After over 30 years, the Pandas track and field team has finally returned to the highest spot on the podium.
Though the Golden Bears fell 18 points short of first place at the Canada West Track and Field Championships this past weekend in Saskatoon, the Pandas ran away with the conference banner, breaking two school records in the process. With 101 points in 17 events, the team boasted a 28.5-point lead over the silver-medalists, the Calgary Dinos, earning them their first title since 1983.
The U of A men’s and women’s teams won 21 medals in total, doubling what they earned at last year’s meet. Though the Pandas found most of their success in sprints — breaking school records in the 200m and 400m relays — head coach Wes Moerman was quick to point out the impressive performances of the squad’s field and endurance athletes.
“It was really a total team effort — success in the field, success on the track, and success in the longer events as well,” Moerman said. “Typically, to win a championship, you need to be able to score in many events, not just in one area, and that’s what we did.”
For the past few years, the Pandas have been steadily climbing in western Canada standings, placing fourth overall last year and ninth in 2014. While the team boasts a number of provincially-recognized athletes, most of their participants performed better than they were ranked coming into the championship.
Though track and field is technically an individual sport, Moerman partially attributes the success of his athletes to the sense of community they have built over the years.
“We haven’t had this kind of success in a long time, (and) I think there are a lot of reasons for it,” he said, noting erratic coaching staff turnover as a possible cause for the team’s lack of victories in recent years. “In this year’s team, there’s a sense of belief in each other and confidence in other people’s abilities. They understand they are a team, not just individuals.”
Paige Ridout, a fourth year student who brought home the gold in pole vault with a 3.98m vertical, took as much pride in her team’s win as her own, even though this was her first year representing the U of A.
“I think winning the women’s championship really shows the hard work the coaches and athletes have been putting in, on and off the track,” she said. “The banner really represents what we already knew: that we have a bunch of talented individuals that are willing to work.”
While the Pandas will be losing some key components of their team next year with gold medalists like Ridout graduating, Moerman sees this as an opportunity for standout rookie athletes to step into positions of leadership.
“It’s always a volatile situation to be able to predict continued success, but I believe we’re attracting the athletes necessary for that,” Moerman said. “I do believe we can continue to have success in the coming years.”
The Golden Bears and Pandas will now focus their attention on the CIS National Track and Field Championship on March 10 in Toronto, hosted by the U of T Varsity Blues.The last time Alberta won gold in track and field nationally was in Sherbrooke in 2001, when the Bears took home the prize. Last year, the Bears finished 16th out of 19 teams, while the Pandas finished in ninth.