By John MacKinnon for Athletics Canada
At a cursory glance, you might think Glenroy Gilbert is slightly out of position as the interim head coach for Canada’s national track and field team in 2017.
After all, this is the first seasonal leg of a four-year journey to the next Olympic Games, in Tokyo in 2020. Gilbert attained fame as the second man on Canada’s 4x100-metre relay team that won gold at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, as well as at the ’95 and ’97 IAAF World Championships in Athletics.
In Atlanta, Gilbert took the baton from leadoff runner Robert Esmie and handed off to Bruny Surin, who delivered it to anchor Donovan Bailey, then the world record holder in the 100 metres.
Less than a year following Rio, where Canada won six medals in track and field, Gilbert, who turns 50 on Aug. 31, was given the mandate to lead the Canadian team to the 2017 IAAF World’s in London from Aug. 4-13.
Canada’s team, which showed flickers of promise at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, when Derek Drouin won bronze in the men’s high jump and Canada’s then-unheralded 4x100-metre relay team demonstrated quality by winning a bronze in their event, only to be disqualified for a lane violation.
Three years later in Beijing at the IAAF World’s Canada won a record eight medals, including two golds -- in high jump for Drouin and in pole vault for Shawnacy Barber. By winning six medals at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, Canada underscored its legitimacy as a factor in international track and field.
For three years, including the Rio Games, Peter Eriksson was Canada’s head coach, a role that requires a delicate balancing act between elite and development athletes, between the team concept at major competitions and the individual pathways to excellence chosen by each athlete in conjunction with his personal coach.
Sustaining that equilibrium proved problematic for Eriksson, who parted ways with Athletics Canada on Dec. 8. On May 19, Gilbert was named to take on the interim head coach role through the 2017 World’s in London.
If there is a downside to inheriting the mantle of head coach of a talented young team like Canada, Gilbert certainly is not focusing on it, interim head coach or not.
“Obviously, inheriting something like this for the world championships, in terms of athletes that have been performing so well, I think is definitely a unique experience,” Gilbert said. “I don’t necessarily see it as a double-edged sword, I just see it as an opportunity, hopefully, to continue where we were in Rio.”
Where they were was on the rise in the intensely competitive arena of worldwide athletics. Drouin won another gold in high jump; Damian Warner won bronze in the decathlon andhepthathlete Brianne Theisen-Eaton was bronze in her multi-event discipline. Andre De Grasse won a dramatic bronze in the 100 metres, ran to silver in the 200 metres and helped Canada win bronze in the 4x100-metre relay.
Melissa Bishop, in the 800 metres, and Mohammed Ahmed, in the 5,000 metres, both fashioned fourth-place finishes that showed promise. The women’s 4x400-metre relay team placed fourth, as well.
Canada’s team comprises a diverse portfolio of assets, including medal contenders in high jump, pole vault, individual sprints, sprint relays, middle- and long-distance runners and a podium contender in decathlon in Damian Warner.
Fittingly, Gilbert brings deep and varied experience to his role as head coach.
Gilbert, a gifted soccer player who turned to track and field as a teenager because “there was nowhere for me to go,” in Canada’s less well-developed grassroots soccer system in the 1980s.
Having watched the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, the showcase for U.S. sprinter/long jumper Carl Lewis, Gilbert became a fan of the flamboyant American star.
Thus did Gilbert enter the world of athletics as a long jumper, not a sprinter.
“They told me I wasn’t fast enough to sprint, anyways,” Gilbert said. “Long jumping seemed to fit.”
He was good enough at long jump to qualify for the Canadian team that competed at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea, even if his performance in that discipline was perfunctory. He finished 22nd. Surin, who would become one of his golden relay partners just a few years later, was 15th in long jump that Olympics.
Along with the relay success he would become well-known for, Gilbert deployed his size, speed and power as a pusher on two- and four-man bobsleigh teams piloted by Chris Lori at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.
In 1996, Gilbert found himself in Santa Clara, Calif., catching passes from quarterback Elvis Grbac at a three-day personal tryout for the San Francisco 49ers.
“I am not afraid to take chances,” Gilbert said. “I am not afraid to give myself an opportunity. Because you never know, you never know what’s around that corner.
“You never know if don’t go look.”
Having injured a hand catching passes coming at “breakneck speed” from Grbac, Gilbert returned to his training group in Austin, Tex., under coach Dan Pfaff, and got on with the business of sprinting.
Relay glory lay ahead of him, but Gilbert had begun to think about transitioning to coaching at some point when he was still training at Louisiana State University, his alma mater.
“I liked the impact a coach could make on an athlete and on performance,” Gilbert said, who worked with football and baseball players who “wanted to get faster.”
“I’ve taken all of my experiences as an active athlete and put it into my toolbox. It’s taught me how to manage situations with athletes.
“I understand what the athletes (go through) uniquely, because I’ve been there. I understand their hopes and dreams and all the different aspects of being an athlete and how coaches can best support those athletes.”
Gilbert started out as a volunteer coach with the Ottawa Lions Track Club after he retired as an athlete in 2001.
About a year later, Alex Gardiner, who was head coach of Athletics Canada at the time, offered him a small contract to work with relays.
“It pretty much took off from there,” Gilbert said.
That opportunity evolved into a regular gig coaching Canada’s relay teams for Gilbert, with the exception of a two-year hiatus to work as a high-performance consultant with the Canadian Paralympic Committee from 2013-2015.
Over the years, as the Canadian system provided Gilbert the relay coach with serviceable talent but no star power, he remained the link to the mid-1990s excellence, a fount of knowledge about what goes into relay success.
Canada’s men’s 4x100 team delivered a bittersweet soupcon of possibility at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
It was there that a team of Jared Connaughton, Justyn Warner, Gavin Smellie and Oluseyi Smith felt the elation of winning a bronze medal melt into heartbreak in an instant when a lane violation on the third leg led to disqualification.
Did that performance, bittersweet as it was, still validate Gilbert’s process?
“I looked at it as vindication, for sure,” Gilbert said. “It demonstrated to the athletes in the relay team that, yes, speed is very important, but also camps, competitions, coming together as a group, there is a lot more elements that go into building a program, building a team that can be successful at the Olympic Games or the World Championships. Speed is just one component.”
“What London demonstrated was that, despite the fact that we had that lane violation, these guys are onto something.”
It’s possible that the current men’s relay team, led by the 22-year-old De Grasse, could roll through another one or two Olympic cycles. But the savvy Gilbert knows that things can change in an eye blink in track and field.
“If we look at what happened in London, none of those guys that we saw (there) were in Rio, four years later,” Gilbert said. “So, there’s a very real possibility that by Tokyo (2020), 50 per cent of the guys aren’t there anymore.
“That’s how fast the sprints turn around. We can’t sit back and rest on our success. You have to have continuity and you have to have a succession plan for the athletes.
“What’s that next wave going to look like. I’m always thinking about trying to coach those athletes up, making sure that they have camps and competition and an understanding of the (elite) program, so when we do have to move them to the next level, it’s seamless.”
Having grasped the baton as Canada’s head man, Gilbert is keenly aware of the potential opportunity to lead the resurgent Canadian team for an entire Olympic cycle. He’s also aware that in a performance-based sport, a person will endure – whether athlete or coach – so long as he or she produces results
“Look, we’re past the days of Participation (in Canada),” Gilbert said. “We’ve been put on the map by some very talented athletes and what we’re trying to do is continue that for as long as we can. But the focus has to be on what we’re trying to do in London, which is to win more medals.:
“Oh, yeah. If I look down the road, it (full-time head coach) is definitely something that I’m interested in doing. I feel equipped to do it with my past experiences as both an athlete and coach. That hasn’t been lost on me at all.
“But it really is a matter of taking the steps necessary.”
One step, one leg at a time. The wisdom of a relay man.
Glenroy Gilbert will be inducted to Athletics Canada’s Hall of Fame July 5 in Ottawa as part of the Annual Awards and Hall of Fame Gala.
Annual Award winners include Andre De Grasse, Derek Drouin, Alister McQueen, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, Michelle Stilwell, Evan Dunfee, Brittany Crew, Robert Heppenstall, Xahria Santiago, Stuart McMillan, Tony Sharpe as well as Hall of Fame Inductees Jillian Richardson-Briscoe, Thelma Wright, Judy Armstrong, Andy McInnes and Peter Manning. Tickets to rub shoulders with these greats are only $25, for ticket and event info visit https://achof2017.eventbrite.ca/.