Labrecque (83) during her competitive days. PHOTO
In the words of Lisa (Ouellet) Labrecque,
"running kind of just happened".
When it happened, however, it happened
in a very big way.
The 43 year-old mother
of four recently took some time to reflect on a storied
career in both track and field and cross-country,
one which would see the middle of three girls in the
family capture OFSAA gold in the 400m, NCAA gold in
the indoor 800m, and represent Canada on two separate
occasions at the World Cross-Country Championships.
Not a bad resume for
someone who fully assumed that her post-secondary
sport of choice was likely to be basketball as she
transitioned from grade eight at Ecole Felix-Ricard
to the home of high-school hardcourt glory in Sudbury,
Lasalle Secondary School, in the early 1990s.
"Because I was very
strong in basketball and my dad taught at Lasalle,
that was just where you went," she said. Sure,
it looked like it might be ringette, at one time,
or perhaps one of several other options. "My
parents had us in everything - dance, gymnastics,
figure skating, ringette, school sports."
"And swimming was
non-negotiable; we had a cottage and that's a life
skill. Just like my kids, they need to know how to
The first glimmer of
cross-country potential would come early in grade
nine, as Lasalle hosted one of the September season
mini-races that ran through the woods that used to
cover the area between the high-school and Cambrian
College. "I had basketball practice that day
too, and both the race and my practice were almost
at the same time," recalled Ouellet.
"So I asked (junior
girls basketball coach) Mary Collinson if I could
go run the race. I told her I would wear my basketball
shoes and be right back. It was an open girls' race
and I didn't know what I was doing. We're down to
the last kilometer and I'm in the lead with (then
city champion) Kerry McKelvie."
Legendary Lasalle running
mentor Peter Hocking would take notice. Working alongside
Lisette Bernier, the Lancer coaching tandem were the
ideal fit for Ouellet, with Dick Moss and the Track
North crew complementing the unit nicely by the time
the young phenom reached grade eleven.
"It was just a steady
progression from that first race," said Ouellet.
"It was a matter of getting proper running shoes,
proper clothing. I won cities by over a minute, same
at NOSSA, and placed eighth in my first OFSAA cross-country.
And I pretty much never trained (in grade nine). I
did it all on basketball workouts - but Mary Collinson
worked us hard."
Clearly, increased running
workouts would be required if Ouellet were to ultimately
tap into maximizing the talent that would lead her
to accept a full scholarship to join the Michigan
University Wolverines five years later. Yet coach
and athlete were in no immediate rush to get there.
"There was no pressure
running for Peter," she stated. "He stressed
gradual progression, a lot of communication - he deserves
so much credit. I look at year-round sports now, and
the pressure to do year-round sports, and I really
believe that young athletes need to step back."
training, you risk overuse injuries, athletes get
tired of the sport, they get burnt out. I really think
if I had started hammering the mileage in grade nine,
I don't think I would have had the same success."
Still, there was a mental
toughness about Ouellet, one that still permeates
her current family home. "Pierre (Labrecque -
her husband) and I are just like our kids: stubborn,
hard-headed, driven," she laughed. "They
come by it naturally."
"I hated losing."
Thankfully, the character
trait somehow remained on the positive side of the
ledger, in large part due to the upbringing she enjoyed.
"I was super lucky to have amazing parents (Jean-Paul
and Mary)," said Ouellet. "They held me
accountable, they never let me go to that side where
that much competitiveness can be a negative."
"They would not
allow me to be a poor loser."
Largely unaware of the
doors that might soon be opened, Ouellet would garner
her second OFSAA medal in 1995, one year before taking
provincial gold in the same distance. "In grade
12 (grade 13 still existed at the time), I was second
in the 800m to future Olympic finalist Carmen Douma,
and that summer, I was fourth at Canadian juniors."
"That's when the
floodgates just opened and I started getting letters
from everyone." Narrowing down to a NCAA final
four group that included Arkansas, Purdue, Rice and
Michigan, Ouellet favoured staying closer to home
and avoiding the stifling heat of the deep south of
the United States. The Wolverines also benefitted
from strong Canadian content.
"When I got my letter
from Michigan, all I could think of was Kevin Sullivan,"
she said. "He was the god of Canadian track and
field at the time."
While her five year stint
in Ann Arbour (Michigan) absolutely featured peaks
and valleys, key highlights included being part of
an NCAA record-setting medley relay team in 1998,
as well as capturing the indoor 800m at the Big Ten
championships, and earning a berth at outdoor nationals
in her final year.
Graduating in 2001 and
beginning work as a teacher in Sudbury that same fall,
Ouellet stayed clear of training for an 18 month stretch,
but in so many ways, came back stronger than ever.
"It was March break of my second year of teaching,
and I decided I just felt like I wanted to start running
again," she said.
"I ran one hundred
kilometres that first week. By that fall, I was 13th
at the national cross-country championships and qualified
for the World Championship Canadian team."
Personal best times ensued,
along with the pride of donning the maple leaf singlet
in both Belgium and France. Ouellet would come within
a whisker of reaching the national "B" standard
in the 1500m distance. But by the age of 30, it was
time to move on.
"I was OK with not
having the title of an Olympian," said Ouellet.
"I was super content of where I had gone in sport."
Even if it came in a
sport that kind of just happened.