The passion of Silvia Ruegger

Silvia Ruegger with a boy from one of the Start2Finish Reading & Running clubs. (photo supplied)

Silvia Ruegger is passionate about her Canadian record in women’s marathon. Not just because of what it has meant for her, but because of what it has come to mean for so many others.

Twenty-six years after her Canadian record setting win at the Houston Marathon, Ruegger has been propelled into the national spotlight once again as the result of an international track ruling.

The ruling by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) on women’s marathon world records put the focus of the national media on Ruegger, the Canadian Olympian who grew up in Newcastle, for her national women’s marathon record.

After the IAAF’s decision to reclassify women’s mixed-field record times (won in marathons with men and women running together) as “world’s best” and to reserve the title of world record for the best times in all-women marathons, there was a question as to whether Athletics Canada would follow suit and so strip Ruegger of her Canadian record.

Ruegger set that record in 1985 in Houston’s mixed-field marathon, with a time of two hours, 28 minutes and 36 seconds. Athletics Canada announced last month that, while it would follow the IAAF ruling for future world records, it would not apply it to Canadian records, due mainly to the fact that there are very few Canadian marathons which are not mixed-field races.

Recalling how much effort went into training, Ruegger, now 50-years old, remembers it was not easy breaking down the barriers women runners faced in the 1970s and ‘80s. “When I started, it was not acceptable for women to run. It was frowned upon,” she says, speaking by phone from her Toronto home last week.

“When they were talking about changing the rules, for me it was about so much more than just the record,” Ruegger says. “There was so much sacrifice women made, all of that hard work and investment, to push that aside and say it [the record time] was because there were men in the race, just discredited all of that.”

Ruegger was one of the pioneers in the sport of women’s marathon. She represented Canada at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, where the event made its Olympic debut. Participating in only her second competitive marathon at the time, the 23-year-old Ruegger was the second-youngest runner, coming in eighth out of a field of 50 women in the 42-kilometre event.

She’s glad that her Canadian record still stands, she says, because it pays tribute to her mother, the community around Newtonville, and all of the people who supported her along the way.

“My mom passed away three years ago, but I am so grateful for her, because when I started running some people looked down on it and thought it wasn’t right,” she states, recalling her dream to run in the Olympics, and the role her mother played in encouraging her. “I saw the Montreal Olympics on TV in 1976, and it inspired me. It gave me a dream. I wrote a note to myself, saying one day I would run for Canada in the Olympics. I started to train, and all I knew was to run more and more. My mom didn’t know about the dream, but she saw the passion.

“She followed me in the car when it was dark so I could run in the light of the headlights. People would drive by and see this young girl running in the headlights of the car, and see my mom driving. Probably she got a lot more flack than I did, but she just kept driving. I had a lot of support.

“It was about a lot more than just the record. It was about a lot more people’s efforts than just my own,” she says, remembering the support she received from the local community and how much it meant to her. “Before I went to L.A., about six weeks before I left, they had a gathering in the Community Centre in Newtonville and presented me with a big Canadian flag and Canadian pins.

“And then, about two days before I was to run at the Olympics, I phoned my family, and my brother said that, at Peck’s General Store, there was a sign in the window: ‘Silvia runs August 5th at 11:30.’

“I also remember the day when the Elliots, a family that had vintage cars, took me to the Newcastle Town Hall in a 1929 Graham Paige. It had a rumble seat in the back. They picked me up and I sat in the back. There were about 800 people at the town hall. It was moving.

“That’s the beauty of a small town. You are identified as part of a community. The community becomes part of the journey. I was privileged. I was there at the right time, a wall came down and the opportunity was there. And so many people supported me.”

As she got older, Ruegger says, she realized that not all children receive that kind of support. “I used to tell kids that they can be whatever they want to be. Then I met some children who didn’t have any shoes, or a car, or money to get to a track field. I realized they couldn’t be whatever they wanted. And it made them lose hope.”

Wanting to “even the playing field,” Ruegger says she became involved in a program called Start2Finish that used running as a means to connect with the children, and bring hope back into their lives. The program helps Canadian children living in poverty to develop literacy skills and athleticism, encouraging 7- to 11-year-old children to set goals and pursue their dreams in Reading and Running Clubs in 24 school boards across the country. Ruegger is currently the executive director of Start2Finish.

As she recalls her own experiences in achieving her dreams, Ruegger says she knows how important it is that all children receive the support they need to reach their goals. Over 20 years after she wrote that note to herself in 1976, stating her goal to run for Canada in the Olympics, Silvia returned home to Newtonville and found the note still hidden under a floorboard. She has since had the note framed, along with her Olympic bib number, and uses it to show children how powerful dreams can be.

Setting goals and having dreams inspires children and builds their self-confidence as small accomplishments lead to bigger goals and greater accomplishments, says Ruegger. As the name suggests, the Reading and Running Clubs encourage children to set goals in both reading and running.

“Sport is so valuable,” she attests. “It’s undeniable that physical activity enhances learning, enhances memory, and clarity of thought. Children in poverty are four-and-a-half times less skilled in terms of literacy. They fear books, because we don’t gravitate to things we don’t do well.”

Ruegger also extolls the value of community, noting that studies have shown a lack of connection with at least one significant adult can lead to childhood depression and suicide. Start2Finish brings in mentors, like athletes, business leaders and firefighters, to connect one-on-one with children in the program.

“We started in 2004, and the change was so profound that more school boards have signed up for Start2Finish,” she says of the program’s success. “Now we’re seeing the first graduates from the program going to high school. It’s a pathway of hope. Let’s keep that hope alive. Let’s tell these children that we believe in them, and that they’ve got what it takes.”

She pauses and laughs as she states the obvious: “It’s a topic I’m passionate about.”

Each fall Start2Finish provides those children with the greatest needs in low-income communities across the nation with quality backpacks filled with vital school essentials. These tools help to “even the playing field” among students and equip them for success in the coming school year. For more information, go to: http://www.start2finishonline.org.

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