Captain Bulldog heading to Saint Leo
Lauren Brooks was a busy and tired girl in her Grade 9 year at Sir Winston Churchill.
The St. Catharines native would spend two hours after school practising with the cross country team and then later that day would be in an arena for three hours training as a competitive figure skater.
“It was crazy and my mom wanted me to make a choice,” the 17-year-old said. “It was a no-brainer for me to decide I wanted to continue running with the Bulldogs because I loved it and I didn’t have the same coaches and team atmosphere experience with skating.
“I never thought I would make the transition but I did and I didn’t regret any of it.”
Figure skating proved to be the perfect stepping stone into distance running.
“The 13 years of figure skating gave me all the athleticism I needed and once I started running with the Sir Winston team, I fell in love with it and obviously never looked back.”
That figure skating background provided more than just a physical head start.
“From an ice skating background, there’s a lot of discipline and a lot of hard work,” Churchill coach Benny Ralston said. “With that mental part of the game, she came to us with the ability to focus.”
That combination of focus and ability recently landed the Grade 12 student a cross country scholarship at NCAA Division 2 Saint Leo University, located in St. Leo Fla. The Lions compete in the Sunshine State Conference.
Brooks began the recruiting process in March by checking out schools in Ontario but she quickly came to realize her goal was to run in the States because of the level of competition.
With that in mind, she posted a profile on the Next College Student Athlete recruiting website.
“It was hard because I couldn’t visit schools, but I had countless phone calls and Zoom meetings with teams and other girls and coaches.”
She eventually narrowed down her list of potential destinations and received scholarship offers from Canisius, Oakland University in Michigan, Niagara University, the University of Tampa and Saint Leo.
“Some of them are D1 and some of them are D2 so I had to determine what I wanted. My main goal is to go to NCAA nationals.”
She quickly zoned in on Saint Leo.
“They have gotten to nationals more than 10 years in a row and they run in D1 races and win,” she said. “I think there is a big stigma around not running D1 but I learned through the recruiting process that D2 is just as competitive as many D1 programs. A really good D2 program could beat a good D2 program.”
She also wanted a strong team ambience.
“I have had such a great time with the Bulldogs program and I really want to bring that forward to my collegiate experience. They have a great coach and a great team atmosphere, it’s in a great location and they have excellent academic programs.”
She is planning to study health science and Brooks is encouraged by the school’s 14 students to one prof ratio.
“I am picking up my entire life and moving to Florida and it’s going to be a big change but having that low ratio will make in an easier transition than going to some giant school.”
She has a number of goals in mind when she arrives at Saint Leo.
“For my freshman year, I want to break 18 minutes for the 5K and I want to be a leader at Saint Leo’s because I have had quite a bit of experience as a leader with my captaincy at Sir Winston,” she said. “And getting to nationals would be a huge goal as well.”
Ralston expects Brooks to make an immediate impression at her new running home.
“When she goes down to Florida, I know she is going to walk in and not take over but she’s going to be part of it,” he said. “She will immerse herself in the culture, she will find out what the coach wants or needs and she will help him with leading that team. She is a natural leader.”
Ralston has been coaching at Sir Winston Churchill for 30 years and Brooks was the first ever female runner to serve as team captain for two years. Usually captains are in Grade 12, 12B or Grade 13 back in the day.
“It’s rare to have someone with that maturity in Grade 11 that they can lead the whole squad and she was my head captain this year and my co-head captain last year,” Ralston said. “She would always be the one next to the newest kid so she could explain the warmup to them. When you hear from your peers as opposed to the coach, somehow you absorb it a little better.”
Brooks’ presence is larger than life.
“She is in charge and I am just there as the decoration,” Ralston said. “She could run the whole show, That’s how good she is.”
Those leadership skills were on display in the fall of 2019 when she captained the senior girls team to a fourth-place finish at the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations’ cross country championships.
“She quarterbacked that team,” Ralston said. “It wasn’t about her being in the top 10 or top 20. It was about leading the girls as a squad and not being scared. We were faced with at least 20 centimetres of snow and it was cold, wet and miserable.”
Her leadership also propelled the midget boys team to a gold medal
“She played a big part in helping them mature. When a cute girl smiles and says, ‘Let’s do this’ you pretty much do whatever she says,” Ralston said, with a laugh.
Her teammates returned her help by supporting Brooks as she ran an 18:45 time in November in a 5,000-metre time trial that caught the attention of Saint Leo.
“It was very rewarding and it was nice seeing the entire team there for me,” Brooks said. “I had two pacers with me, two amazing teammates, just running with me and cheering me on. It was a great day.”
Brooks is looking forward to starting this fall at Saint Leo.
“I am excited to see how other schools practice, different coaches’ viewpoints on things and taking my running to the next level,” she said. “I am so grateful for the four years I had at Sir Winston but I am ready to take the next steps academically and with my running.
“I want to be one of the top runners at Saint Leo and get a degree while doing what I love. Living in Florida where it is nice and warm will be great and the training is going to be unreal.”
Brooks began her running career in Grade 7 and 8.
“I didn’t even think about taking running seriously until I started doing well at meets. I came third at the DSBN (District School Board of Niagara) cross country meet in Grade 8 and also placed third in the 800 metres at the DSBN track and field meet.”
When she arrived in high school, she placed 50th at OFSAA in Grade 9 but her Grade 10 year was a washout because of an iron deficiency in her blood.
“I was totally struggling and it felt like I was running with bricks on my feet,” she said. “I had no energy and I was running like that until track season.”
Once she switched her diet and started taking iron supplements, things changed and she ended up finishing 32nd at OFSAA in Grade 11.
“Our team that year had two Grade 10s and two Grade 11s and we are running against Grade 11s and 12s. We were six points away from a silver medal and three points away from bronze.”
That performance gave the squad high hopes for 2020.
“It was heartbreaking in a sense because we knew we were so close and that’s why we were so excited for this year. We had the exact same team back.”
But the pandemic dashed those hopes.
“Running is an escape for all of us and I know for my team that we are so close-knit and we just love training together. It has been super hard and I can say that for all of us,” Brooks said. “During the cross country season, we are together for three hours a day and we go to races on the weekend. Not having that and not being able to train together has been difficult for all of us bur we are getting through it. We all love the sport and are still doing practices.”
Ralston is planning on staging more time trials in the spring and envisions an even better time for Brooks.
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