By Sinead Mulhern and Alex Chippin
Julie-Anne Staehli runs with the top pack. The small group in the lead closes in on the finish of the 3,000-metre race. With 300 metres left, Staehli starts to break away. With 200 metres left, she starts to kick. For most, the final strides would be painful and exhausting, but months of training at Queen’s University pushes her to the end. She wins gold with a 9:32.91 finish time.
This was the first year that the 20-year-old track star competed in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) 3,000-metre championships, which took place in March. Before the race, her coach Steve Boyd advised her, “You have to be right up there. Just trust your instincts.”
Two weeks later, Staehli and her teammate, Victoria Coates, head to Entebbe, Uganda for the International University Sports Federation (FISU) World University Cross Country Championships. Staehli comes in seventh, Coates in 14th, less than a minute behind. With the third best combined score, the Canadian team brings home bronze. This is high-level competition. It’s no wonder Staehli was heavily sought after by American schools when she was in high school.
Colleges and universities in the United States are constantly nabbing Canadian talent and developing their skills away from home. Staehli opted to stay behind.
“I knew I did want to stay in Ontario,” says the Lucknow, Ont., native, adding that she wasn’t fully knowledgeable of the American collegiate system. “I guess I ruled out the States as an option altogether.”
After visiting the Queen’s campus, the second-year arts and science student felt comfortable with the school, and its track team, and she accepted its offer of admission. Queen’s gave Staehli a bursary for her first year and she will continue to receive it as long as she maintains her grades.
For a student athlete to obtain an athletic scholarship upon entry into the first year of a study in Canada, he or she must have a minimum 80 per cent average from high school. After that, student athletes must maintain a 65 per cent average (70 per cent in Ontario, per Ontario University Athletics policy). Athletes cannot receive more than the cost of their tuition and the compulsory student fees.
That leaves a lot of expenses unpaid for, and that’s where the U.S. swoops in. In America, schools offer full-ride athletic scholarships that cover tuition, board, food and more.
In recent years, young Canadians like Andrew Wiggins, a men’s basketball player, and Jonelle Filigno, a women’s soccer player, have taken the collegiate sports world by storm. However, they have headed south to make their marks, rather than staying local.
Ryerson director of athletics Ivan Joseph says there is only so much Canada can do to keep their top talent in this country. He has studied why Canadians are so eager to go to the U.S., and says it comes down to more than money.
“They (are) going for the level of the coach, the ESPN contract, the March Madness, the weight room, the facilities,” Joseph says. “The ones that were choosing to stay here were staying for academics.”
Current Ryerson student Kadeem Green was one of those athletes lured by the appeal of the States. He got a full scholarship to play basketball at the University of Missouri, a well-regarded National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I program. “Honestly, I was young and I thought that there would be a lot more opportunities in America than in Canada,” he says. “I thought that the only way I could probably play professional basketball, whether that’s overseas or in the NBA or whatever, is by playing basketball in the United States.”
He returned to Canada after recognizing the importance of education and a greater opportunity to showcase his skills in Ryerson’s basketball program under Coach Roy Rana, with whom Green had a strong relationship.
Upon returning, Green realized that Ryerson has many of the ingredients that American schools use to recruit Canadian athletes.
“We definitely have the facility that’s comparable – probably even better – than some Division I schools in the States,” he says.
Ryerson can offer athletes a similar package as American programs, if not more, Joseph says.
“We’ve got full-time coaches, full-time strength and conditioning, sports science, sports nutrition, athletic therapy,” he says. “This facility, (the Mattamy Athletic Centre,) is as good as any NCAA Division I facility. The most important thing is if you look at our academic programs and the reputation of our institution, it’s second to none.”
Choosing a school is also partially about where it will lead an athlete. “A lot of guys in the CIS have the same opportunities that guys have in the NCAA to go play professionally overseas or in Canada or wherever,” says Green.
He gives playing in Canada positive reviews. However, Green, and many others, may have never left Canada in the first place if given an opportunity to receive a full athletic scholarship.
“I wanted to stay but I really didn’t think I wanted to go into debt, you know?” says Mariah Nunes, who played at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey for a year and a half after winning back-to-back female athlete of the year awards in high school. “Just being able to have a full athletic scholarship that paid for books, residence, everything — I didn’t have to worry about anything in America.”
Canada has the talent — the country boasts athletes like Staehli, Coates, Green and Nunes. There are also reputable schools with athletic facilities that match. Joseph thinks Canada needs to do a better job at marketing this talent. He says Canada missed an opportunity to capitalize on the University of Western Ontario’s Vaughn Martin, who was drafted into the National Football League in 2009 in the fourth round. Increased fan and alumni engagement can also raise buzz in Canada for university athletics, according to Joseph.
Staehli says Queen’s University is doing this right. “Queen’s does an exceptional job of supporting athletes and making us recognized on campus,” she says. Before heading off to Uganda, Staehli and Coates pose for a photo shoot wearing Queen’s singlets, the school’s flag draped over their shoulders. Even before leaving to place third in the world, they feel at home on a Canadian university team.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on April 9, 2014.