By John Matisz
Training is over and London Legion Track and Field Alliance’s cross-country athletes are ready to head home for dinner. But, not so fast – head coach Bud Willis isn’t done yet; he has one last task to see out.
“All right guys, we have plenty of new faces here today,” he began. “Let’s make them feel welcomed. Go give a high-five and introduce yourself to 15 others.”
It’s a warm Monday in August and Willis, a 63-year-old retired elementary teacher, is finishing up his duties as the proud head coach of a clan of young, enthusiastic athletes.
A veteran of over 40 marathons as well as dozens upon dozens of other competitive long-distance races, Willis manages to remember one of the reasons why he still remains apart of the running culture.
“I trained for my first marathon all by myself,” he explained. “It was beyond tough and I told myself I’d never let someone do the same.”
It helps, too, that his obligations as a cross-country coach enables him to channel any leftover teaching energy towards the sport he loves.
“I want to stay involved in youth racing. It combines my two passions of teaching young kids and being around running,” said the once-YMCA instructor. "I’m just totally excited because the (young runners) enjoy it,” he said, “and not because their parents are making them do it.”
Another constituent of London Legion, Joe Ryder, seems to feel the same way.
“We’re an alliance,” said Ryder, who handles the business side of things for the club. “There’s the athlete, then the coach, then the (athlete’s) family. It all together makes the club what it is.”
A trio of runners practicing their strides nearby have particularly excelled under Willis’ nurturing wing.
In 2010, 13-year-old Nicholas Fournie captured gold at the prestigious Hershey North American Championships in the 400-meter race in the 11 to 12-year-old division.
The soon-to-be Grade 8 student traveled to the Pennsylvania event on edge but left with first-place honours.
“As soon as the gun goes, your nerves leave,” he recalled. “Even though I won, it was a huge accomplishment just to get there.”
Earlier this month, two other London Legion athletes participated in the annual Hershey event that calls upon only the finest runners in North America.
Camryn Steckel obtained gold in the 800-meter race for 11 to 12-year-old females while Charlotte Prouse nabbed a silver medal in the 1600-meter 13 to 14-year-old race.
The threesome act as collective leaders of the elementary school group Willis monitors.
“They are ambassadors for us,” said Willis, a mentor to them all. “Charlotte has progressed tremendously. She is calm under pressure and is really starting to think about all the factors that go into running a good race.”
While Willis calls his head coaching gig a “retirement hobby,” the roughly 50 eager athletes are merely beginning their running careers.
“It helps improve your confidence and you meet all these new friends,” Prouse said. “People don’t realize running has a lot to do with form, strategy and skill. It’s underrated."
Come Oct. 29, London Legion will play host to a smorgasbord of talent. Using facilities at Fanshawe Lake, the club will put on the Minor Track Association Cross Country Championship for the first time in its existence.