The women behind Canada’s best runners (Canada)
Middle distance and distance running is on the rise in Canada. In 2019 alone, six national records have fallen on the track and of those records, five have been broken by women. Behind the athletes who are making a name for themselves in Canadian and international sport are great coaches, and the good news is, a lot of these stellar Canadian coaches are also women.
Brit Townsend, Paula Schnurr and Lynn Kanuka each coached a 2018 national champion and have each represented Canada at various Olympics. After their own professional running careers, they began volunteer coaching.
Townsend is the head track and field coach at Simon Fraser University and is a two-time Olympian and former Canadian record-holder over 1,500m, 800m and one mile. She has since coached athletes to all levels of competition, including the Olympics. Currently, one of Townsend’s strongest athletes is Lindsey Butterworth, the 2018 national 800m champion. Townsend’s been a coach at SFU for 20 years, and has guided the team to hundreds of NAIA and NCAA Division II individual titles and dozens of team titles.
She started coaching on a volunteer basis for the Valley City Royals Track Club and SFU. “I coached a few junior athletes while I was still competing and ended up assistant coaching at SFU. While I was assistant coaching at SFU I was also working in real estate for ten years to make some money. I eventually accepted the head coach job at SFU on a trial basis after the former head coach left.”
When Townsend first went to the National Coaching Institute, she describes being very pregnant and one of the only women in the room. “I was the only female head coach in the NAIA when I started out in 1998. I’d go into business meetings and every now and again see another woman, but it was rare.”
Townsend says that you don’t make it as a female coach without being very strong-minded and confident. Some of this confidence she learned during her time as an elite athlete. “This is especially the case when you’re the only female coach. It took a while for the male coaches to respect my ability to coach athletes at this [university] level. That changed once I had a lot of success at the NAIA level. Then people started to email me to ask what I was doing in my training. I gained respect, but it had to come from my athletes’ performances.”
Townsend has two daughters, who she says grew up at the track. “I was lucky enough to be able to afford to travel with them. They came everywhere with me. I would get some of my senior athletes to babysit during meets. I wanted to coach, and I wanted to be present for my kids, so I didn’t see any other option than for them to come with me everywhere. It was really hard, but really fulfilling.”
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