UBC's Brianna Cairns navigates a steeple at the 2017 Western Washington University Ralph Vernacchia Track and Field Meet at Civic Stadium in Bellingham. (Wilson Wong/UBC athletics)
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Always making a splash, UBC’s Brianna Cairns tracks a career in marine biology

VANCOUVER — This is the story of a girl who has never been afraid to get her feet wet.

In fact if you listen for the sound of a splash, you know that Brianna Cairns can’t be too far away.

That’s the most apparent commonality when you’re talking about a UBC student-athlete who has followed the seemingly divergent paths of budding marine biologist and nationally-ranked middle-distance steeplechase runner.

Yet spend any amount of time chatting with the Anmore native about the unique trajectory of her dual passions and it becomes clear that they actually converge on a daily basis.

“Both of them, pursuing marine biology and my running, they’re both about pushing myself to do better,” says Cairns. “To do my best.”

Still navigating herself back to full health after taking a few hard falls in the water pit during the 3,000-metre steeplechase at last season’s NAIA national championships, the 22-year-old senior spent this past summer as an assistant trainer with the sea lion team at the Vancouver Aquarium.

The breadth of her pursuits defines the total university experience, and when you ask her for some stories from the journey thus far, you realize that her commitment to excellence has not come without sacrifice, even if that sacrifice has at times gotten a little comical.

UBC’s Brianna Cairns is a sea lion whisperer. She’s written her honours thesis on the steller sea lion. (Photo courtesy Brianna Cairns)

BLAZING IN BELIZE

In May of 2015, Cairns was part of a 10-person party from the UBC Aqua Society setting up camp on a tiny island that is part of the nation of Belize, some 4,700 kilometres away from Vancouver in the Caribbean Sea.

If running on famed Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., is considered a mecca in the world of track and field, then the pristine white sand, bathtub-warm waters and coral reefs off tiny Tom Owens Cay are the marine biologists’ best comparable.

The opportunity to scuba dive in the coral reefs and study the habits of the invasive lionfish was, in her own words, “an opportunity of a lifetime.”

For Cairns, however, the trip had come on the LITERAL verge of NAIA national track and field championships, which she had trained so hard to qualify for and which were set to begin in Alabama just five days after her return to Vancouver.

“So I packed my running shoes,” she laughs of attempting to get in some workouts on the one-acre island. “It was literally just sand running. It took me about 20 seconds to cross the island, so it wasn’t the best prep for nationals.”

Nonetheless, Cairns completed her studies in Belize, flew back to Vancouver, then went straight on to Alabama where she would finish third in her steeplechase heat, just missing out on qualification to championship final.

Brianna Cairns attended Meet A Sea Lion Day at the Vancouver Aquarium for her eighth birthday. (Photo courtesy Brianna Cairns)

SETTING A COURSE FOR OPEN WATERS

It’s not often that a childhood moment shapes the path of your professional career, but in the case of Cairns, that is precisely what happened.

“For my eighth birthday, I got to go to a Meet the Sea Lions thing,” she begins of a trip to the Vancouver Aquarium. “I might have even skipped school that day to go. There is a picture of me next to one of the trainers.

“Growing up close to the ocean, my parents were so supportive of my phases. I guess lots of girls go through the dolphin phase, but I never outgrew mine. In Grade 3 I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist.”

In fifth grade, while attending Anmore Elementary, Cairns went on a field trip to the Open Water Research Laboratory in Port Moody.

That day, she posed for a photo with trainer Nigel Waller, whom she got to know again 12 years later in the summer of 2016, when she was hired there as a research technician.

It was at the centre, a partner project between the Vancouver Aquarium and UBC’s Marine Mammal Research Unit, that Cairns came to know and study four female steller sea lions named Sitka, Yasha, Boni and Hazy.

“There is so much that we don’t know about the oceans, so studying these mammals that are similar to us in a lot of ways, yet exist in a completely different world, is really fascinating,” says Cairns, who continues to study under UBC’s Dr. David Rosen, and wrote her honours thesis on the body composition of steller sea lions in the wild.

These days, as Cairns prepares to finish off her degree, she is taking a practicum at the aquarium’s marine mammal residency centre, working in the rescue program by caring for harbour seals and sea lions.

“Right now I am trying to put my feet in as many doors as possible,” she says when asked about beginning her professional career in earnest next year.

Sounds just like the girl who has never been afraid to get her feet wet.

Always making a splash, Cairns takes one of three tumbles in the 3000m steeplechase final at the 2017 NAIA national championships. (Photo — Len Catling/UBC athletics)

STILL AT THE HEAD OF HER CLASS

As a member of Heritage Woods’ graduating Class of 2013, Cairns served as her class valedictorian, and that year was featured as part of The Province’s Head of the Class.

When asked if she might be continuing her athletic career at UBC, Cairns was non-committal.

“I clearly remember when we talked and you asked me what my sport was and I didn’t have an answer,” laughs Cairns. “I wasn’t really sure.”

A non-recruited track athlete, Cairns nonetheless loved running and decided to email then-UBC head track coach Marek Zedrzejek to ask if there were any recreational running clubs she could join on campus.

Instead, Jedrzejek asked her if she had a car, and if so, to attend the varsity team’s cross-country running camp in Whistler.

Ever since, she has blossomed.

Last season, she finished 16th at the NAIA national cross-country championships, and followed that with one of the top seeds heading into the 3,000-metre steeplechase final at the NAIA national track and field championships.

Laurier Primeau, now in his third year as UBC head coach, admits that the growth of the program has upped the performance standards for entry and would preclude the ‘Birds from taking a chance on a more neophyte talent like Cairns was back in 2013.

“As our team improves, she is the kind of athlete we will start missing out on,” says Primeau. “And that’s a big minus. We’re at a place now where she wouldn’t have gotten a look and we would have missed out on a phenomenal athlete.”

Primeau has loved how Cairns has out-performed expectations and become a national contender in the steeplechase.

“She is an absolutely determined grinder, she puts her head down and like a bulldog, she is relentless,” the coach says. “She wasn’t a running star out of high school but she has come along, slow and steady,  to where she is one of our top runners. But she’s also one of our endurance captains because she has this incredible leadership capacity.”

For Cairns, her senior season on the trails and track come with extended purpose.

Ranked No. 3 in the steeplechase, Cairns had what she calls her ‘race from hell’ at nationals, where she took a number of spills and suffered a foot which is still preventing her from running at full health.

“I wiped out three times but I finished,” Cairns says of settling for 10th-place when a spot on the medal podium was her goal. “That’s why I am back. I want to redeem myself.”

Listen for the splash.

Hear it?

That’s the girl who’s never been afraid to get her feet wet.

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