UBC Thunderbirds cross-country coach Marek Jedrzejek is the first in the university's history to be named the national coach of the year for two different collegiate sport associations.
On Nov. 17, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) recognized him as the coach of the year after the T-birds won the women's and combined titles at the cross-country national championships held in Washington at the Fort Vancouver National History Site.
"It's a very prestigious award and I'm very pleased," he said, noting the coach of the winning team is not necessarily the one who is honoured. "In the last few years we were knocking to the door quite hard and we didn't win [the NAIA championship]. This year we won, and this is by the coaches' vote from other teams."
The T-birds, he said, "Ran a fantastic race."
UBC placed four of its five runners among the women's top 20 finishers, including Maria Bernard who ran the five-kilometer course in 17 minutes and 42 seconds to finish fifth and Jackie Regan who came eight seconds behind for sixth.
The men finished sixth overall.
In 1993, Jedrzejek, who now also coaches the T-birds track and field team, was named the Canadian Interuniversity Sport coach of the year, before UBC joined the mostly American-based NAIA. He coached the Canadian Olympic team at the 2000 Sydney Games and at six cross-country world championships as well as three world university games.
Thirty years ago, sport presented Jedrzejek, 63, with a life-altering opportunity and ever since he has been committed to athlete development and their personal success. While competing at the 1982 European Games in Athens, Greece, he defected from Poland and arrived in Canada as a refugee.
The competitive cross-country season continues Saturday, Nov. 24 with the Canadian Cross-Country Championships at Jericho Beach Park. Canadian Olympians will vie for individual and team selection to the 2013 World Cross-Country Championships set for March next spring in Poland. Jedrzejek will join the team as a coach.
Courier: What's the reason for the T-birds success this season?
Jedrzejek: In the last 10 years, twice we've been close. The competition on the top is so competitive. In a given day if we repeated the same race, say next weekend, maybe we finish second or third. It is that close. In the past, we've been third twice. Being third does not means we didn't have chance to win. We built it up, the goal to win and it worked out. We did it because, on top of that, the girls ran a fantastic race.
Courier: How is distance running on the track different from cross-country and how do you accommodate those differences as a coach?
Jedrzejek: It is quite a big difference. First of all the surface is different, in cross-country it is really truly going through, going across the country. Usually the terrain is set up so usually it is supposed to be grass, supposed to be mud, there should be hills, should be downhills. Plus, this time of the year, Jericho Beach this weekend - hoo hoo hoo! - it's going to be super muddy.
If you compare that to the track it is totally different because track is artificial, you have water drainage and basically you run. Regardless if it is wet or not, you have really good footing.
From the coaching perspective of athlete development, cross-country is a fantastic tool to develop athletes and prepare them for the track as well. You run longer distances and you just have to supply enough oxygen to the system.
The cross-country is mostly aerobic event because it's from 5k to 8k to 10k and on the track you have 800, 1,500, 3,000, you have 5,000, you have 10,000 [metres] so the length of events is different so the training aims are different. The shorter distance is more anaerobic.
Courier: You've coached elite adult and Olympic athletes. Is it more satisfying to work with junior and university athletes at a formative level?
Jedrzejek: I always, over the years, I love when the athletes progresses. When you get athletes from the high school to the university and see the progression, nothing could keep me more happy than that, at any level. It's not necessary to the elite, but even if the athlete is in a group at the lower end, but the athletes is progressing, that keeps me very happy and gives me personal satisfaction for the team and for that athlete as well.
Courier: Earlier this month, Canadian Interuniversity Sport decided men and women would race the same distance, whereas most women's races are much shorter than the men's. Is this the right change to make?
Jedrzejek: I don't think so. Maybe I am a little bit an old-fashioned coach but I am a more traditional coach and the world was for years. It should be the way we had and we have: 6k and 8k [for women and men, respectively]. I don't think there is a problem that women cannot do it - it's not like that at all.
Pushing at a young age for 10k right away is quite early in their development. Some of them could burn out too early, too soon. The decision is already done, so the time will show how this is going to be but probably you need almost a decade to assess if it's the right move or not.
Courier: International competition has played a very important role in your life, beginning in Europe 30 years ago. How did sport influence your life?
Jedrzejek: In Poland that was the time, the solidarity time and it was a very, very tough time. Those times in Eastern Europe, with all the changes when the Iron Curtain came down, that was tough. The borders were quite closed, so being involved in sports in Poland, I had the opportunity - and at that time there was martial law in Poland - to go to a competition in Greece, which was the European Track and Field Championships.
I had in mind really before I left Poland that, yes, I'm going to defect.
It was a long, long way from where I'm sitting right now in my office here. My life and what I went through, I don't regret anything. I'm happy and satisfied that my new country is Canada and I feel great here.