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Running kind of just happened - in a big way - for Lisa Ouellet

In the words of Lisa (Ouellet) Labrecque, "running kind of just happened".

When it happened, however, it happened in a very big way.

The 43 year-old mother of four recently took some time to reflect on a storied career in both track and field and cross-country, one which would see the middle of three girls in the family capture OFSAA gold in the 400m, NCAA gold in the indoor 800m, and represent Canada on two separate occasions at the World Cross-Country Championships.

Not a bad resume for someone who fully assumed that her post-secondary sport of choice was likely to be basketball as she transitioned from grade eight at Ecole Felix-Ricard to the home of high-school hardcourt glory in Sudbury, Lasalle Secondary School, in the early 1990s.

"Because I was very strong in basketball and my dad taught at Lasalle, that was just where you went," she said. Sure, it looked like it might be ringette, at one time, or perhaps one of several other options. "My parents had us in everything - dance, gymnastics, figure skating, ringette, school sports."

"And swimming was non-negotiable; we had a cottage and that's a life skill. Just like my kids, they need to know how to swim."

The first glimmer of cross-country potential would come early in grade nine, as Lasalle hosted one of the September season mini-races that ran through the woods that used to cover the area between the high-school and Cambrian College. "I had basketball practice that day too, and both the race and my practice were almost at the same time," recalled Ouellet.

"So I asked (junior girls basketball coach) Mary Collinson if I could go run the race. I told her I would wear my basketball shoes and be right back. It was an open girls' race and I didn't know what I was doing. We're down to the last kilometer and I'm in the lead with (then city champion) Kerry McKelvie."

Legendary Lasalle running mentor Peter Hocking would take notice. Working alongside Lisette Bernier, the Lancer coaching tandem were the ideal fit for Ouellet, with Dick Moss and the Track North crew complementing the unit nicely by the time the young phenom reached grade eleven.

"It was just a steady progression from that first race," said Ouellet. "It was a matter of getting proper running shoes, proper clothing. I won cities by over a minute, same at NOSSA, and placed eighth in my first OFSAA cross-country. And I pretty much never trained (in grade nine). I did it all on basketball workouts - but Mary Collinson worked us hard."

Clearly, increased running workouts would be required if Ouellet were to ultimately tap into maximizing the talent that would lead her to accept a full scholarship to join the Michigan University Wolverines five years later. Yet coach and athlete were in no immediate rush to get there.

"There was no pressure running for Peter," she stated. "He stressed gradual progression, a lot of communication - he deserves so much credit. I look at year-round sports now, and the pressure to do year-round sports, and I really believe that young athletes need to step back."

"With year-round training, you risk overuse injuries, athletes get tired of the sport, they get burnt out. I really think if I had started hammering the mileage in grade nine, I don't think I would have had the same success."

Still, there was a mental toughness about Ouellet, one that still permeates her current family home. "Pierre (Labrecque - her husband) and I are just like our kids: stubborn, hard-headed, driven," she laughed. "They come by it naturally."

"I hated losing."

Thankfully, the character trait somehow remained on the positive side of the ledger, in large part due to the upbringing she enjoyed. "I was super lucky to have amazing parents (Jean-Paul and Mary)," said Ouellet. "They held me accountable, they never let me go to that side where that much competitiveness can be a negative."

"They would not allow me to be a poor loser."

Largely unaware of the doors that might soon be opened, Ouellet would garner her second OFSAA medal in 1995, one year before taking provincial gold in the same distance. "In grade 12 (grade 13 still existed at the time), I was second in the 800m to future Olympic finalist Carmen Douma, and that summer, I was fourth at Canadian juniors."

"That's when the floodgates just opened and I started getting letters from everyone." Narrowing down to a NCAA final four group that included Arkansas, Purdue, Rice and Michigan, Ouellet favoured staying closer to home and avoiding the stifling heat of the deep south of the United States. The Wolverines also benefitted from strong Canadian content.

"When I got my letter from Michigan, all I could think of was Kevin Sullivan," she said. "He was the god of Canadian track and field at the time."

While her five year stint in Ann Arbour (Michigan) absolutely featured peaks and valleys, key highlights included being part of an NCAA record-setting medley relay team in 1998, as well as capturing the indoor 800m at the Big Ten championships, and earning a berth at outdoor nationals in her final year.

Graduating in 2001 and beginning work as a teacher in Sudbury that same fall, Ouellet stayed clear of training for an 18 month stretch, but in so many ways, came back stronger than ever. "It was March break of my second year of teaching, and I decided I just felt like I wanted to start running again," she said.

"I ran one hundred kilometres that first week. By that fall, I was 13th at the national cross-country championships and qualified for the World Championship Canadian team."

Personal best times ensued, along with the pride of donning the maple leaf singlet in both Belgium and France. Ouellet would come within a whisker of reaching the national "B" standard in the 1500m distance. But by the age of 30, it was time to move on.

"I was OK with not having the title of an Olympian," said Ouellet. "I was super content of where I had gone in sport."

Even if it came in a sport that kind of just happened.

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