Most 11-year-olds are not taken too seriously when they make grand declarations.
So when Leah Pells opened her mouth and announced she was going to run in the Olympics one day, those around her told her that was a very nice goal to have.
“Mostly the reaction would be ‘good for you, that’s cute you think that,’” Pells recalled.
“But I could tell, reflecting back now, that they were probably thinking there is no way and she has no clue. She’s just a kid.”
And on May 28, Pells — that ‘kid’ — will be inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
Pells was born in Vancouver and after living for a few years in Surrey, moved to Langley with her mother and younger brother, Lance, when the parents divorced.
After starting with the South Fraser Track Club in Surrey, Pells joined the Langley Sports Club — the precursor to the Langley Mustangs Track and Field Club — when she was eight years old.
Pells played plenty of team sports during her school years — she attended Belmont Elementary and then junior high at Brookswood and high school at Langley Secondary— but she loved running the most, especially the middle distances.
“I liked the individuality of it,” she explained.
“I loved the independence and oneness of running.”
It was with the club where Pells told Steve Read, one of the Langley coaches, about her Olympic aspirations.
“Mr. Read took me more seriously because he knew how much I loved running,” Pells said.
“Although probably in the back of his mind he was thinking ‘OK, you are an 11-year-old kid living in Langley, the Olympics is quite a step away’.
“(But) nobody told me I couldn’t. I just thought someone is going to do it; why can’t I do it?”
Read recalls an athlete who was not the most gifted athletically, but was determined.
“She didn’t have a lot of success initially; there was no thought she would go on to become a Canadian champion or anything like that,” he said.
“(Leah) is a very determined individual; she works very hard at anything she does.”
“Obviously she knew what she wanted and was willing to work for it,” Reid said.
“She was extremely determined at anything she did.”
After graduating from Langley Secondary in 1981 — she finished school a year early after skipping Grade 4 — Pells attended Simon Fraser University.
It was in Burnaby she met Mike Lonergan, then an assistant coach at the national high performance training centre. He would go on to coach Pells over the next 20 years.
“We knew she was talented; it became very evident that she had a great physical talent just from her first training sessions,” he said.
Competing at the NAIA championships, Pells managed to win both the 800 and 1500 titles. Even more impressive was the fact the races were an hour apart.
“To me that was really the eye opener. Lots of people are physically talented, but you have to be a competitor too.”
Also working against Pells was the fact there were so many talented middle distance runners in Canada at that time.
“It wasn’t easy. At that time, in Canada, there were so many girls who were really good, who were world-ranked, so it was a tough nut to break, in terms of making it on the national team and making it to the world championships,” Lonergan said.
“It was a hard thing to do because there were so many good runners there.”
In 1992, Pells fulfilled that childhood dream, qualifying for the Barcelona Olympic Games.
It was the first of three straight appearances at the Olympics, as she also represented Canada in 1996 in Atlanta and 2000 in Sydney.
She said the only greater feeling was when her son Luke was born in 2002.
“Making the first Olympic team had the most meaning because it was all those years of hoping, wanting, trying, believing, and then it really happened,” she said.
“It was such a dream,” she said about the first time she qualified for the Olympics.
“It was such a powerful feeling to know that you could set your sight on something that most people don’t think you could do and then you did it. It is very freeing to achieve something like that.”
All three of her Olympic experiences were different.
In Barcelona, Pells felt like an Olympic tourist since it was so new to her as she tried to soak everything in.
“You are too exhausted to compete properly and I competed horribly,” she admitted.
“(But) I learned a lot at that Olympics that helped me.”
Four years later, Pells put her new knowledge to good use.
“I knew more of what I had to; I wasn’t so enamored by the Olympic propaganda,” she said.
“For me, it was just about competing. This is my job, I am here to win this.”
And it showed on the track as Pells placed fourth in the 1500m event, missing the bronze medal by a mere half second.
While some may be bothered to come up short of the podium on the world’s biggest stage, Pells has a different view.
“For me, just being able to hold it together and compete well enough to continue through the rounds, and then have my fastest time ever — in an Olympic final where there is all that stress — it was a win-win,” she said.
“I never had that feeling ‘oh I wish I had a (medal). I was so incredibly grateful that everything came together and I gave it everything, that was the fastest I ever ran, that was it.”
She completed the race in a personal best 4:03.56. The fourth-place finish marks the best-ever result for a North American woman in the event.
Three years later, Pells did find the podium in the 1500m event at the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg.
“It was very satisfying; I have never been a big hardware person but it was nice to have a medal,” Pells admitted.
She would compete at one more Olympics the following year, but got hurt at the Games.
Her son was born in 2002, and in hindsight, Pells knows she should have retired following the 2000 Olympics. But didn’t want to go out on an injury, so she trained for one more shot at the 2004 Games.
“I didn’t want to retire with an injury, I wanted to compete and then retire,” she said.
However, when her mother Lana passed away in the summer of 2004, Pells quit on the spot.
“That was it, I just stopped then and there,” she said. “I was done, I was ready.”
She retired from middle distance running, having attended six world championships, three Olympic Games, three Commonwealth Games and a Pan American Games.
Pells still runs daily — 5 km every morning before work and then 15 km on both Saturdays and Sundays — and she holds the Canadian women’s record in the one-mile run at 4:23.28, which she set in 1996.
These days, Pells works as a school counsellor in Coquitlam and is also a registered clinical counsellor with a small private practice.
She holds a bachelor of arts in psychology and a bachelor of arts in education from Simon Fraser University. She also has a masters degree in counselling from UBC.
Pells also works as motivational speaker and wrote a book Not About the Medal, which chronicles her upbringing in a single-parent home of an alcoholic.
“I needed to make peace with all of that and put it behind me and move on,” she said.
Pells — who admits to not being a fan of banquets and formal recognition — is thrilled some of those who have helped her along the way will be there to share in her special day.
“This banquet is more about representing and appreciating my village, my coaches, my family, my husband (John Turenne), my son, the companies that helped me,” she said.
“I had a lot of people help me along the way and this is going to be about acknowledging that.”
“I am grateful that my coaches Steve Read and Mike Lonergan will be recognized,” she added.
“When I was competing, I talked to Mike or saw Mike every day for about 18 years.”
“You don’t get paid to coach track and field, even at an Olympic level. These guys just do it because they are good guys.”
The Banquet of Champions will be held at the Vancouver Convention Centre West and Pells is one of nine individuals and one team who make up the 2015 induction class.