Reaching new heights

Lessons learned outside the classroom are an integral part of school

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Winning isn't everything.

Go tell that to a youngster who wants nothing more than a well-earned medal around the neck, or the stardom that comes after scoring a game-winning goal.In the big picture, however, the spotlight of glory comes from more than being an instant sports hero. It grows from having the determination to consistently improve in athletics and the chance to benefit from the tutelage of qualified coaches.

The lessons learned in the pool, on the ice rink, in the gym or on the playing field are an integral part of the independent school experience

For thousands of youngsters, the lessons learned in the pool, on the ice rink, in the gym or on the playing field are an integral part of the independent school experience. While classroom education is of paramount importance, it's widely accepted that sports and other extracurricular activities can play a major role in a student's overall success story.

Many point to sports as being key to developing skills and practices that can't be taught behind a desk. It's true that some teens are caught up in the dream of becoming the next multimillionaire to play in the professional arena, and others aspire to wearing Canada's red-and-white in international competition. But thousands more are content simply to participate, or to reap the fortunes that accompany individual, rather than team, sports.

Ashley Speller, Brendan Innes and Connor Higgins, who each started their important high school years with different objectives, chose track and field as a sport that fit their agendas. And all three didn't take long to reach personal bests.

Speller, 16, attends The Country Day School (CDS), a fitting name for a beautiful educational complex situated in the rural confines of King City, north of Toronto.

Innes, 16, when he's not volunteering at a medical centre or working on computer animation and robots, attends Crescent School in mid-town Toronto.

And better remember Higgins' name. He's just put the finishing touches to a brilliant high school career at Toronto's St. Michael's College, a school known both for its academic successes and for being a hockey factory that has graduated more than 100 students to the professional game.

All three are seen as role models at their schools and have impressive grades. And while track is not a glitzy sport, all three students know first-hand the dedication it demands to do well. Speller, a year away from graduating at Country Day School and moving on to university, is a sprinter - and a darn good one. Innes just finished Grade 10 and is a distance runner. He has plenty of time running through valleys and up hills to ponder his future, likely in business administration. As a steeplechase runner, Higgins, 18, jumps over wooden barriers and briefly steps through a water pit. As a national-calibre Laser-class sailor, he's accustomed to water and has competed for Canada in various international meets.

"For me, track was once a hobby. Now, it's part of my life."

From the large schools in busy urban centres to the smaller ones in rural communities, students agree life around the corridors and classrooms just wouldn't.

"I can't imagine what school would be like without sports," says Speller, the youngest of five sisters who refused to let a go-kart - given to her for a birthday present three years ago from her parents - distract her from her bid to excel in track. Sports is a huge part of my life now. I've had to make adjustments but winning isn't everything.

"If I lose a race, it's not the end of the world, it just makes me want to work harder. My strategy is to do your best, build from there and the rewards will come."

Speller is hoping to lure a lucrative American National Collegiate Athletic Association scholarship. If she misses out, she'd be content to attend the University of Western Ontario to pursue a business career. And there's also the possibility of racing cars - something she did one summer at Mosport.

For now, though, the focus is on the running track. And when it comes to coaching, Speller can't go wrong-- with the combination of Denise Steadman at school and community volunteer Bill Gairdner, a decathlete who ran for Canada at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and won a silver medal at the Pan Am Games in '63."(Gairdner) noticed me, told me that I had lots of potential and, since then, I haven't looked back," says Speller, who trained with eight schoolmates at the University of Hawaii during the 2003 March Break. It gives you such a great feeling when you get lucky with coaches who are always encouraging you to do well. it be the same if sports weren't treated as a priority.

"For me, track was once a hobby. Now, it's part of my life." For Speller, an average day during the track season is down to a routine, which she admits leaves her little time for social life. The day starts with school, then off to the Metro Track and Field Centre at York University at the northwest end of Toronto for training, leaving the rest of her time for homework. "She's surprising lots of people now with her quickness and power," Gairdner said at the Conference of Independent School Athletic Association track and field finals in May, 2003 at CDS. "From what I've seen, she just thrives at every opportunity to improve and could very well be in the medal category in years to come." Coaches and sports are important commodities for teenagers, helping them to build friendships, keep fit and deal with the disappointments of defeat.

Over at St. Mike's, Higgins, at six feet, three inches, the honours student and prefect at the all-boys school hasn't had much notoriety running 2,000 metres - that is, until he won the Toronto District Colleges Athletics Association (TDCAA) final, then the Metro Regionals and had the best time of any Toronto runner at the provincial finals, finishing eighth in the steeplechase.

There was no provincial gold medal for the tall and lanky athlete, but Higgins didn't lose any sleep over it. In fact, he was thrilled by his overall performance in his graduating year.

"I've had a good year, I was confident, worked hard and can leave school knowing that I accomplished something that I hadn't done before," says Higgins, who was honoured as the Canadian youth sailor of the year in 2002 and piled up accolades setting course for selection to Canada's contingent to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

"I judge success in track like everything else," says Higgins, after winning the TDCAA title. 'You get out of it what you put in. I'm happy, real happy."

Along with being a part of a St. Mike's cross-country team that has dominated the sport with 19 of the past 25 league cross country titles and an Ontario gold medal, Higgins was able to manage academic excellence and his bright future in competitive sailing.

St. Mike's coach Frank Bergin is all smiles while praising Higgins for his commitment to track:

"He's a phenomenal student and a great athlete," Bergin says. "But it is a bit of a paradox for him in that he has to be fairly lightweight for track and heavier for sailing. He's put a lot of work in (to distance running) and it was nice to see him win for the first time in the TDCAA."

Over at Crescent School, athletic director Ken Coffin is talking up a good story about Innes.

"He's an excellent student, listens well and ends up being very good at what he does," Coffin says. "He's very athletic, competes in three sports, and we try to get the best out of him for the limited time that he's with us."

Innes was chosen Crescent School's most valuable player in downhill skiing, once played trombone in the school band, sang in the school choir, and doesn't like to be called a bookworm, in spite of a 90 per cent academic average.

Despite his many achievements, he's never won a race.

"I'm doing (track) to have fun, to experience something else," says the Toronto native, who was in France over the summer to study French. "If I win, something I hope will happen some day, well that'll be great. If not, life goes on."

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