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  • Writer's pictureESSEX FREE PRESS

The road to Tokyo 2021: Five years in the making

- 28-year-old Cottam Native, Kelsey Balkwill,

looking to make Canadian Olympic track team

Photos courtesy of Athletics Canada: Balkwill runs during the 2018 IAAF World Indoor Championships, held in Birmingham, England. The 400-metre runner place 19th in that competition. She is optimistic heading into the summer as she trains at LSU in Louisiana.

by Garrett Fodor

Kelsey Balkwill’s message to aspiring athletes is simple: “Do it because you love it,” and everything else will follow. It is the same saying by which the 28-year-old Cottam native lives.

  As the 400-metre hurdler prepares to qualify and earn a spot on the Canadian Olympic team, she reflects on ups and downs, she has been through. Balkwill recalls she was first introduced to track when she was a grade seven student at Gosfield North Public School.

  Looking back onto her career thus far, she recognizes the support system she had when she was first introduced into the sport. She credits her former Gosfield North Public School Vice Principal and teacher, Frank Mazzara, and her long-time neighbour, Izzy Oozer, for showing her the fun in it, so early. The following year, in grade eight, Balkwill continued to progress in track. She joined the summer track program before she began her secondary studies at Essex District High School.

  “Frank was the first person to really show me and tell me how I was talented and that I could do this more and really got me to love track,” Balkwill recalled. “I was this scrawny, little straggly long-legged kid running around, having so much fun having no pressure of if I win this race, or if I don’t, or if I run this time or anything like that. It was just pure. I love going out here and running, whether I run fast or slow, it has no impact on my love for track. I love what I’m doing.”

  Balkwill said her love of track kept bringing her back to the sport. Like many growing up, she had times where she quit and took a break to focus on other activities, including basketball. It was not until grade 12 did Balkwill really began to fall back in love with track and began to solely focus on the sport again.

  After returning to track full-time, Balkwill received a full-ride scholarship offer to the University of Miami in 2011. Being a hurdler with a chance to race more competitively, she jumped at the opportunity. After four-years, in 2015, she graduated the program.

  Since graduating, Balkwill has used her experience, and the advice she has received throughout the years, to encourage the next generation of athletes. Since 2013, Balkwill has served as a coach at Border City Athletics Club. Since 2019, she has been a powerlifting coach at Elite Training Systems (ETS) Windsor, where she works with this region’s next generation of elite talent, along with local NHL players.

  While coaching, she worked to get her Masters in Sport Physiology at the University of Windsor, which she obtained in 2020.

  “I think that there’s a lot of stigma around females in the weight room, but then they see me lifting or coaching and they see what they can do,” Balkwill said. “I think that being a female, it gives girls just another outlet where they can ask questions, they can feel comfortable speaking about a wide-range of topics, and it may be a little bit more awkward for them if it was a male coach.”

  Balkwill said in the last few years, the University of Windsor and ETS have helped put Windsor-Essex on the map for developing athletes and allowing high-level athletes a spot to train. She is excited to see the potential for the next generations to come out of the region. While she knows her on-track career cannot last forever, she admits she is more excited to see her young athletes’ success and their stories.

  “I think that everyone always wants to see a role model, they always want to see someone like maybe I can do that, too,” Balkwill said. “I’m from Cottam and still live there. I went to Gosfield North and EDHS and I managed to get an NCAA Division I scholarship. To many, that seems like a reach, but if I can do it, maybe they can, too. I’m very open with my experiences, running fast, running slow, my injuries. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows and I’ve struggled immensely too, but if you have a goal, you’ll reach it and its all progress.”

  While the last 14-months have been anything but ordinary for anyone, Balkwill said she has her sights set on her goal as well. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Balkwill and her coach, Kurt Downes, have had to adapt their training. In the beginning of the pandemic, she noted that with shutdowns, they had rented out the upper portion of Sears, put track down, and she ran there. Like many athletes, Balkwill is in her final stages of training ahead of the Olympic Trials in June.

  Balkwill has been training in the US for the last month, with access to tracks, warm climate, and races that she believes will help her. 

  Whether she makes the team or not, Balkwill admits the constants in her life will be her love for track and the support system she has, which has helped her get to where she is today. She credits her late Gosfield North Public School Coach, Mazzara, for introducing her to track, and even calling and watching meets when she was in school. She also credits her family for always supporting her and allowing her to follow her dreams.

  Balkwill is also thankful for Downes, for his support and coaching, and Joey Garland, for helping create ETS and giving athletes a supportive environment. 


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