Para athletics are back on track for the 2020 high school provincial championships thanks to the efforts of members of the North Shore track and field community.
Para events for student athletes with physical disabilities had been on the schedule at the B.C. high school track and field championships every year since 2015, but before the 2019 season began the BC High School Track & Field Association voted to eliminate the events from this year’s championships, citing a lack of participation. The move didn’t sit well with members of the North Shore track and field community, many of whom have been working for several years to enlist and encourage para athletes to participate in the sport.
Rachael Watkins, a Grade 9 student at West Vancouver Secondary, started an online petition asking for the reinstatement of para events at the provincial championships, with more than 600 people signing the petition to date. Watkins was inspired to take action when she found out her West Van teammate Ges Bushe, an avid runner who has competed in several previous track and field and cross-country running provincials, would be excluded from this year’s B.C. championships.
Armed with the petition and several letters from para athletic supporters, West Van Secondary track and field coach Leslie Buchanan presented a motion at the association’s annual general meeting, asking for para events to be reinstated for 2020. The meeting was held May 31, late on a Friday night after a long day in the hot Kelowna sun at the 2019 high school provincial championships. The motion passed, but barely. The final vote was 22-21 in favour.
“I wasn’t expecting it to be close,” said Buchanan. “I was very nervous when I saw all the hands going up. I just thought it was going to be so obvious, but it wasn’t.”
Buchanan gave credit to the young athletes who took up the cause, saying that the motion quite likely would have failed if not for the petition and support presented by students who came to the defence of their teammates.
“We probably owe the fact that it passed to those kids,” she said. “It was great to see the next generation be so supportive of it. It certainly gave me the energy and the impetus to be able to stand up and present the motion, because I knew that they were the voice of reason. If they could see the good in it, then surely the adults could. That really warmed my heart.”
There’s more work to be done for Buchanan, however, as she was immediately tasked with heading up an effort to increase awareness and participation for para athletes across the province. In 2020 the provincial championships will include 100-metre and 400-m races as well as shot put for para athletes, and Buchanan is hoping to have a full contingent of athletes for each event. She’s already enlisted the help of local para athletics advocates as well as governing bodies such as Athletics Canada and BC Athletics.
“We just want to fill those lanes and get athletes to try track and field and find out what it’s all about and have a good experience,” she said, adding that she’ll be there to help coaches get over any concerns they might have about introducing para athletics to their teams.
“With our para athletes, we just treat them the same as everybody else,” she said. “There’s a little bit of different technique work that we would work on, but nothing that an educator wouldn’t understand or know.”
Buchanan also acknowledged the support that has come from across the North Shore’s tight-knit track and field community, noting several recent efforts to get new tracks built on the North Shore, as well as a recent 100-kilometre run completed by Handsworth head coach Ryne Melcher.
“We’re all in it together,” she said. “I think we support each other in whatever we want to do, whether it’s to try to get the track resurfaced at West Van or at Handsworth, or supporting Ryne in his 100-km run, or Ges to compete. I do think we are a strong community and we support each other in whatever way we can.”