VANCOUVER — As a student in UBC’s School of Applied Plant and Soil Sciences, Rowan Hamilton is learning the ins and outs of helping to sustain all that is essential within our fragile eco system.
Something of a towering tree himself at 6-foot-3, Hamilton is also a key reason that the eco system of a UBC track and field program, one which has now twice been denied its opportunity to defend its status stateside as NAIA national men’s and women’s champions, continues to remain positive, cherishing any means of growth despite the effects of the global pandemic.
It was two years ago this coming Saturday that the Thunderbirds’ track and field program capped the single greatest day in its program’s storied history by sweeping both the men’s and women’s overall team titles at the NAIA nationals amidst sweltering heat in Gulf Springs, Alabama.
Postponed in 2020, the 2021 championships return to the same site in the U.S. deep south next week, running Wednesday through Friday, but without the presence of its only Canadian member school.
For his part, Hamilton — who won gold in the hammer throw (63.50 metres) as a freshman back in 2019 — has not let the disappointment of consecutive cancelled championship meets for the powerhouse ‘Birds muddy his view of what he expects can be triumphant return to nationals in 2022.
“Well, if I am honest, it has been quite frustrating but I have been most happy to keep training with my team,” the Chilliwack native and graduate of Sardis Secondary explained Tuesday from his home in eastern Fraser Valley. “I am excited. I feel it’s almost more exciting getting to go back after (three) years of missing it. There will have been (three) years of growth in-between, and I can even go the following year (2023) because I will be in my fifth year as an undergrad.”
Hamilton is a pretty reliable barometre of the spirit of the UBC team through these tough times, and that shared temperament is just an added bonus when you look at the overall talent level of those Thunderbirds athletes who won it all back in 2019 and are planning a return to the team next season.
As an example, the No. 1-ranked men’s hammer throw performance heading into this weekend’s national championships is right around 63 metres.
Three weeks ago, at a Kajaks meet in Richmond, Hamilton uncorked a personal-best 71.53m throw which would have made him the overwhelming favourite heading into this year’s nationals had UBC been able to compete.
“I am hoping for another year of improvement and to push the mark a little further,” Hamilton added. “Especially not having my name on the sheet, it’s going to be exciting for it to pop up again (in 2022).”
Primeau again points out the collateral damage that COVID’s arrival has wreaked on every student-athlete’s traditional academic calendar and their ability to encompass it within an eligibility clock generously slowed due to the pandemic.
“Rowan was the national champion in the hammer as a freshman in 2019, but the next time he goes to nationals, he’ll be a senior,” reminds Primeau. “Technically he’ll be a sophomore, but he’ll be fourth-year and so when I think of it in those terms and what these kids have lost, it’s really heartbreaking.”
And that has been the toughest part of all for the core of UBC track and field athletes who were either sophomores or juniors in that spring of 2019.
It’s athletes like women’s endurance captain Mikayla Tinkham, a junior that season, and part of the ‘Birds’ gold medal-winning 4x800m relay team.
It’s athletes like Roan Allan, also a junior that season. Allan not only won gold in javelin at the NAIA nationals, later that summer he did the same at the Canadian Track and Field Championships in Quebec.
Steeplechaser Cole Dinsdale, a bronze-medal winner in 2019, would also have loved to return.
“But he’s just graduated,” adds Primeau of the Quesnel native. “He even came back to get his Master’s degree, but he’s even finished that.
“So many of our athletes returned in 2020 and then even came back in 2021,” Primeau continued, tipping his cap to a talented and veteran-laden contingent. “They hung in there for two years, but now they are beyond what is sensible for them in terms of life plans.”
These have been, of course, unprecedented times, and through it all, Primeau has made sure the program has been, first-and-foremost, a non-judgemental haven for his student-athletes… a place where the universal theme of team has been celebrated regardless of personal decisions made due to the circumstances of the pandemic.
“We gave every athlete the full freedom to make decisions that were best for them, and if the decision that was best for them was not to come to UBC to train, we supported that,” began Primeau, “because if all of their classes were online and it didn’t look like we were going to have competitive opportunities, the only reason to come UBC would be to train with their group and to pay the fees to live in the dorms and to pay for food, when you could have done all of that at home.
“Many of our athletes decided to take on that cost because they valued being with our team,” added Primeau. “But to be clear, that is not to disparage those who opted not to. I completely respect and support those decisions and I can say unequivocally, being a kid from Whalley, that there was no way my mom was going to pay for me to live in the dorms to not compete. But for those who had the capacity to do it, remarkably, they showed up on campus and just wanted to be a part of the team and the percentage of those who chose to come was absolutely remarkable. I think it speaks volumes to them. Again, I want to be clear, there are those who couldn’t and I don’t think any of them would have chosen not to simply because they didn’t feel like being here. Those that didn’t simply couldn’t come.”
Yet delve even further beneath the surface, and Primeau, like so many of his coaching brothers and sisters, has been able to find silver linings in the most unlikely of places.
In his case, the limitations placed on campus accommodations for incoming freshmen student-athletes actually served as a most unintentional but effective team-building exercise.
“One thing that we have observed is that normally, our student-athletes would be spread across campus in different residences,” began Primeau, “but because of COVID and the need to condense services like food, many of the residences were shut and almost all of our freshmen athletes were put into the same residence.
“As a result, they were all eating meals together, they were studying together and they became this incredibly tight unit when under ordinary circumstances, it would take months to develop those relationships,” continued Primeau whose incoming Class of 2020 out-of-province freshmen included the likes of women’s middle-distance members Zoe Doorenspleet and Mackenzie Campbell from Toronto and Hamilton respectively, and men’s members Daniel Smart-Reid (throws) and Shaan Hooey (distance), both from Toronto.
“It really accelerated the culture of our freshmen group this year. For us, the unintended benefit of reduced dorm capacity was that that group became extremely close.”
Add all of 2020-21’s challenges up, and it’s hard to believe that the program’s intestinal fortitude didn’t take a big step forward.
And with that, UBC’s ability to return to the NAIA national championships as a favoured contender at this very time next year, a full three seasons after its greatest triumph ever, seems like an ending that this story of perseverance rightly deserves.
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