Friday, October 9, 2020

Harrison aims to hit new heights, leave no doubts with track

By Darren Steinke
Gordie Howe Sports Complex

Michelle Harrison is at home at the Indoor Training Centre.
Michelle Harrison could have left track and field on a high, but she didn’t want to have any doubts of what might have been.

Last season, Harrison had a dream campaign finishing up her fifth and final year of U Sports eligibility with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s track and field team.

At that Canada West Championships last February in Saskatoon, Harrison won gold in 60-metre hurdles, 60-metre dash and 4 X 200-metre relay. She ran her specialty in the 60-metre hurdles in a conference record time of 8.21 seconds.

Harrison captures conference honours as Female Track Athlete of the Year and the award for Female Outstanding Performance of the Meet.

At the U Sports championships held last March in Edmonton, Harrison won gold in the 60-metre hurdles in a record time for the meet in 8.15 seconds. She won two silver medals with the Huskies 4 X 200-metre and 4 X 400-metre relay teams.

The graduate of Saskatoon’s Evan Hardy Collegiate was named the U Sports Female Track Athlete of the Year and was the Female Athlete of the Meet at the U Sports championships.

On April 1, the Huskies announced Harrison as recipient of the Mary Ethel Cartwright Trophy as the athletic program’s overall female athlete of the year.

After completing her U Sports career, Harrison didn’t want to give up on track and field. She believes she has more potential to realize and didn’t want to wonder if she could have done more in the sport.

“It is hard, because the last indoor season was really good,” said Harrison. “I know right now I am a way better athlete than that.”

Age 27, Harrison is a mature athlete too, and she has had a lengthy and decorated career in track and field filled with ups and downs.

Way back in 2009, Harrison was a member of Team Canada at the World Youth Championships competing in the 400-metre hurdles.

Michelle Harrison in action. (Photo courtesy Louis Christ)
At the 2010 Saskatchewan High School Athletic Association track and field championships, Harrison won gold in the 100-metre, 200-metre, 400-metre and 80-metre hurdles races. She also captured gold medals as a member of Evan Hardy’s 4 X 100-metre and 4 X 400-metre relay teams.

After graduating high school, Harrison competed for three different universities and a high performance centre from 2010 to 2017. They included the Rice University Owls in Houston, Texas, in the NCAA ranks, the Huskies and the York University Lions along with the high-performance track and field hub in Toronto, Ont. She experienced a mix of highs and lows as she often battled injuries along the way.

One of the highs included winning gold in the 100-metre hurdles at the Canada Summer Games in 2013 in Sherbrooke, Quebec. The 100-metre hurdles is Harrison’s specialty on the international track circuit.

Other highs during that time included winning gold in the 60-metre hurdles at the Canada West and U Sports championships in 2014.

The toughest of the lows included training in the high-performance hub in Toronto from 2015-17, where Harrison said coaches were getting fired and athletes were leaving. On top of the turmoil there, Harrison was injured most of that time.

During that time, Harrison had a cup of coffee stay with the Lions program.

She returned home to Saskatoon, got married to her long time boyfriend, Graeme Harrison, and was fairly disillusioned with the sport of track and field. With all of that going on, Michelle came into contact with Jason Reindl, who took over as the head coach of the Huskies.

Reindl, who is a former Huskies men’s track team athlete, had happened to just return home to Saskatoon too after being the head coach of the University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds cross-country running and track and field teams in Fredericton.

Michelle Harrison starred with the Huskies. (Photo Courtesy
Harrison rejoined the Huskies, and it was like the perfect storm happened to rejuvenate her track and field career.

“I think just my coach Jason (Reindl) was a big part of it,” said Harrison. “When I was back in Toronto, I had lost lots of interest in the sport.

“I was about to quit. I just really liked working with him (Reindl). I just like the atmosphere of the team too.

“It was a lot more positive than what I have been used to. My performance improving as well helped too. I think it was just like a combination of a bunch of different things.”

After spending a season to train and get back up to speed, Harrison won gold in the 60-metre hurdles at the Canada West and U Sports championships in 2019. She picked up silver medals at the U Sports championships with the Huskies 4 X 200-metre and 4 X 400-metre relay teams.

In June of 2019, Harrison ran the 100-metre hurdles in a personal best time of 13.13 seconds taking top spot at the Speed River Track and Field Festival in Guelph, Ont. She placed third in the 100-metre hurdles at the Canadian Track and Field Championships in July of 2019.

That set the stage for her final campaign with the Huskies. Now, she has renewed aspirations to qualify for the Olympics.

Following her final season with the Huskies, Harrison was slated to go to meets in Asia and California, but the worldwide grip of the COVID-19 pandemic nixed all of that.

In June, she began working out at the Indoor Training Centre here at the Gordie Howe Sports Complex. Harrison has done strength sessions at Ignite Athletes and run on the field turf with Reindl on hand to offer his coaching expertise.

Michelle Harrison is ready for new track and field challenges.
“Being able to lift here and get to full strength is huge,” said Harrison. “My strength is probably the best it ever has been, so I have been able to work on that a lot, which is good.

“Even just being able to run here, it is nice being able to train on a flat surface and not having to worry about stepping in a hole or whatever in the park. It has been a lot more consistent training.”

Harrison can’t wait to get back into live competition and is currently slated to attend the World Athletics Indoor Championships in Nanjing, China, in March of 2021.

“I’m hoping there is like a season,” said Harrison. “I’ve qualified for the world indoor championships, which are in China in March, so I am hoping that is a go.

“After that, it will be just chasing down the Olympic standard again in the summer.”

Dale takes spotlight as Hilltops first female player

By Darren Steinke
Gordie Howe Sports Complex

Emmarae Dale is the Hilltops first female player.
When media from the big cities came calling, Emmarae Dale really realized just how big her addition to the Saskatoon Hilltops roster was.

On September 15, the Hilltops announced that Dale was officially added to the team’s roster at linebacker making her the team’s first female player. Having been a member of the Saskatoon Valkyries women’s football team and the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s track and field team for four seasons each, Dale expected to be interviewed by members of the Saskatoon media, and she has interacted with a number of those media members in the past.

She did about seven or eight interviews on the day the Hilltops made the announcement.

When she started getting interview requests from media members all across Western Canada including big cities like Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg, the significance of becoming the Hilltops first female player and what is believed to be the first female added to the roster of a CJFL team became greater.

“It definitely started to get real at that point,” said Dale, who has also done interviews for national outlets. “That was when it sort of sunk in this is something bigger than I even realize.

“I kind of realized this is a big moment in history. It is not anything I should be taking lightly at all.”

The 22-year-old played four seasons at linebacker for the Valkyries from 2016 to 2019 helping them win Western Women’s Canadian Football League titles in 2016 and 2019. After joining the powerhouse women’s tackle football team, Dale quickly became one of the squad’s best defensive players.

On top of playing for the Valkyries, Dale competed with the Huskies track and field team for the last four seasons at the U Sports level in throwing events. She helped the Huskies women’s team win the last three straight Canada West Conference titles.

Emmarae Dale dished out big hits for the Valkyries.
Her play for the Valkyries and athletic ability attracted the attention of storied Hilltops, who have won 22 CJFL titles since the modern version of the team hit the field in 1947. The venerable Hilltops have won the last six straight CJFL titles and nine of the last 10 CJFL championships.

Dale, who stands 5-foot-6, has been practicing with the Hilltops for the last five weeks, and she has lost count of how many interviews she has done since news broke that she was officially on the club’s roster. The graduate of Saskatoon’s St. Joseph High School has done interviews with various media outlets including newspapers, radio stations, television stations, webcasts and podcasts.

At first, she didn’t know what it was going to be like to be interviewed by media members from major cities.

“It is definitely a little nerve-racking,” said Dale. “You get kind of a feel for what the questions are going to look like and feel like just from all of the interviews.

“You still don’t really know what they are going to ask. I think the biggest thing for me is just trying to stay articulate and take my time in answering questions. You just don’t know what they are going to ask.

“Just trying to think of things on the spot can be a little bit scary, but I don’t get too nervous talking to people.”

Legendary Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant said Dale is on the Hilltops, because she is good enough to be on the team. Sargeant added Dale is powerful, strong and quick, and you can tell she has done a lot of good work at her training sessions at Ignite Athletics, which is on the grounds of the Gordie Howe Sports Complex.

Dale also works shifts operating the front desk at Ignite, where most of the Hilltops also train and workout. She already knew a number of players on the team, and Sargeant she fit in right off the bat.

“She is very comfortable out here right now, and very relaxed,” said Sargeant. “There is always a smile on her face.

Emmarae Dale (#45) made big plays for the Valkyries.
“She is enjoying what she is doing. You can tell she is learning and feeling good, because we are teaching some systems and getting a feel for all that. There is some newness to what is going on, and we are all enjoying it.

“She is a great kid to be around, and she is embracing the situation she is in as we are. Now, it is our job to make her better, so that she can compete at a high level and make a lot of plays for the Hilltops.”

Hilltops defensive coordinator Jeff Yausie was Dale’s head coach during her first season and her defensive coordinator in second season with the Valkyries. He saw Dale playing flag football during her high school days at St. Joseph High School and was impressed with her athletic and playmaking abilities.

Yausie, who spent time as the head coach of Canada’s national women’s tackle football team, talked Dale into joining the Valkyries and was amazed by how quickly she improved in the game.

“You basically watch her mature and grow up each year and get bigger and stronger and get more comfortable in the football systems,” said Yausie. “To me, she has gotten better and better.

“From my experience coaching the national team, I looked at her and I identified her as a player that she can make that level, if that is what she wants and be dominate at that level. She has a great work ethic, and she is tough.

“Sometimes the intangibles of football make a good football player like toughness, mental toughness. At every practice, she works as hard or harder than everybody else.”

As Dale improved, she hit the point Yausie believed she could play and contribute with the Hilltops. He figured the announcement of her being added to the roster would perk up media interest, but he never expected how wide the interest would spread.

“I’m surprised the amount of attention it has got,” said Yausie. “To me, I don’t think it is that big a deal.

“For me as a person, I just want a player who can play. I don’t care if the player is male or female or whatever. It comes back to her character.”

Emmarae Dale is honoured to play for the Hilltops.
Yausie said Dale’s character is outstanding, and the Hilltops know her family fairly well.

Dale is following in the footsteps of her older brothers, Anthony and Donovan, who played for the Hilltops in the late 2000s and early 2010s. As the weeks go on, Emmarae said it feels more and more special to be a member of the Hilltops.

“It is pretty surreal, and it is a huge honour,” said Dale. “I honestly have no other way to put it other than it is just really humbling being on the team that is the best in Canada and the best in history.

“It is just a huge honour to be able to come out and run around with the guys and compete with them. They are amazing football players, and just to be able to be here is a huge privilege and honour that is not being taken for granted at all.”