Hilary Stellingwerff after winning the 2013 GoodLife Fitness Victoria Half Marathon. Photo credit: Christopher Kelsall.

© Copyright – 2020 – Athletics Illustrated

From Victoria, BC, if you drive the Trans Canada Highway eastward, some 5,300-kilometres later, you may find yourself in Sarnia, ON.  As the distance between the two cities is vast, so is their respective cultures. Sarnia is smaller, situated on a Great Lake and its primary industries are petroleum and agriculture.

Victoria is all tourism, boat building, government, and technology. It’s an island city with a metro population of 385,000 – nearly four times as large as Greater Sarnia.

Victoria offers a world-class training environment and the network of running trails is unlimited. Facilities that are available include Saanich Commonwealth Place – a legacy of the 1994 Commonwealth Games, a 77-million dollar state-of-the-art sports facility at the University called CARSA and the Pacific Institute of Sport Excellence (PISE) – it’s a great place to train. Victoria is home to 12 national teams and sports.

However, one thing that the two cities do have in common is Canadian Olympian Hilary Stellingwerff.

She was raised in the Southern Ontario town but has now spent a decade in Victoria, first training as one of Canada’s all-time fastest 1500m runners and now raising a family. She has two boys with husband Trent who is an exercise physiologist with Canadian Sport Institute Pacific (CSI Pacific, currently located at PISE).

Stellingwerff, who retired as an athlete after the 2016 Rio Olympics, began coaching at the University of Victoria as an assistant under Head Coach Brent Fougner. Fougner officially retired from the position before the start of the 2019 school year after 31 years at the helm. He stayed on for another year as assistant to Stellingwerff – by all appearances, the transition couldn’t have been smoother.

On April 3rd the university officially announced that Stellingwerff was no longer interim head coach, as she was permanently named Program Leader of Cross Country and Track. She starts effectively on April 15.

In the Vikes press release she said, “I am both honoured and thrilled to be selected to officially lead the Vikes Cross Country and Track team. I’ve been fortunate enough to be mentored by Brent over the last six years and have learned a great deal about what it takes to manage a team. I hope to continue the Vikes legacy while putting my own mark on the program.”

The Vikes have a long history of a competitive culture and a close-knit family-like atmosphere – one that she has gotten to know well.

Asked about the mix of current student-athletes, she told Athletics Illustrated, “We have a great group of athletes – our team culture is strong: they are committed to working hard and supporting each other to see how good they can be. As a coach, you always prefer to have to pull the reigns back rather than be the one pushing or motivating – this group of athletes has no shortage of motivation, so it’s just about helping them be patient and navigate their goals. I’m excited to see where they can go!”

Hilary with son Theo at the TC10K in Victoria. Photo credit: Christopher Kelsall.

Stellingwerff is a 2012 London and 2016 Rio Olympian. She competed for the legendary University of Wisconsin Badgers in the NCAA on a scholarship. She and Trent eventually moved to Lausanne, where he worked as a research scientist for Nestle.

They made their way to Victoria in 2010 and quickly became immersed in the athletics community.

Asked when she discovered that coaching may be a career path for her she said, “I have always really enjoyed the opportunity to mentor younger athletes or students. I have a teaching degree and did some teaching in the last few years of my athletic career and really enjoyed it. But shortly after moving to Victoria, I reached out to Brent to see if I could volunteer as a coach and my role progressed from there. I realized quickly how rewarding it can be to mentor student-athletes in the sport I love and share what I’ve learned throughout my 16-plus year athletic career.”

She spent six years working under Fougner before being named interim head coach last year and then eventually competing for the position.

“When I started coaching, I was still competing as a professional athlete and didn’t fully appreciate all that goes into building and managing a team at the university level –  the biggest thing I’ve learned is that you have to develop relationships first and build trust with your athletes,” shared Stellingwerff. “Programming is important, but if you really want to help athletes see their potential, you have to learn what works for that individual at the physical and emotional level and then they have to trust that you have their best interest in mind. When I started coaching, I knew what worked for me, but that is certainly not the case for every athlete I coach, so I aim to try and really understand the individual and then apply that within the team dynamic.”

As Fougner heads off into the sunset, after a rewarding three-decade career, the well-travelled Stellingwerff has come along way to take the opportunity to build on a respected legacy and lead the Vikes to the top of USport in track and cross-country.