Ever humble and modest, Avril Douglas may have “retired” as head coach of the Richmond Kajaks Track Rascals, but she’s never far from the track or willing to extend a helping hand.
Photo courtesy Richmond Kajaks
Kajaks’ mentor steps aside, but not from running
By Don Fennell
Published 2:39 PDT, Fri November 5, 2021
Last Updated: 2:05 PST, Fri November 19, 2021
Usain Bolt was known for his lightning speed and Florence Griffith-Joyner (Flo Jo) as the fastest woman of all-time. But there’s another name in track and field who, when she decides to hang up the cleats, will take her rightful place among the greats—Avril Douglas.
But, at 75, that’s a long way off yet as she continues to tear up the turf as one of the best known, respected, and decorated Masters runners on the planet.
A world record holder, Douglas’ competitive career “took off” in the early 1990s and has included numerous Canadian championships ever since. In 1993 she set national records in the women’s 45-plus age group, and then five more in the 50-plus division. At 55, she established two world marks at 200 and 400 metres, and has won silver in the 800 metres and bronze in the 400 at the worlds.
A registered nurse when she joined the Richmond Kajaks, her nurturing nature quickly came to the forefront when she accepted an opportunity to coach the club’s Track Rascals, who are aged six to eight. She recently “retired” as the program’s head coach, though leaving it in the capable hands of a coaching staff she’s had a profound influence on. Those into whose hands she has passed the torch, and the athletes she has influenced, will forever be grateful for her tutelage.
”You couldn’t ask for anyone more conscientious and caring towards her participants. I think without realizing, over time she became a teacher, an experience that she cherished,” says longtime Kajaks Masters teammate Fred Pawluk. “Avril demonstrated a keen interest in initially learning the Run, Jump, Throw program. She even took extraordinary efforts to master the finer points by visiting and observing other (similar) programs already in progress within other clubs.”
A member of the Kajaks’ executive board, Lanie Man says the club intends to continue Douglas’ legacy by expanding the Rascals program. On a personal level, she feels a debt of gratitude for Douglas’ encouragement toward her son.
“You know in an athlete’s career there is that one coach who creates that pivotal moment to set you on your path. Avril is that person for (our family),” she says. “When we started out my son didn’t really have any specific interests and just did things for fun. But because of her keen eye, she noticed the potential and really encouraged us to continue. Six years down the road, that belief has helped Lawrence gain confidence in himself by discovering that he is good at something.”
(Under the guidance of coach Garrett Collier, this year, at the age of 14, Lawrence is ranked first in Canada in the hammer throw for boys under 16).
Douglas was always a strong advocate for the Track Rascals program, seeing it as a gateway for future track and field athletes. And her commitment never waned—like arriving two hours before sessions to set up the course for the day and provide a print-out of that day’s programs to her assistant coaches. All the while, she paid attention to each child’s needs and ensured that while they were trying their best they were also having fun.
“It’s almost like motherly love to me, how there is always a sparkle in her eyes when she talks about the kids and program,” Man says.
Junior Development coach Julia Nickerson, whose son Ryan also started off with the Track Rascals, credits Douglas for “setting the tone for many positive athletic experiences to follow.”
“Through the Rascals program, Avril has helped all those who participated to develop physical literacy in a safe and inclusive environment. (Under her guidance) the program often provided a space for children, who did not feel comfortable joining other physical activities or sports, to thrive.”
During her time with the Kajaks, Douglas has also been an “incredible” coaching mentor, Nickerson says.
A former junior coach under Douglas for several years, and a former Kajaks athlete, Danielle Cosco has nothing but fond memories of working alongside and learning from Douglas.
“Avril was my coaching mentor and continuous inspiration throughout my years as a Kajaks coach and athlete,” Cosco says. “I can’t express enough how much her dedication, kindness, and hard work truly impacted all of the athletes, their families, and her assistant coaches.”
Douglas also encouraged Cosco to bring her own ideas, while creating a positive and collaborative learning environment.
“I truly have Avril to thank for giving me the confidence to coach, and for being such an amazing mentor and role model,” Cosco says.
Soleah Allen (currently an athlete in the Kajaks’ high school group and one of the junior Rascals’ coaches who trained under Douglas) says: “When I think of Avril, passion, dedication and motivation come to mind. The amount of time and work, each week, she put into organizing every single practice for the past 11 years while also training with the Kajaks Masters is a lot of commitment. It’s really amazing. During Rascals practice, she was full of passion and energy for these kids in making sure the obstacle courses, games, and events are improvised to spark excitement and fun.”
For Douglas, stepping aside from coaching the Track Rascals comes with mixed emotions. But it was time.
“My family is all on (Vancouver) Island now and I want to be able to visit my granddaughters without being concerned about getting a replacement…sometimes at the last moment,” she says.
When she started the program with the Kajaks in 2010, she noted there was nothing like it for kids under nine. Her granddaughters were in the five- to seven-year-old group then, after being keen to watch her run on the track where they would often join her.
“I had heard that Athletics Canada had a program called Run, Jump, Throw so I looked into it, took the training, and subsequently also got my sports coaching certificate. It has always been important to me that each little athlete has fun, develops confidence in themselves, improves their physical literacy, and experiences all that track and field has to offer.”
One of her fondest memories was of those days when the parents were invited to run with their child. After lining up and sprinting to the finish line, many parents were surprised at how fast their child was, she says.
While her competitive athletic focus may now be restricted to her Masters running, Douglas is never far from the track or the Kajaks.
“Avril has always been engaged with the club, showing up to volunteer and help at any of our meets,” says Man. “She’s one person you can count on.”