Disagreements arise within StFX track and field team

ANTIGONISH: The StFX Varsity Track and Field team was notified abruptly on May 6 that all Speed-Power events would no longer be supported by the StFX Athletic Department as of the 2020-21 season.

The decision entails all field events, as well as track events under 600 metres, will be dismissed for the purpose of transitioning to a middle and long-distance-based program.

In an open report on the StFX Track and Field Speed-Power program – produced in support of StFX Track and Field Speed-Power athletes, alumni, and supporters – Catherine Kennedy and Brad Barclay, both senior members of the team, said members were dismissed swiftly via conference phone call without sufficient explanation or clarification.

“Collectively, we feel the rolling out of this decision was made without considerable regard for the current members of the team,” they said. “As a program that has fought ‘tooth and nail’ for the support it has received from the athletic department over the years, the nature of this decision only adds to the devaluation of student-athlete experience and highlights an absence of Xaverian spirit.”

In 2018, former Olympian and StFX alumnus Eric Gillis was named head coach of the StFX Cross Country and Track and Field Team after taking over the reins from former head coach Bernie Chisholm.

Gillis, who was named StFX Athlete of the Year in 2004 after winning the Canadian Interuniversity Sport individual championship, has a strong background in long-distance running, finishing 10th at the 2016 Olympic Marathon in Rio de Janeiro.

The hiring of Gillis did not go to a tender offer, meaning the position was not posted externally.

“A world-class athlete and renowned Canadian distance runner, Eric Gillis brings much to the role of cross-country and long-distance running,” they said. “However, he lacks certified coaching qualifications and expertise in the area of Speed-Power events.”

Since Gillis’ hiring, the programming, training, and coaching of Speed-Power athletes has relied on the insight and expertise of others.

In 2017, then-StFX Strength and Conditioning coach Khyl Orser assisted with the development and administration of the speed and power programs. For the past two seasons, a young exercise physiology course-lecturer, Jodi Langley, has committed tireless hours and dedication to the program’s Speed-Power athletes.

“She is massively responsible for the recent success of the event group since 2018,” they said. “Prior to Gillis’ tenure, there were invaluable contributors, including Lindsay and Sasho MacKenzie and Matt Doherty who breathed life into this program and helped athletes of both track and field events succeed.”

The common characteristic shared by all of these individuals, they highlighted, was their unrelenting willingness to do what was necessary to keep the program alive and assist athletes on the StFX Track and Field team to reach the highest level possible; not only in their sport, but in life as well.

The decision to remove the field and sprinting events from the StFX Track and Field team indicates to them that Gillis intends to develop a middle and long-distance hub in Atlantic Canada.

They said this vision may be well-intended, however, they firmly believe that Gillis, the StFX Athletic Department, and StFX University have made a severe error in judgment.

“Together, they have eviscerated a well-established, cost-effective, regional track and field powerhouse. “They have chosen to kill a team and a culture that has always sought to make the most out of what has been given to them,” they said. “Also, they have severely underestimated the ramifications and long-term reputational impact on StFX, and its historic athletics program.”

In the opinion of the Speed-Power athletes, the solution devised by StFX Athletics and Gillis shows a distinct lack of creativity, engagement, willingness and ambition to find a viable solution to sustaining the program.

“These factors have resulted in every current and former Speed-Power athlete feeling abandoned and deeply hurt,” they said. “As an event group, we look to the Athletic Department and question the decision to overwhelm a new varsity coach beyond his expertise.”

Further, they fail to see appropriate supports in place to maintain a program that has succeeded despite the odds. They said the situation is unfair to Gillis, and it is also a complete disservice to the athletes, bordering on negligence.

“We expect much more from StFX University, and we demand an alternative solution designed to maintain and support a proud, loyal, and passionate group of athletes who have represented StFX so well for so long.”

A petition has been created to help reinstate the StFX Speed-Power events which already has 3,553 signatures. They ask that those reading, whether they be affiliated or not with StFX University, StFX Athletics, or the StFX Track and Field team, sign the petition at: https://www.change.org/p/stfx-athletics-reinstate-stfx-speed-power-track-and-field-events.