By Paul Gains
As an impressionable fourteen year old Silvia Ruegger was so inspired by the athleticism at the Montreal Olympics that she secretly wrote down her dream of becoming an Olympian herself, then slipped the piece of paper beneath the floor boards of her bedroom.
Not only did she achieve her objective - she finished 8th in the 1984 Olympic marathon with a Canadian record of 2:29:08 - she set the still standing record of 2:28:36 at the 1985 Houston Marathon
Now she believes that her twenty-seven year old record might finally be beaten - possibly at this year's Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon.
A keen observer of the sport she watched the results from the 2011 Rotterdam marathon where Canadians Lanni Marchant (2:31:51) and Krista DuChene (2:32:06) edged closer. Both are aiming to beat the 2:30 barrier in Toronto, which is an IAAF Silver Label race, and view Ruegger's standard as a conceivable target. Ruegger met DuChene at a recent banquet where she offered encouragement
"I don't need a record," Ruegger declares with a smile. "t's not my identity. I am grateful for it and that it has withstood time because it means something to our society. It has allowed me to be a voice for children in the nation who don't have a voice. It has given me a platform and has allowed me to do things on behalf of the children in Canada who live in poverty
Ruegger is the National Director of Start2Finish Running and Reading Clubs and will be once again running for the charity at this year's Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Though she is proud of the record her career was shortened before she reached her full potential.
"I believed I had more in me and I would run faster than that," the 51 year old reveals. " had a car accident and a number of things that changed the direction of my career. I believed I could go faster so I thought that other women would come along and say 'if Silvia Ruegger ran that I can run that.'"
"We were running over 200 kilometres a week in training. We were running over the marathon distance in training so that when we came to the race itself we would be prepared mentally and physically for everything."
The accident of which she speaks was an horrific ordeal. It happened in January 1985, two weeks following her Canadian record run. After hitting an icy patch on a rural road outside Guelph, Ontario she spun out of control and was hit head on by a car travelling the opposite direction. The impact was enough to eject her through the driver side window and sent her soaring through the air and into a snow covered ditch. According to a witness her body bounced twice on the pavement before coming to a stop. It was a miracle that she lived.
She was living and studying in Guelph, Ontario at the time and was returning from a workout with her coach, Hugh Cameron, in Toronto. Besides a concussion and soft tissue injuries she did untold damage to muscles in her thigh which limited her running for the next two years. Not for the first time in her life, she persevered. When she was unable to run she continued cardiovascular training on a bicycle or in a pool.
In 1987 Ruegger ran the Pittsburgh Marathon finishing in a time of 2:31:53. Although it was the slowest of her four marathons, and qualified her for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, injuries again prevented her from advancing any further. She traces the injuries back to the accident.
"In retrospect you never fully understand the extent of the accident. I had a major haematoma, I had a concussion and a lot of stitches, just soft tissue things, from the impact," she recounts. "The major injury was to the rectus femoris, which is your major quad muscle it was either torn or severely impacted. That's what kept me out of running.
"When I tried to come back, it was a struggle to get back to that level of intensity without breaking down. There were just a lot of injuries after that. I was able to train but would often get ready to compete then break down with injuries."
Ruegger grew up in rural Newtonville, Ontario just east of Toronto and began her Olympic pursuit running high school cross country and track. With her mother driving behind with the car headlights on Ruegger would train after school, always keeping in mind her secret goal. She ran well enough to earn U.S. university scholarship offers but chose the University of Guelph for its academic programs.
In 1980 she won the Canadian cross country championships. Then she heard that the International Olympic Committee had approved the first ever women's marathon at the Olympics and thought it was her best chance to become an Olympian.
"I heard about Hugh Cameron," she recalls, " saw his name in a magazine. I called him up in January 1984 never having met him and said ‘share my dream I want to try and make the Olympic team in the marathon in May - four months away.'
"Hugh was very gracious. He said ‘Silvia it's going to be hard.' Not once did he discount that it could be a reality even though I was coming back from two and a half years of injury. He had a group in the Etobicoke Huskies it was fantastic: Dave Edge, Dave Reid, Mike Dyon and thirty others. He thought it was important for me to come to Toronto."
In preparation for the 1984 Ottawa Marathon, which served as the Olympic trials, twice a week she would catch a Greyhound bus outside the Guelph campus, which dropped her in downtown Toronto. From there she rode the subway and a bus to join Cameron and the group for workouts.
"After the workout I would do the same thing," she recalls, laughing. "t was a ten hour round trip (back to Guelph). But you know what, I had such a passion to realise my dream to be an Olympian. As a woman I was so excited that the doors opened up (with the marathon) so I never considered it a sacrifice. Never thought it was a sacrifice."
Today Ruegger delights in getting out for a run. As often as possible she joins the kids in the Start2Finish program at locations throughout the Greater Toronto Area and in Guelph or Waterloo running and playing games with them. Perhaps there is a future Olympian amongst them, she muses
"When I wrote that dream I never thought about the cost," she declares. " never thought whether I had the ability. I really hadn't shown any unusual talent. I thought the only thing that would keep me from achieving the dream would be my own unwillingness to work hard enough and give enough. So that was always my mindset. If I work hard enough and am willing to make those sacrifices I would see that dream realised.
"I have a strong faith in God too and I believe that He gives dreams. That for me that was the root of my pursuit. When people would say what did you give I would say, what did I not give?"