Howard Tsumura, The Province
November 3, 2014. 5:45 pm
VANCOUVER — In cross-country running, the course may be charted, but the journey to the finish line is always filled with the unexpected.
Overnight rain can turn sharp corners into extreme hazards. Morning frost can temper the desire to be a front-runner. Tree branches fall. Runners become entangled. Shoes get lost.
But the race, like life, always goes on.
That is a metaphor few can appreciate more than Marek Jedrzejek, a teddy-bear of a man, who for the past quarter-century-plus has coached within the UBC Thunderbirds cross-country, and track and field programs, including the past 13 as the head coach.
On Saturday, Jedrzejek will lead the UBC cross-country team at its conference championship meet in Cinton, Iowa, one which the school’s women’s team has won the past two years, each serving as a launching pad to eventual team titles at the NAIA national championships.
Those kinds of races, the ones run in the unpredictable elements of a November day, are not unlike his own life’s journey.
In the fall of 1982, while serving as an apprentice coach for the Polish national team at the European track and field championships in Greece, Jedrzejek made the decision to leave the team and defect to Canada.
“In Poland, in that system, there was no hope,” he explained of the martial law which has been imposed by the country’s communist regime. “I told my wife and kids that I was not coming back. I told them I was going, and that we would see what happened down the road.”
After spending eight months in a refugee camp in Athens, he arrived at the Vancouver International Airport on a spring day in 1983, barely able to speak a word of english, but determined to find a life better for his family, with whom he was eventually reunited with over two years later.
“I remember when I got off the plane, just standing there alone in the airport,” said Jedrzejek. “I asked myself ‘What is this country going to bring me?’ Looking back, it has been a journey.”
The professional part of which is now headed for the finish line.
This summer, upon completion of the track and field season, the 65-year-old who has guided UBC athletes to 33 national titles, including Canadian record holders Jeff Schiebler (5,000, 10,000 metres) and Liz Gleadle (javelin), and who himself was a part of the Canadian coaching staff at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, will begin a new chapter in his life.
“It is time to put the spikes on the shelf,” Jedrzejek explained last week of leaving behind a lifelong career to spend more time with his two grandchildren, Kate and Cole, and to spend more time attempting to become the world’s greatest lingcod fisherman.
But the tackle box is going to stay closed for a while yet.
Under Jedrzejek’s watch this season, the UBC women’s cross-country team — led by its stable of stars Maria Bernard, Amelie de Fenoyl, Jackie Regan and Natalia Hawthorn — has owned the NAIA’s No. 1 ranking since Sept. 24, a string of six straight polls.
And this season, like all the one previous, he has impacted the lives of his student-athletes with a manner described as both caring and inspirational.
One such athlete, UBC middle-distance standout Lori Durward, has never lost touch with her old coach after being coached by him for the greater part of a decade through her high school years and later with the Thunderbirds.
“He is a special guy and I get teary-eyed thinking about him because he is like my second dad,” says Durward, these days a Vancouver-area dentist who counts her old coach as a patient. “As a kid he taught me about setting goals. I had some offers to go run in the states after high school but he was a huge part of the reason I stayed home.”
Jedrzejek’s first home in B.C. was Penticton, where he spent eight months working in a lumber yard. Itching to get back to coaching, he eventually moved to the Vancouver area, first enrolling full-time in school to learn english, and later beginning his coaching career as a volunteer assistant at Simon Fraser.
He would later work with club programs before eventually becoming a high-performance coach for Athletics Canada, a job which posted him at UBC.
And to take put a bow on it all, in 2013, three decades after he left Poland, Jedrzejek not only returned to his native land for the World Cross Country championships as the head coach of the Canadian national team, but took the team to Walcz, the city of his youth, for training sessions.
“I dreamt about doing all of this kind of stuff a long, long time ago,” he said. “But at the time, I was so far away from all of it.”
Yet cross-country courses are all loops, and for Marek Jedrzejek, it’s symbolic of a life that has come full circle.