© Copyright – 2023 – Athletics Illustrated

For the first time in school history, on Sunday, November 12, the University of British Columbia (UBC) Thunderbirds swept the women’s and men’s U Sports Cross Country Championship titles. The meet took place in London, Ontario — temperatures were west coast-like at 12C.

The sweep is a lot considering the depth of U Sports competition.

The men’s cross-country program was launched 60 years prior in 1963 and the women’s 25 years after that in 1988 — it’s been a long time coming. The counterpart track and field teams were both launched in 1981. Many of those years, however, were spent in the NAIA or National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, which is primarily an American collegiate league.

The men’s race

In the men’s race, the pre-meet favourites were Laval Rouge et Or. However, it was anybody’s guess who was going to win on race morning. Off the gun, it was Thunderbird Andrew Davies who drew the field out quickly and then allowed a small pack to form. Finishing the first lap, Davies and Rouge et Or’s Philippe Morneau-Cartier were leading. Over the final 2K, Morneau-Cartier pulled away from Davies for the win. He earned silver in 2022. This year he clocked 24:17 for the individual title.

Photo credit: UBC Thunderbirds

Perhaps Harvard’s Graham Blanks channelled Morneau-Cartier during the NCAA Championships a week later, as they both went undefeated during the season going 4-0. Jean-Simon Desgagnés also passed Davies during that final fateful km to take individual silver in the time of 24:20. Davies took bronze in 24:24 to lead his Thunderbird team to victory, but the three had to turn and watch with bated breath to see how the finish was going to pan out.

Laval went in as the defending champions. They had every intention to keep the title and placing Morneau-Cartier and Desgangés 1-2 was a good start. However, a late kick from a few of the UBC men saw three finish in the top 10.

It was close with the Thunderbirds team scoring the low of 52 and Rouge et Or 60. Taking the third team position was the Queen’s University Gaels with 90 points, a program well re-built by Coach Mark Bomba. The Canada West division had a second team in the top-5 with the University of Victoria Vikes scoring 177 points. For the Thunderbirds, it was their first men’s title in 30 years. For Coach Hilary Stellinwerff with the Vikes, it was a solid outing for a maturing team.

Also scoring for the Thunderbirds were John Perrier (4th), Jaiveer Tiwana (9th), Riley Miller (15), and Dylan Ulrich (21). 

The women’s race

If Vegas had odds on which women’s team was going to win the U Sports nationals, it would have been the Thunderbirds. Now the only question was by how much. Turns out that the results were a little closer than might have been predicted.

Sure, the UBC women scored a low of 38 points for the win, which is a very strong showing, but the Western Mustangs were not fooling around out there. They finished with 71 points. A trip here or missed tactic there and either the Mustangs or third-place St. Francis Xavier could have shuffled the deck. St. Francis Xavier took third with 95 points.

Vegas oddsmakers aside, the Thunderbirds were ranked first all season.

Tactically speaking, the women had a more pedestrian start to their race than the men did. Early on, the Western Mustangs and St. FX positioned themselves near the front through the better portion of the first 5K lap. During the final 2K (within the smaller 3K lap, same for the men’s race), Thunderbird Katie Newlove dropped the hammer hard and put a good 12 seconds on second place Catherine Beauchemin of Laval. They finished in 29:06 and 29:18, respectively. Western Mustangs’ Erika Jordan took third in 29:24 to help put the host team onto the podium.

The Thunderbirds had five athletes finish in the first 15 to take the first title in the 35-year history of the program.

The top Thunderbirds to score were, Jennifer Erickson (4th), Holly MacGillivray (8th), Marley Beckett (11th), and Rachel Mortimer (15th).

So, why were the Thunderbirds so good?

Being active in recruiting helps. What’s not to love? A globally ranked school for academics, with a rich history dating back to 1908, and one of the best climates in all of Canada.

Coach Steve Weiler who has been the lead endurance coach for two years said, “I’ve become very active in recruiting. The high academic standards, location, and climate are obvious draws; South-West Vancouver is possibly the best place in Canada to train year-round with plentiful trail access.”

The Endowment lands Jericho Beach and plenty of trails in between offer endless running opportunities. Also, just north of Kitsilano across the Burrard Street Bridge more of that awaits as Stanley Park is nestled against downtown, offering beach running, trails, and the famous Seawall that provides oceanfront views of the North Shore mountains and downtown Vancouver.

“Simply put, the “why” or “how” UBC accomplished this [the sweep] comes down to talented individuals following effective training within a positive, supportive team environment,” shared Weiler. “While team wins were the outcome, I seldom use that word and instead focus on process and pursuit of excellence.”

According to Weiler, the endurance squad follows a detailed 12-month periodized training schedule. The schedule includes winter for base training and treats cross country as one of two equally important seasons, along with outdoor track & field.

“There is considerable effort put into individualizing schedules, including giving athletes agency to adjust based around their own needs, including demanding academic schedules,” added Weiler.

“The priority for our team is healthy and happy runners,” shared assistant coach Catherine Watkins. “We have focused on providing education around nutrition, fuelling, sleep and recovery, and mental health to help support our athletes and I believe this has had a huge impact on our team.”

The Thunderbirds program, according to Watkins, is also fortunate to have some great IST support.

“Overall we have found that getting to know them as not just athletes, but as individuals with many different facets to their personalities, has helped to foster a safe, inclusive, and supportive environment. Where the athletes are comfortable communicating with us on anything they need support with.”

Camaraderie is important, for morale, team building, motivation, and trust. Any athletics fans in Canada hooked up to social media will have noticed the creative outlet social media has provided for the teams. Instagram is the canvas, where hilarity and a little tongue-in-cheek braggadocio ensue. It’s student-led and all good fun.

Laurier Primeau has been the head coach since 2015. He has complemented the roster with an accomplished crew of coaches. They include Olympic medallist Evan Dunfee who leads the race walk program. Watkins as the assistant coach since 2021 and Weiler is the lead endurance coach. Also, there is Christina Weir leading the pole vault program, Byron Jack and Elena Voloshin in horizontal jumps, Garrett Collier throws events, and David Douglas in sprints and hurdles.

In regards to social media as a positive outlet for the team, Primeau said, “You probably see more than I do, but I do understand that a strong presence in this space is important equally for team morale and cohesion as it is for recruiting. This is primarily an athlete-led space and as with any question about camaraderie and culture, I feel that coaches maybe get too much blame when it’s not great and too much credit when it’s excellent. We have a good culture because our student-athletes have chosen it, and to them go the spoils of their efforts. We have an eclectic mix on our team, and they appreciate each other’s efforts, differences, and contributions outside of training.

Sunday, Nov. 12 may have been the first cross-country sweep in the former CIAU, then CIS, and now U Sport national championships, but there exists a rich history with the Thunderbirds and an excellent post-graduate club program with the Vancouver Thunderbirds. There is a culture of athletics borne with the UBC program and nurtured in an ideal climate.

Camaraderie and team building

When asked about the special formula of what makes the UBC Thunderbirds so good, engineering grad and 2022 champ Tyler Dozzi said in characteristic cheek, “Unrivalled overconfidence and a dangerously competitive drive.”

More serious though, “More likely, great coaching, great team camaraderie, and generally just enjoying ourselves as a team during the cross country season.

“I don’t think there’s anything crazy that sets us apart from the other team’s performances and depth-wise right now, but we’ve managed to have all the other top teams talking about us and aiming to take us down so that’s cool. But we’ve done that by egging other teams on, poking at them and making jokes, and trying to get everyone excited about cross country.”

Mission accomplished. Teams were talking about the Thunderbirds all season, leading up to the U Sport Championships and the Thunderbirds teams stepped up to the plate to deliver — the others are likely still talking about them.