Athletes who compete in cross-country running finish their race with an individual time, but for the hundreds of Saskatoon Public Schools elementary and high school students who compete in cross country each fall the sport is all about being part of a team.
"Every member of the team matters, a value that is reinforced daily in practice and in all team messaging. Team members encourage and support each other in workouts and in competition whether they are at the front of the pack or at the back," said Janet Christ, one of the coaches of the Walter Murray Collegiate team that captured its 12th city championship in 13 years and then added a provincial team title.
"The team philosophy is centred on team success and on individuals achieving their personal success, whatever that may be. Each experience is a learning experience from which the athlete grows physically, mentally and emotionally."
Cross country is part of the extracurricular program at many of the division's elementary and high schools. Runners receive their introduction to the sport as early as Grade 4 and have their first opportunity to compete as part of the city-wide elementary meets.
"We are very proud of our runners. At a cross-country meet with elementary students there are thousands of children everywhere, there are parents, grandparents, coaches pulling their hair out and there is great excitement," said Tammy Wilson, coach of the Willowgrove School team that included 80 runners from Grade 4-8.
"We sell it to them as hard work: 'This is going to be hard for you. This takes a lot of effort.' They come out and they are excited to be there and to show that they can work hard and they can put effort into things."
Extracurricular sports such as cross country provide student-athletes of any age with a number of benefits. Increasing fitness, building skill level and gaining new friends from different classes and grades are some of the benefits. Wilson says many teachers report that students are also more focused and ready for learning following a training run.
For Mya McKinnon, a Grade 8 student at Willowgrove, the opportunity to train and compete paid off in the classroom and in building leadership skills by leading warmups and helping the younger runners.
"I really enjoyed the training and it helped me focus in my classes later on during the days we practiced," she said. "Something that I found truly amazing with these younger runners is that nobody judged anyone. Everyone ran at their own pace and they were super supportive of each other. We were all part of a team but we still set our own goals."
Wilson and Christ share a firm conviction that emphasizing a team approach to an individual sport offers opportunities and benefits for their athletes. By instilling and reinforcing the message that every member of the team matters athletes come together to encourage and support each other during training and competition.
Cindy Li, a Grade 12 student at Walter Murray, said the sense of community among the group of runners ranging from Grade 9 newcomers to senior students was built not only through training and competition, but through team potluck meals and other fun events.
"Cross-country is more than just a sport to me," she said. "It is what I look forward to every single day after school and it was the favourite part of my day. It wasn't necessarily running that I love . . . but it was the team that I loved because I loved to make new friends and share this experience together.
"When you have the right team environment you have athletes who want to be there and who have a positive attitude and who have the self-belief that they can achieve their goals and dreams. Those are the athletes who have success. "
The success of the Walter Murray team was built from a small foundation of fewer than 10 participants back in 2000. It has grown to the point where more than 70 students were a part of the program in 2017 when the team's history of strong performances at the city level translated into a provincial title.
Christ credits the program's success to a dedicated coaching staff and the contributions of athletes from previous years who helped build a tradition and culture that allows current athletes to learn, grow and push themselves beyond their limits.
"Every athlete contributes, every athlete matters," she said. "Though we strive for success at the heart of our team lies the precept that athletes should be running for the fun of it and the joy of being with one another. Winning has just been a bonus."