Solutions to an Age-Old Problem

Should over-aged athletes get to run in U SPORTS?

By: Alex Cyr

Wait, does writing a column about U SPORTS burn a year of cross-country eligibility? No? Ok. Let’s proceed.

There are three teams in the nation who, in my mind and on paper, are serious gold-medal winning threats: the Queen’s women, the Laval women, and the Calgary men. Here is the rounded average age of each team’s projected top five scorers:

Queen’s women: 20 years

Laval women: 23 years

Calgary men: 24 years

Reference point: a typical fourth-year athlete in 2019 is born in 1998 (yuck) and is 21 years old.

There seem to be two ways to build a championship U SPORTS team.

1) Outperforming everyone in recruiting: this is why Queen’s is already so strong at 20 years old. They have loads of talent to play with. Kind of like what happened in Guelph in the early 2010s (see Proudfoot, Woodfine, Hendrikx, Seccafien, Lalonde, Thompson et al.)

Having a stranglehold on the incoming recruiting class year after year, however, is hard to do. So other teams have fallen into the practice of building dynasties in a different way. Option two:

2) Keeping people around: The current men’s favourites are on average three years older than the rest of U SPORTS. The Laval women, two years. In your early twenties, that’s an eternity.

If you can’t beat them in recruiting, beat them with experience. That could have been the University of Victoria men’s motto when they ended Guelph’s nine-year winning streak in 2015. The Vikes’ average age? 23. Who won the men’s title the year after? Laval. Average age? 25.

Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling
2016 U SPORTS champions, Le Rouge et Or d’Université Laval. Average age of scorers: 25.
Photo: Emmanuel Boisvert, Facebook.

I am not the first one to observe a correlation between age and U SPORTS success –it’s a topic of contention among many athletes and teams that has picked up some steam on the Trackie message boards as of late. Perhaps it’s because part of the beauty of this league is that it almost exclusively consists of 18 to 23-year-olds, all trying to figure out training, mileage, courses, life. When an experienced runner comes back to rock the cradle, it can feel like they are cheating the system. It doesn’t seem fair.

In 2017, four-minute miler and 29-year-old Dan Gorman decided to use his final year of eligibility with the Dalhousie Tigers. Frustrations exploded in the AUS. Well, at least amidst the St. FX team. Well, at least amidst me. Hey, it was my year. I was a true senior. I was 21 and my voice was changing. I was going to win the 1,500m, finally. I didn’t want to have to face the fire-breathing dragon who had burned the X- Men of yore, year after year. He wasn’t supposed to be back. But yet, there he was (this isn’t meant to be a shot at Gorman – he was a gracious competitor.)

More recently, accomplished 10,000m runner Matt Travaglini is back in school this year at 26 to join an already-stacked Dinos team. Already, the forums are boiling.

“What’s he doing back?”

“These runners could be your KIDS, Trav!”

“How’s Nick Willis doing? Get it? Cause he’s old and YOU’RE old!”

And it’s not just Trav and Gorman who competed as older athletes. Recently, there were medical students and eventual All-Canadians Erik Widing of Saskatchewan (28) and Melissa Jones of Calgary (26), nearly EVERY CURRENT SPRINTER on Guelph’s track team (it’s getting ridiculous) and don’t get me started about Sasha Gollish – just kidding, I actually stand with her and others in her position (keep reading.)

There are no age restrictions in the U SPORTS cross-country circuit - one simply needs to be enrolled in a minimum of three courses to compete. I think the latter is problematic, and here is why: paltry academic requirements allow for athletes well into their twenties and thirties to enrol in three BS courses just to be eligible to compete, all while carrying on with their adult lives.

That is not the same as somebody competing at an older age because they are still in school full-time, pursuing a legitimate education for the betterment of their career. To me, that’s fine. That’s why I can’t knock Gollish, for the record - she competed while getting her Ph. D in engineering at the University of Toronto.

Gollish’s tweet soon after winning the individual title at the 2017 U SPORTS XC championship. She was 35.

Here’s how you fix the problem, U SPORTS: change eligibility rules. Bump up the class requirements from three to five. We student-athletes constantly boast about mastering time-management and being high-performing individuals and being the bees knees, so let’s show it by elevating our academic red line. Going from a minimum of three classes to five would leave the league open to all student-athletes, while protecting it from being hijacked by mature athlete-students.

Let me close with a pledge. I have two years of eligibility left. I am 24. If you catch me using them while taking any less than five classes, burn my spikes.

Alex Cyr is a U SPORTS alumnus who lives and studies in Toronto, where he specializes in journalism and glute exercises. He is the author of Runners of the Nish and he likes to tell people he runs the mile in 4:05. One day, he will shut everybody up and run a marathon, dang it.