Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The good, the bad, and the Island

The good, the bad, and the Island


Jared Connaughton is one of the most accomplished athletes to come out of Prince Edward Island. (Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press)

Like any blue-collar, rural Canadian kid, I played hockey. I loved hockey. Hockey was my life.

My aspiration was to work hard enough so that, by the time I reached the bantam level, I'd draw attention from prep schools, work my way into the major-junior ranks and ultimately play in the NHL.

The ironic thing is that, by the time I got to bantam, I was indeed drawing attention from prep schools like Phillips-Exeter and Notre Dame, but my passion had dwindled and my attention strayed. I went from a 13-year-old hockey nut to a 16-year-old hockey burnout.

I have fond memories of hockey, but most stem from the days when I still dreamed big, when I was naive to the realities of my passion (money, politics, etc.) and when I still enjoyed playing. By the time I became a junior in high school, I hated hockey. I hated how "cliquey" it had become. I hated how politics reared their ugly face so frequently. Heck, I even hated how the sweat made my face break out. I wanted out, and most people close to me knew it. I refused to return the phone calls and letters from those prep schools and I hatched a plan to sell my gear as soon as the season ended.

I don't even recall my last game - frankly the entire final season was a disappointing blur. The negative taste left in my mouth made it that much easier to officially "hang 'em up." Many people were disappointed with my decision to quit hockey. They thought that I'd end up playing at an elite level someday, but what freaked them out most of all was that I was hanging up my skates for a pair of track spikes.

P.E.I. track stuck in Stone Age

Now, this truly was a risky choice, as Prince Edward Island was not only without proper funding, equipment and resources for a track athlete, but, most glaringly, without a single synthetic track. The province was figuratively and literally in the Stone Age, as our only viable running surface was a worn-out, ill-kept gravel track behind my high school. Or, even crazier, there was an abandoned railroad track converted into walking trails. Needless to say, I was limited not only compared to others pursuing success in hockey, but to my peers across the country that I'd be eventually competing against.

The first few months were fun. I learned a ton about weight training, proper running technique and diet. I loved it. It was new, fresh, fun and exciting. The best part about it was that I was experiencing success both at the provincial and national level. After only four months of proper training, I had become the Canadian youth and junior champion in the 200-metre dash.

But something changed after all that success. The fun, the newness, had all started to fade, and that daunting question began to loom all over again: Will I achieve greatness?

As the pressure mounted and the reality of it all began to set it, I knew one simple thing: I won't achieve greatness training on gravel tracks and school hallways. I needed to get off the Island, and quick. So when NCAA schools began calling, I embraced their attention with open arms. Ultimately I chose the University of Texas-Arlington, as far as humanly imaginable from Prince Edward Island.

Rise and fall

My first year at UTA flew by. I experienced success both in the classroom and on the track, as I was named to the dean's list and was named freshman of the year in the Southland Conference. Later that summer I was selected to the Canadian junior team, competing in Grosseto, Italy.

But only six months later I began to fail classes, I was constantly reinjuring a hamstring, and I was dealing with a deteriorating relationship with a girlfriend.

On my return to P.E.I. for summer break, my confidence athletically was at an all-time low, my self-image had become a shadow of my former self. My love for track and field had dwindled so badly that I no aspirations of attempting a comeback for that summer season.

It wasn't until a candid conversation I had with my father that I realized that self-loathing and a rotten attitude were only temporary hindrances, that if I brushed myself off, refocused and recommitted myself, that I could potentially be a legitimate contender for the Canadian Games title at the end of the summer.

My first training session after returning to the Island was a short speed session conducted on a semi-mowed soccer field at Bluefield High School, my alma mater. I remember whining constantly about the poor footing, the grotesquely kept grass and cold temperature. Eventually my father yelled, "I've had enough of this! You used to love training out here, but I guess now that you have those fancy facilities at your disposal in Texas, this isn't good enough for you! Well, I hate to break it to you, but if you want to win the Canada Games, you're gonna have to put up or shut up, 'cause this is all we've got!"

His statement was completely true, and I knew he was bang on. In the past, I would have taken his screaming and criticism coldly and resentfully, but this time it struck a different chord, a message that created a rekindled desire and sparked my motivation.

Secret weapon

The next day he and I drove into Charlottetown and purchased a membership to a local weightlifting gym. He and I sat down and mapped out the rest of the summer, from training locations to competitions. We even began including "alternative" days when I'd perform my bounding on the sand dunes of the Island's north shore.

It all began to make sense again. Those locations I dreaded before, I now adored. They'd become my secret weapon. Something I knew no one else in Canada had access to, or was willing to train on.

Three months after that proverbial kick in the pants by my father, I became the Canada Games 100m and 200m champion! The first double gold medalist from P.E.I. ever.

Now that I've gone on to become a national champion, an international competitor and an Olympian, I reflect back on those days when all I had was a simple goal, to do whatever it took to be champion.

I'm very grateful for the support and resources I have at my disposal now, but sometimes I miss the simpler days, when soccer fields and sand dunes were my sanctuary.

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