By Kieran Heffernan
Glenroy Gilbert was not always a sprinter. He was not even always a track and field athlete. In fact, as a child, he was a soccer player.
“One year I made a (soccer) team. It was a regional team to go off and play somewhere, and they canceled it last minute for reasons I don’t even remember,” said Gilbert, who is partly responsible for one of Canada’s greatest Olympic moments.
“It’s been that long; but from there I was so disappointed with it, I just stopped playing soccer,” explained the 1996 Summer Games gold medallist.
This August marks 25 years since Gilbert, who was raised in Ottawa, Donovan Bailey, Robert Esmie and Bruny Surin famously defeated the Americans in the 4x100m relay at the Atlanta Olympics.
While reflecting on his career more recently, Gilbert gives credit to his Grade 8 teacher at Pinecrest Public School, Glenn Munro, for encouraging him to try track and field and eventually join the Ottawa Lions. There, he started out as a long and triple jumper.
“I was told by one of the coaches — and they were absolutely right — I just wasn’t fast enough,” Gilbert said. “I was fast on the soccer field, but I wasn’t track-and-field fast.”
It wasn’t until he got hurt during college, while attending Louisiana State University, that Gilbert switched to the 100m and 200m events.
The victory in Atlanta over an American team that had a home-turf advantage, were historically dominant in sprinting, and were backed by a narrative pushed state-side that touted them as guaranteed champions changed Gilbert’s life in countless ways.
“The biggest one for me is being in the position I’m in now: to be able to contribute years of knowledge, not just as an athlete but now as a coach to a lot of the young up-and-coming athletes and coaches in our sport,” said Gilbert, who is the head coach of Canada’s track and field team.
However, even if he had not won that gold medal, Gilbert said he likely would have eventually turned to coaching.
“I was really interested in the whole performance side of things, even in my own self, figuring out how I could eke out a little bit more from myself,” he explained.
“I used to always kind of study, go a little deeper as an athlete because I needed to find the nuances, the things that are going to make you better than the next guy.”
This attitude made coaching seem like a natural choice, and Gilbert was already coaching some younger athletes before he retired, but the win in Atlanta opened doors to learning from some of the best. He was an apprentice coach for Athletics Canada to both Molly Killingbeck, the long-time national team coach who held the position in 1996, and former Athletics Canada head coach Alex Gardiner.
Around the same time, Gilbert also started volunteer coaching for the Ottawa Lions, mostly with older athletes.
“It gives you an opportunity to apply what it is you think you know to athletes who everyone else has worked with,” he said. “You got a chance now to see if you could edge out a little bit more from these older athletes who were just maybe a couple of years or so away from retirement.”
Gilbert’s been Athletics Canada’s head coach since 2017. As well as enjoying the opportunity to pass on what he’s learned over the years, he said his being in this position can encourage more diversity in the organization.
“Former athletes, or athletes that are in there now, can look to track and field and look to athletics as maybe (where) there’s a career opportunity for them … (because) they can see that Athletics Canada has a Black head coach,” Gilbert said.
After retiring from sprinting in 2001, Gilbert worked as a journalist for a year — another opportunity opened up to him thanks to his historic success on the track. Miriam Fry, who was the program director with CBC Radio at the time, offered him a position as a community reporter.
“She’d listened to some of the interviews that I’d done and really thought that I would bring something to that position, if given the opportunity,” Gilbert said. “I do like to talk to people, I do like to hear people’s stories.”
“Even though I only did it for a year, I had a blast doing it because I met some of the most amazing people: from athletes, to former military people, to an 80-year-old belly dancer.”
His work at CBC made Gilbert realize the similarities between reporting and being an athlete.
“When I started, I thought it’d be pretty straightforward and easy,” he said. “But it’s not. Just like anything. People can look at athletes doing their craft and say, ‘well that looks pretty straightforward,’ but then when you get into it, you start realizing more and more. To be really good requires all the same things of perseverance, dedication, research, hard work, (and) understanding what you’re talking about.”
Just as his job as a reporter involved telling peoples stories, Gilbert, as a coach, tries to remember that there’s also a story behind every athlete. This is especially pertinent given the struggles the past year and a half has brought.
“I’m not just simply about the performance,” he said. “So when you see someone arrive at a Games or on a podium somewhere, there is a backstory to it, and you always have to be cognizant of that and handle the athletes, and the coaches, with respect and dignity.”