GROUNDBREAKER: Formidable Athlete Transitions into a Coach to be Reckoned With
Leadership is bred in Tanya Dubnicoff's bones. No wonder then that trail-blazing comes naturally. Gutsy performances on the cycling track made her a favourite of Canadian sport fans throughout her 12 years as an international athlete. Her successes landed her in the upper echelons of high achievers. A three-time Olympian, representing Canada in 1992, 1996, and 2000, she is the first, and so far, the only Canadian woman to win a world match sprint title. Team Canada's flag bearer when the Pan American Games were held in her hometown of Winnipeg, she rewarded spectators with a stellar gold medal performance. She also has a couple of world championship bronze medals to her credit, two Commonwealth Games victories, and 16 national championships.
Retiring after the Sydney Olympics, Tanya spent close to a year carefully contemplating her future. One goal was to learn French so she enrolled in an intensive, four-month course at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi. Back in Calgary, she naturally gravitated to the Olympic Oval, where she had trained for many years, and before long was helping speedskaters with their summer training. She took on administrative and coaching responsibilities that led to her appointment as junior development coach with the National Cycling Centre located within the Oval.
Aware that coaching can be a tenuous profession, Tanya earned a degree in television production, just in case. “The first four years of coaching are the toughest because you're working so hard at developing your own methodologies. It's trial and error; you're working 15-hour days for $6 an hour, and wondering why you're doing this.” However, realizing that she had found her calling, she drew on the energy, motivation, and determination that had marked her athletic career to handle whatever coaching threw at her.
In November 2005, Tanya agreed to become the national team BMX (bicycle motocross) coach, seeing it as an opportunity to test her skills in putting a team together. She understood that her own impeccable cycling credentials might not be seen by the BMX community as easily transferable, but she wasn't particularly worried. “Maybe I wasn't a BMX world champion, but I'm definitely world class so my approach was to find ways to work together.” She was also attracted by the young sport's potential to thrill spectators, “the high speeds off the start hill, the huge air off the jumps, the sheer power, and the crashes. It's similar to a power sport like athletics, getting out of the gate as quickly as possible, exploding through corners. It's phenomenal; it's really exciting.”
The dynamics of the sport had changed in June 2003 when the International Olympic Committee announced that BMX would make its Olympic debut at the 2008 Olympic Games. The Canadian Cycling Association, wanting someone who understood Canadian cycling and who had intimate knowledge of the Olympic experience, soon asked Tanya to add the BMX Olympic team head coach position to her responsibilities. An immediate challenge was finding ways to work effectively with BMX star Samantha (Sam) Cools, a five-time world junior champion by the age of 17 and 13-time Canadian champion. “Coaching an athlete like Sam at this relatively early stage of my career was quite challenging because she had been in the sport for 16 years; she has been competing longer than I did.”
Another challenge was finding ways to make changes she believed were essential. “Before becoming an Olympic sport, BMX wasn't necessarily taken seriously on the international stage and I saw certain things that needed to be addressed. Change is always hard, but it was a matter of bringing an element of professionalism to the sport. It helped that Sam was really supportive. She appreciated having a strength trainer to handle year-round strength maintenance, doing specific bike workouts throughout the winter, and more training and less competing.”
Cools, who is now 22, has been training since November 2007 with coach Hervé Krebs at the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) cycling centre in Aigle, Switzerland. It was a move that Tanya understands and supports. “Sam is riding better than ever. Finishing fifth at the world championships in May shows that she's on her way.”
Somewhat unexpectedly, Tanya will be taking two riders to Beijing. Joining Cools is Scott Erwood, who gained a berth for Canada by placing fifth in his round-of-16 heat at the world championships and then earning his ticket in a race-off. Although she admits to looking forward to the “magic that happens when someone performs well at the Olympics,” she is unfazed by her own unique role. “I don't focus on being the first woman to coach BMX at the Olympic Games. I focus on the athletes and all the details that have to be taken care of.”
When Tanya started the BMX program, one of her goals was to develop a BMX Centre. That has now been achieved. The Olympic Oval BMX Performance Program prepares the national team, which has grown to eight cyclists, for the world championships and Olympic Games and provides the athletes with at least six coached sessions a week. The development program trains athletes aged 13 to 16 and provides a minimum of three weekly coached sessions. Facilities include an indoor starting gate, indoor wooden jumps, and an indoor BMX track located 45 minutes from the Oval.
Reflecting on her coaching career, Tanya notes a distinction between being a female athlete and a female coach. “When I was competing, I never experienced any difference between males and females, no matter the level. But, and I hate to say it, as a female coach, people see you differently. Certain male athletes just don't know how to handle a confident, aggressive person like myself. When I stand toe to toe, they don't know how to respond. The lesson I've learned is that I have to be more tactical. If I feel overlooked or that my voice isn't being heard, I now think of ways to re-phrase or re-communicate what I want to get done.”
Tanya's coaching style, honed by her athletic experiences and two years at the National Coaching Institute-Calgary, demonstrates her commitment to striving for perfection, always. “It's about putting everything together. I expect my athletes to show up to practice with their brains switched on, their bikes clean, ready to do the work necessary to get better.” She enjoys painting a realistic picture of the success that hard work can bring. “I say, 'It's going to be awesome, great. You're going to be scared to death, but that's good – that's all part of it. Yeah, it's going to be hard, but nothing's easy.'”
To keep herself on the top of her game, Tanya dares to seek the unorthodox. Recently, for example, she travelled to the United States to listen to track coach Charlie Francis, considered by many a pariah because of his role in the Ben Johnson doping scandal at the 1988 Olympic Games. “Why ever not? Sure we associate him with drugs, but he has great knowledge of the methodology of training and of planning and periodization. And that's why I went.”
Tanya agrees that she is stubborn, determined, knowledgeable, committed, and optimistic, not to mention outspoken and articulate. Taken together, these are the qualities of a groundbreaker, which she most assuredly is.
Article by Sheila Robertson