwerff perform as one of the most constant middle-distance runners in Canada – indeed she has nothing prove.

Now that she has retired and has had a chance to look back on her career, asked what her highlight might be she said, “I have a couple highlights based on where I was in my career. My first Commonwealth Games team was in Melbourne, Australia and was an amazing experience. It was my first big championship and Melbourne put on an incredible Games – the Melbourne Cricket Grounds hosted the track and held nearly 100,000 people – it was so loud I couldn’t even hear my own breathing during my race, it was electric. My major career highlight was the London Olympics – it was my first Olympics, I ran two of the best races, tactically and time-wise, of my career and I had many family members and friends there to share the experience with.

Overall, I would say a general highlight has been the opportunity to travel the world with friends and teammates, competing in the sport I love. I have probably trained or raced in every major European country, as well as in six different continents – the memories and friendships I have made will last far beyond my running career.”

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