“Everything has changed here over the years,” cross country and track head coach Brit Townsend reflects on her time at SFU. “The facilities have changed. I would even say the students have changed, the type of students.”
Townsend has had a firsthand view of the changes over the years, having begun at SFU not as a coach, but as a student — she graduated in 1986 with a degree in communications and kinesiology.
“It was pretty small when I went here,” she continues. “It was pretty easy to get in, and now it’s one of the best in the world. It’s kind of neat to be a part of that.”
Now, as coach, she has the chance to give students the opportunities and guidance she received here as a student.
“I came from a family with no money at all,” the longtime coach explains of her humble beginnings at SFU. “The head coach at the time, Hal Warner, was watching me run at a meet and came up to me and said, ‘How would you like to come to SFU? I’ll offer you a scholarship.’”
At the time, Townsend had already committed to UBC — but the lure of a scholarship proved too much to resist, and the rest is history.
“I didn’t know anything about university. I was the first kid in our family to have gone to university, so I said sure.”
As time went on, Townshend became an established runner. At one point she held the Canadian records for seven different events, and was invited to compete for Canada in the Olympics — she suited up for the 1984 Olympics and ultimately made the team in 1988, but missed the event due to an injury.
“I feel that I’ve had a really successful career, but it’s really motivating to help others enjoy that same experience.”
She got her chance to do just that when she was named the new head coach of the cross country team in 1998. At the time she was hesitant to take the job, and was hired on an interim basis.
“I was asked to be the head coach, and I was sort of torn because I was working in real estate at the time, and I had a three-year-old and a one-year-old, but I ended up taking the job and said I would try it for six months. And now I’ve been here 17 years,” she says.
“I always wanted to coach, I just didn’t know if I wanted this kind of commitment that early,” she recalls. “But you start recruiting really good athletes, and then they become a part of your life.
Here at SFU, she pushes students to succeed both on the track and in the classroom. “I want to have a high-performance environment up here — academically and athletically — and make sure that we give every opportunity for the kids to succeed in both.”
However, the job is certainly not without its challenges. The nature of university athletics means that the team is constantly changing, and that the coach has to find new runners to fill the gaps of those who graduate or become no longer eligible.
“I find that to be the most challenging part of the job, recruiting. You spend a lot of time recruiting the athlete to come here and they have a lot of options — a lot of options south of the border, we lose a lot of kids there — and find it challenging to replace my stars,” she notes. “You develop them for four years, and they’re fantastic — and they’re gone.”
Townshend is also limited in who she can recruit.
“The challenges are always financial. Being able to offer scholarship money to kids and keep them in Canada [is a challenge],” she adds. “Academics are a challenge. The academic level at the university is tougher and tougher, and you get high school students that have been great in community service and have been working really hard at their sport, [but] sometimes they don’t have the level of academics they need to get in here. That’s a shame.”
The school’s transition from the NAIA (a lower-level American college athletics league) to the NCAA has also proved a challenge in recent years.
“Transition is hard but good,” she says. “However, we’re not going to win the championships that we did in the NAIA. We won five consecutive national titles in cross country [. . .] we hold so many records in the NAIA.
However, this year was a milestone year for both the men’s and women’s cross country teams. The women’s team captured the conference and regional titles — both firsts — while the men qualified for the national champions for the first time while in the NCAA. While five straight national titles might not be in the cards, both teams seem destined for continued success under Townsend’s leadership.