Continuing our focus on highlighting some of the exceptional coaches we have here in Ontario, our next Coaches Spotlight will feature the Head Coach and Founder of Quest Sports Track & Field Club, Donna Clarke.
Donna had a decorated career as an athlete, having competed at the 1984 Olympics as a heptathlete, only six months after switching from competing as a provincial gymnast. Donna is a former Canadian long jump record holder, who broke the Canadian long jump record at the Canadian Championships with a long jump of 6.61m, and again on the same day, with a 6.72m jump.
She has since shifted her focus to coaching, passing the torch to the future of Canadian athletics through Quest Sports Track and Field Club. Quest Sports Canada’s athletic club builds confidence and a champion mindset. Through the club’s focus on speed development, jumping, running and throwing events, Athletes train and compete at their highest level while building healthy personal habits.
Donna is currently a NCCP Certified Club Coach in Sprints and Hurdles and NCCP Certified Club Coach in Jumps. She is currently waiting to do her presentation for her Advanced Coaching Diploma. “I was very fortunate to compete in the Heptathlon where I covered 7 events. My favourite events to coach are Sprints, Hurdles and Long Jump” says Clarke.
We had the opportunity to connect with Donna and dive deeper into her background in coaching, how she views her role in our sport, her experience through the Covid-19 pandemic, and learn more about what motivates her coaching path. The following Q&A gives insight into some of the amazing things Donna has done and continues to do in our sport.
Q: What does your history in coaching look like and what motivated you to begin coaching athletics?
“I was a gymnastics coach before I started coaching track and field. I started coaching track once my children started showing interest while they were in Elementary school. I focused more on sprints because my son needed to work on his speed as a baseball player, which helped prepare him for the MLB Baseball Draft. At the same time, their friends asked if they could join the small group of 4, which has now grown to over 80 athletes. We have sprinters who are amongst the top in the country, Sprint hurdlers, 400 meter and 400 hurdlers, long jumpers and high Jumpers. It has helped with a background in the heptathlon as I can pick out the kids’ talent as I see it.”
Q: Based on your background in gymnastics, do you see any cross-over benefits between the two sports in regards to the Long-Term Athlete Development model?
“The crossover would be the strong foundation built in critical areas such as strength, flexibility and self-discipline.”
Q: What has the process of re-entering the track and field world been like?
“The process has been great; I believe in the continuing education model through the NCCP. I have just chipped away over the years during my free time.”
Q: What are some of the challenges you have faced with establishing a club at the same time?
“The challenge is finding indoor facilities, we really need a dedicated facility in Durham. The other I’m not sure I would call it a challenge, but more a few surprises. The first surprise was having a track club; I just started out training my kids, and the next thing I knew, it grew faster than I expected. The truth is I am not looking to grow too large but just looking for kids and families who are the right fit with my philosophy.
The second surprise was how few Olympians are coaching in Durham; there are two women and one man as far as I know. I am in a unique position as the only multi-event athlete. I believe that as Olympians, we have so much to offer, not only because of our high-performance experiences of understanding every nuance. But also because we have had the privilege of being coached by world class coaches.”
Q: What have the past few months looked like for you while coaching throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic?
“The past few months with Covid have been interesting; it has made us creative, that’s for sure. The biggest thing is doing what it takes to protect their mental health. We have managed to keep them engaged through online sessions and many mental health check talks during the lockdown. Once we were free to head outdoors, we gently eased them back into the routines, as well as getting them to compete in a competition or two.”
Q: You consider yourself as a late bloomer into the sport of track and field, what is your advice to athletes that find themselves in a similar position or consider it to be “too late” to achieve great success?
“Honestly if an athlete is in grade 12 and has a desire or an extensive sports background, do not sell yourself short. I played softball, soccer, tennis, basketball and started gymnastics after grade 8 which is a late start. I had visions of becoming a world-class gymnast, but little did I know that my dreams fell short before I even started for many reasons; fortunately, the world-class athlete just came in another sport. Little did I know that all the training and competitions I had participated in were a great foundation. As for my character I was a very quiet athlete, but I was fiercely competitive.”
Q: It is obvious you have had many triumphant moments as an athlete, what is your favorite memory or moment thus far in your coaching career?
“As an athlete by far, it’s making it to the 1984 Olympic Games, as well as jumping my magical jump of 6.71 meters in Ottawa with my all-time favourite coach Andy Higgins at the Canadian Championships.
When I started building the club, I intentionally wanted to focus on female athletes (because statistically, they tend to drop out in their teen years). Now I look back and see the many young girls I have coached in their elementary grades still persevering through high school.
Stephanie Dundas, Elle Riley, Robyn Larkin, Maiya Grubin and Dani Allen are staying in the game and are still rising; this has indeed been rewarding. They are now an inspiration for our next generation of young girls who look up to them in the club; they teach them not to quit but to persevere.”
Q: Please share what it means to you to be a female, person of color, holding an authority figure in our sport. What are some of the impacts you hope to make on today’s young athletes?
“I do not see myself as an authority figure because I believe in collaboration. I hope that young girls and boys of color can see themselves in me, someone who can relate to them socially, spiritually and emotionally.”
Q: As an Olympian and former Canadian record holder, how do you see your role and ability to be able to make an impact on younger athletes in our sport? How do you guide these athletes?
“I want young kids to know that they do not need to be fixated on one sport or only one event when they are young. I want them to know they can play in a few track and field events and discover their talents. My background as a Heptathlete has been beneficial because I have trained in the sprints, hurdles, long jump, high jump, shot put, javelin and middle distance. I have much fun observing kids move from event to event, they get to play, and I find them their right fit.
As a club, we allow the kids to play, and when they find their niche, they just fly.”
Q: What is your favourite hobby outside of coaching and sport?
“I love cooking; I loved it so much that I went to culinary school after University. I have spent years experimenting with athlete-friendly meals for my kids and have developed many recipes. I now have a library of delicious recipes for athletes. The good news is that my kids are still alive, so I guess the food is not that bad.”
Q: What is the most rewarding part of being involved with coaching the sport of athletics?
“One of the most rewarding aspects of coaching is helping athletes succeed in so many different disciplines. We are happy with our inter-club partnership with Durham Dragons Athletics. At Quest Sports, we focus on developing sprints, hurdles, long/high jump and throwing, while Durham Dragons focus on middle distances to cross country running. The best part about our partnership is if we identify that an athlete is better suited for a different discipline, we can send a distance runner to them and likewise, they can send sprinters to us. This partnership ensures that we can put the athlete in the best position for them to be successful.
The second is imparting all my knowledge and Olympic experience to the athletes I coach and seeing them improve and develop into incredible human beings.”
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share that people may not know?
“Quest Sports is now building our boy’s program. We are fortunate to have two incredible coaches dedicated to developing our young men. Between the two coaches, one has produced Olympians, and the other was a D1 athlete. We are excited about the direction of the club; the future looks very bright.”
As the provincial sport governing body, Athletics Ontario is thankful for, and proud of coaches like Donna Clarke that continue their athletic pathways past the era of competition, and use their expertise to dedicate themselves to providing opportunities and guidance for Ontario athletes in our sport. We are grateful for the coaches in our community who strive to create the best athlete experience, promote diversity, produce champions on and off the track, and who work so hard to continuously enhance our sport as a whole.