HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
Cross-country running champions aren’t made like this anymore.
When Kiana Gibson was a young girl, she would shadow her dad Geordie on his regular training runs. She would ride her bicycle and be responsible for carrying the all-important Gatorade bottle.
In high school, she played as many sports as she could – field hockey, swimming, soccer, ultimate frisbee, badminton and cross-country skiing – as well as equestrian riding and gymnastics in the community. Somehow, the student and athletic council member and dancer in school plays also found time for cross-country running and track and field, with her dad as a high school teacher/coach at Merivale.
In the fall, she was dedicated to cross-country running for the Marauders only and had no interest in joining a community club. She qualified for the OFSAA provincial championships, but her results were usually well down the list of names.
As for track and field, Gibson focused on the 400-metre hurdles, making the girls’ senior final in her Grade 12 year, and the steeplechase.
When she enrolled at the University of Guelph, the athletic Gibson decided to concentrate on only one sport and that would be cross-country running. It was a bold move as the Gryphons have been a national powerhouse in that sport for two decades and the coaching staff recruits the best available runners for its squad.
Gibson was essentially a free agent without recruiters sending her emails or offering attractive school packages. She was a walk-on in her first year in 2017, but ready to rub shoulders with the Gryphons’ best and get her legs muddied in the process.
In her first two years, Gibson learned as much as she could about the ins and outs of cross-country running and didn’t wear a Gryphons’ singlet in a single race.
By her third year in 2019, she had adapted to the sport and built up her mileage before being declared a Gryphon racer. She didn’t let herself or her team down at the 2019 OUA championships, placing a surprising 10th in the women’s race.
She was developing confidence and momentum for her fourth year, until the COVID-19 pandemic entirely erased the 2020 season. As a fifth-year arts and sciences student with specializations in nutrition and nutraceutical sciences as well as international development, she didn’t quit. She maintained a regular training schedule throughout these troubled times and has been highly rewarded for her dedication.
“I was super pumped this year. I didn’t know what to expect,” Gibson said in a phone interview this week.
No one would have expected to see what she accomplished on the OUA women’s cross-country running circuit this fall given her lengthy approach to the start line.
Meet Kiana Gibson, a champion runner, three times over this season, and nine years in the making. And her season isn’t complete yet.
On the heels of placing second at the London Western Invitational race and winning the Waterloo Don Mills Open and McMaster Bayfront Open races, Gibson emerged the dominant force and women’s champion at her second OUA championship.
By scoring a seven-second victory over teammate Olivia Roussel, she helped the Gryphons record an unprecedented team score of 19 placement points to win their 18th women’s team title and first championship since 2016. Individually, Gibson was named the OUA women’s cross-country running MVP and a first-team all-star.
The Gryphons’ top five runners finished first, second, fourth, fifth and seventh for a total of 19 points, an OUA team scoring record.
“I knew I’d be in the front pack. There were a lot of strong girls, especially my teammates, who kick my butt at practice. But I had a solid race plan and prepared well,” Gibson said about the 8,000-metre race.
“I wanted to give a good effort. We had a race plan (as a team). You trust your training over the past few months and it came together. Two-thirds of the way through, I made a break. I was able to make a move, went for it and held on.”
What made her individual and team victory even more exhilarating was she had the on-site support of her three siblings, who travelled to the race at the Thames Valley Golf Club in London – older brother Tyrus, who attends Western in London; younger sister Tassanie, who is at the University of Guelph, and younger brother Bennett, a University of Ottawa student, who travelled by train.
“The OUA championship was a really special race for me because my three siblings were out for it,” she added. “We also have a new coaching staff. I was running with the girls, after a year of lonely workouts and we set a team scoring record.”
Gibson’s parents, Geordie and mother Lara Bremner, would have attended the race as well except they live in Nicaragua.
“I’ve had quite the transition from high school,” Gibson reflected. “I didn’t join a (running) club. I only ran in high school. My dad coached me in high school. That’s how I got into it. I did run and work out with him later.
“I was really inspired by him. I saw how hard he worked as a teacher and drove us to all our practices. And then he found time to run.”
When Gibson entered the University of Guelph, she knew it was going to be a long, learning process as a runner.
“I was definitely out of place,” Gibson said. “Honestly, I came into the program fresh-eyed and open-minded. But that helped prevent me from burn out.
“I was lucky to be given an opportunity to be on the team in my first year. Most of the kids on the team are OFSAA champions and club cross-country runners for years. I haven’t been. My first year was an opportunity to see if I could handle it. It’s really a progression.
“As you go through the program, you slowly let your body adjust to the miles. You add miles and get used to the mileage. As I handled it more, I was bumped up to longer races. In my third year, I was able to give (university) cross-country a shot.”
In her fifth year at Guelph, Gibson can look at the new runners joining the team and vividly remember those trying days for herself.
“You learn to adapt to the training and make it work for your own body,” she said. “It was so new – learning about training, the style of training, how much effort to give and how to recover.
“You really have to understand it’s a process. I didn’t expect to be the best in my first year. I tried to absorb the info from the girls in the upper years and how to manage (academic) classes. I tried to be a sponge and make it through school and sports and progress every year.”
Besides growing into a champion cross-country running, Gibson also finds time to be a champion in several social fields, following the lead of her mother, who worked for the federal government in foreign affairs.
During her first year at the University of Guelph, Gibson worked as an English camp counsellor in the poor, rural areas of Taiwan, where children lacked access to proper nutritious food.
She co-founded MealCare Guelph to help people in her own community. Her group took leftover food from the campus dining halls to the Student Food Bank and homeless shelters. This initiative also diverted 14,000 pounds of food from landfill sites.
Those two experiences led her to participate in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of ‘Zero Hunger’ program. When she visited her parents two years ago in Nicaragua, she became a volunteer with Workaway, after seeing a low-income village where people “lived in shocking poverty.”
“It’s a big part of my life. I’m trying to be a good citizen, doing things that you care about to benefit others,” she said.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 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 “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 email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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