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.
Mya McKinnon, a Grade 8 student at Willowgrove, told trustees during a Board of Education meeting that 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.