Wednesday, May 29, 2024

HIGH ACHIEVERS: Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club reaches 50-year milestone

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By Martin Cleary

Oh, how time flies. Where does it go?

It doesn’t seem possible that 50 years ago on April 25 Bob Staveley drove to the former Canadian Forces Base Rockcliffe for the inaugural practice of the East Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club.

The self-proclaimed head coach of the Lions, which secured club sponsorship from the East Ottawa Lions Club after the South Ottawa Lions Club said no, initially operated Ottawa’s newest athletics club from the trunk of his car.

Once he unlocked the trunk door, he took out starting blocks, a javelin and a variety of other implements he had bought to kickstart the practices.

“I thought I could do better than what they were doing,” Staveley said in an interview this week about why he wanted to start his own athletics club to rival the Upland Harriers and Ottawa Valley track and field clubs.


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“There was a little bit of friction, but it wasn’t too bad. I had a go at it and gave it a bit of a try. I got it going and here we are.”

Here we are, indeed. What started as the four-coach, 30-athlete East Ottawa Lions in 1973 on a track covered in weeds and questionable, if any, field venues, has grown 50 years later into one of Canada’s cornerstones for producing top age-group and senior athletes.

A large part of the club development has been because it has been able to train indoors during the winter by using the Louis-Riel Dome, the only 400-metre indoor track in Canada. The Dome opened in 2005.

Staveley, who was a pole vaulter in his day at McGill University and continues to compete as a masters athlete in javelin and shot put at age 89, served as the Lions’ head coach for the first 10 years. During that decade, he built a strong coaching staff of Owen Froggett, Ken Parker, Rae Ellen Desloges, Dick Cardill and Greg Moses.

By 1988, the track and field community was rather fractured with a number of clubs and small training groups vying for interested youth wanting to be runners, jumpers and throwers.

The Lions’ administration changed that by being the driving force behind uniting the clubs, groups and athletes into one entity. Thus, the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club was born.

“This vision was to have all the coaches in the area working together to provide a co-ordinated, developmental approach to the training of athletes and a strong calendar of local competitive opportunities,” according to the Club History section of the Ottawa Lions’ website.

In the 36 years since its formation, the Ottawa Lions has emerged as one of the frontrunners in Canadian track and field with about 1,500 members, a full complement of coaches and a busy schedule of national, provincial and local twilight meets. A knowledgeable coaching staff has trained and developed thousands of youth male and female athletes, who have found varying degrees of success at all levels.

A 50-year timeline shows the club has proudly produced 22 Olympians and 17 Paralympians, won nearly 200 international medals, captured more than 1,700 national championship medals, and earned more than 3,600 gold, silver and bronze rewards at provincial championships.

Ann Peel was one of those accomplished athletes, who started training with Staveley in 1976. She became the club’s first high-performance athlete on the world scene.

Starting as an enthusiastic 400-metre runner, Peel ended up putting her stamp on the athletics world by being an exceptional race walker. In 2022, she walked right into the Museum of World Athletics based on her elite indoor performances.

“Bob was a jewel,” Peel said this week in a phone interview. “He wanted us all to try different events. He entered me in my favourite event, the 400 metres, and I tried the shot put.

“One meet, he threw me into the race walk and I won a medal at the (Royal Canadian) Legion meet. I didn’t want to give up the 400 metres for that silly-looking event.”

But over a short period of time, Peel realized running 400 metres and doing the hip-swirling race walk were confusing and complicated for her body. She started race walking in 1978 and turned that into her passion for the 1980s, winning 18 Canadian titles, bronze medals at the 1985 World Indoor Games and the first World Indoor Championships in 1987, two Americas Cup gold medals and a Pan-Am junior championship.

“He was amazing,” Peel continued in her praise of Staveley in her early years, which saw her start training with the club on the Gloucester High School track with a group called the Parker Pack with coach Ken Parker. “He (Staveley) would drive me all over the province and I was the only race walker. I’d qualify for meets no one else qualified for.”

Staveley gave Peel her start in race walking before passing that coaching baton to Bill Arnold and then John Fitzgerald in the 1980s.

Peel, who lives in Toronto, is involved in Canadian sports arbitration and created the office of the Commissioner of Athletics to manage complaints independently of Athletics Canada, was thrilled to spend her first 12 years of track and field with the Lions.

“It’s a great club. It was a lifeline for me to keep me out of lots of trouble,” said Peel, who won the Lions’ female athlete-of-the-year award for the first four years from 1984 through 1987.

Peel’s accomplishments also led to her induction into the Ottawa Sport, Athletics Canada, Athletics Ontario and Ottawa Lions halls of fame.

The Lions aren’t planning any special celebration to mark its 50th anniversary, but hope to highlight its history during the annual banquet in September.

Head coach/director Richard Johnston is focused this week on staging the uOttawa High School Invitational meet, which will attract 1,000 student-athletes on Thursday and 600 on Friday. On Saturday, the club will play host to the Ottawa Lions Spring Kick Start competition at the Terry Fox Athletic Facility track.

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.

Martin can be reached by e-mail at martincleary51@gmail.com and on Twitter @martincleary.


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