Sharon Donnelly has had an incredible triathlon ride. And she promises it’s not over yet, which is great news for the sport, since Donnelly’s experience as one of this country’s finest triathletes combined with her recent national coaching jobs on both sides of the border make her a precious Canadian resource.
But, for the first time since she started competitive sports at age 10, the three-time Canadian champion, Pan-Am Games gold medalist and Olympian is content to slow down the pace a bit. Donnelly is now combining taking care of her two young children with part-time coaching, covering off the home front in Ottawa while husband Dave Rudnicki is out of town for long periods as part of his Canadian Forces job. “Being an elite athlete is, from a certain perspective, selfish. You only have to think about yourself. For many years my athletic pursuits came first and now it’s time for me to provide that same sort of support. Also, I believe the skills and lessons a child learns are never forgotten, and I want to be there to help my own kids follow their dreams, whatever those dreams may be.”
Donnelly, 43, has good role models for parental support and dedication. As a child, Donnelly was a competitive swimmer in Scarborough, Ontario. Her specialty was the 100m butterfly. For seven years, her mother drove her to practice, picked her up and drove her to school, went to work, and picked her up after evening swim practice. In 1984, at age 17, Donnelly just missed making the Olympic team and decided to concentrate on getting a university degree. She went to the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, where she was recruited in her third year for the RMC triathlon team.
Although Donnelly showed great talent right from the start, she never took herself too seriously. Simon Whitfield says he spent a lot of time racing and, at times, training with Donnelly during those early Kingston years and she helped lighten the mood during their heavy training sessions. “La Capitaine was remarkably focused and there was a huge amount of respect and admiration for her dedication. But Dono also has an incredibly humorous side and she made our practices more fun.”
Donnelly was inducted into the Canadian Forces sports hall of fame in 1999, the same year she won gold at the Pan-Am Games. As a result of a bike crash, she moved from being a top medal contender at the 2000 Sydney Olympics to fighting hard not to be lapped and hence disqualified. Observers of the sport say when Donnelly untangled herself from the multi-bike crash and ran carrying her bike to where she could get her crushed front wheel replaced, then continued the race bleeding and battered despite being out of medal contention, it wasn’t just her military training, mental toughness and competitive nature coming into play. “She was always profoundly aware of and grateful for the sacrifices others had made to get her to the top of her sport, and she had a deep sense of obligation to perform as well as she could,” explains Ken Parker, whose information technology company sponsored Donnelly for seven years.
Donnelly was on the 2002 Commonwealth Games team. But at the last qualifier for the 2004 Olympics, she was narrowly beaten out. Samantha McGlone’s coach, Cliff English, vividly recalls that race in Edmonton. “Sharon is a class act-she had an incredible work ethic and would fight hard for every inch down to the finish line, but off the race course she was down-to-earth. It was a huge moment in Sam’s career when she passed Sharon on the run in the final mile for that third and final Olympic spot. Sharon was very gracious, and had a lot of great things to say to Sam after the race. We never forgot that.”
Within five months of retirement, Donnelly was pregnant with daughter Gemma, born in 2005. Son Evan was born in 2007. Because of Dave’s work, the family moved to Colorado Springs in July 2006, where the U.S. triathlon team’s Olympic Training Center is located. In September, Donnelly started coaching at the centre. She also coached the U.S. Olympic team for the 2008 Beijing Games.
Sarah Haskins Kortuem, USA Triathlon elite athlete of the year for 2009, was on that team. “On the pool deck first thing in the morning, Sharon would be there with a smile and encouraging words to get the team motivated for a great workout, even when we were too tired to motivate ourselves,” Kortuem recalls. “I’ll always remember Sharon sitting with me after the 2008 Games and putting the Olympic experience in perspective. I wasn’t happy with my performance, but she explained the positive aspects of my race and what I could learn to help me move forward.”
American coach Bobby McGee worked with Donnelly during her time at USA Triathlon and says she’s exactly what’s needed in the world of triathlon. “Often great athletes are administratively challenged in coaching positions, but not Sharon. She’s the full package and I was very sorry to see her leave the United States.”
Dave was posted back to Ottawa and four days after her U.S. job ended in May 2009, Sharon started coaching Canada’s under-23 national team. That full-time contract ended this past May, but her coaching experiences have given her a good grasp of how Canada shapes up globally in the sport.
Donnelly says Canada is doing a great job, but that Triathlon Canada and race organizers recognize the need to get more races closer to home and to give younger triathetes more Olympic-format race experience. “Canada needs to host more World Cup races, and since the International Triathlon Union holds more events in Europe than it used to, Canada and the U.S. need to collaborate on a North American developmental race circuit. We need more closed-course drafting races on tough courses, particularly for those young triathletes who are trying to break into the national team ranks. And although the funding of our best triathletes is solid, the next generation-these same up-and-comers who aren’t yet on the national team-need more financial aid.”
What message does Donnelly have for young people who think they might want to make a life and a living in the sport she loves so much? “Join a triathlon club. Surround yourself with positive people. Be true to yourself. You’ll see other kids doing better, but remember it is a learning experience and just keep working. Don’t give up.”