Olympic athlete links track to the classroom

Olympian Hilary Stellingwerff has two passions: teaching and running. She has discovered training for one can lead to success in the other.

Stellingwerff trained hard and long to compete in the 2012 Olympics this summer. In the 1500-metre semi-finals, she found herself boxed in on the inside rail, a tactical disadvantage that left her in sixth place. She finished at 4:05.57, only portions of a second off her best time of 4:05.08, set earlier this season. She needed fifth place to compete in the finals.

“I missed by a tenth of a second, which was a tough pill to swallow,” said Stellingwerff, who missed the 2008 Beijing Olympics by a half a second. “Especially when I knew if I made the final anything could happen and I would be racing for a medal.”

Since graduating with a bachelor’s of education from Western in 2011, she has also competed for a position as an elementary school teacher in Victoria, BC. And, it turns out, Olympic training and teacher training both require developing patience, optimism and a willingness to take calculated risks.

“Progress or success isn’t always immediate,” she said about track competitions and job hunting in education. “So you have to be patient, set short-term and long-term goals and do assessments along the way to make sure that you’re moving in the right direction.”

While in Switzerland, she was a full time athlete who also volunteered at the International School of Lausanne as a cross-country and track coach. She then assisted their main English as a second language teacher, and after that, decided to get a bachelor’s in education because she knew “teaching was what I wanted to do.”

Stellingwerff firmly believes her experiences as an athlete have helped her to be successful as a teacher, especially when she fails.

“Being an athlete you inevitably have to learn to deal with failure because you don’t always win, but I feel I’ve learned more from my failures than my successes.”

Along the way, Stellingwerff inadvertently found running coaches in her instructors at Western’s Faculty of Education. “Although I have had many inspiring instructors,” she said, “no one has been more instrumental in my success than Alan Edmunds. His support was critical to my success in qualifying for the Olympic Games, as well as being able to handle competing at that level.”

Her work with Edmunds has resulted in her best track season ever.

“I really can’t thank him enough for working with me,” she said, “and I would have never had this opportunity without first having him as an instructor.”

Thanks to her ‘training’ in the Faculty of Education, Stellingwerff is confident in her plans to compete at next summer’s World Championships in Moscow and at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto. She is equally confident about pursuing her career goals as a school teacher.

“I’ve started some supply work at a private school, which is great.”

Her two life-long goals, it seems, remain intertwined.

“Teacher’s college was extremely rewarding for me because it really helped me confirm that teaching is my passion. It also helped give me a balance and greater purpose beyond the selfishness of being an individual sport athlete.”

Track training has also provided Stellingwerff with a chance to inspire the children she meets on her travels.

During a month’s training in Ethiopia, for instance, she remembers how “the kids were amazing. They would try to run with us for as long as possible, often in bare feet and for up to 10 kilometres.

“You can see why Ethiopia has such great runners!”

Stellingwerff’s next training camp takes place in January in Kenya, where she will continue to integrate her roles as athlete and teacher: “I am going to try to hook up with a school while I’m there and hopefully share some of my competitive running experiences with the teachers and the students.”