For Tara Self, a woman of action, words are also important, words have meaning.
First, there are the words on the stadium where she plies her trade: Percy Perry Stadium. Named for her late father, a sporting legend in the Tri-Cities and the head coach of the Coquitlam Cheetahs Track and Field Club for about 16 years until he got sick, it’s where, as the Cheetahs’ current head coach, she now cajoles and pushes and teaches young runners to be better, to be their best.
Then, there are these words: “We’re building champions.”
If you’ve been watching CBC coverage of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, you’ve seen these words — and Self, and the stadium with her father’s name on it, and the rain-shrouded hills around Coquitlam’s Town Centre Park — in one of a series of television commercials for Petro-Canada.
“The words of great coaches fuel great athletes” is the theme of the ad campaign and in Self’s case, the words are: “We’re building champions.”
In the ad, filmed last September, sprinter Jerome Blake, a member of Canada’s Olympic team who will race in the men’s 4X100 m relay in Tokyo, presents Self’s words back to his coach — a two-time Olympic sprinter herself — in giant, chunky white letters sitting on a black stand taking up the southeast corner of the track, near the Cheetahs’ fieldhouse. It’s presented as an emotional moment, and in the commercial, Blake rubs at his eyes while sharing it with his coach.
“They didn’t tell me they were going to do that,” Self said, laughing, noting the crew had been filming other scenes with Blake and her on the track and she had no idea a surprise was in store. “To see your own words that big in front of your face at a place where I go every day . . . It was sort of overwhelming.”
Asked where “We’re building champions” comes from, the Coquitlam resident recalls her start as a coach in 2005, long after she’d hung up her cleats after running the 200-m and the 4×200-m relay in Atlanta in 1996, and the 4×100-m four years later in Sydney. Her father was ill and in hospital, and asked her to take over a group of athletes he’d been leading.
“I needed a way to get the kids to understand what we were actually doing,” Self said. “It was just this idea that, if we’re going to be out there all the time, we’ve got to be building towards something.
“In track, as a time-based sport, we all know what our goals are, what our standards are, we’re hoping to achieve those things. But once you achieve those things, the next step is being a champion.”
That attitude and her breadth of knowledge are what drew Blake to Coquitlam and Self. A native of Jamaica who used to run the 400-m hurdles, he switched to sprints and needed the right coach. Under her tutelage, he found his stride and has repeatedly competed internationally for Canada, including at the 2019 Pan American Games. Most recently, after finishing second in the 100-m at the Canadian Olympic Trials in June, the 25-year-old posted a personal best of 10.15 seconds in Stockholm in early July.
In an email interview with tricitiesdispatch.com from Tokyo, Blake said of Self: “She’s a very, very wonderful person. She cares about your feelings as person and as well as an athlete. But when it comes to training and workouts, you know you have to come to training ready to work.
“’We’re building champions’ is important to me because it’s helped me a lot throughout the time while training in Coquitlam,” he said. “Because when it’s raining and cold, you don’t want to run no more. ‘We’re building champions’ just keeps coming back to you, and you know you want to be the best in the world, so you have to keep going regardless of how you feel.”
Asked what words of wisdom she recalls from her own coaches, Self, whose twin 13-year-old daughters are now on the Cheetahs, notes she only ever had two coaches (neither was her father).
Her first in Coquitlam, Mike Murray, would say, “The power in each of us comes from all of us,” a reference to the strength of training in a group of likeminded athletes.
And on race days, her coach at San Diego State University, Rahn Sheffield, would say, simply: “Showtime.”