By Jonathan Gault
March 25, 2017
KAMPALA, Uganda — On the eve of the 2017 IAAF World Cross Country Championships, the sport’s biggest names, past and present, were assembled on a stage at the Kampala Sheraton to speak at the pre-race press conference. Running legends Sebastian Coe, Tegla Loroupe and Paul Tergat were seated alongside current stars Asbel Kiprop, Stephen Kiprotich, Faith Kipyegon and…Sasha Gollish?
“Olympic champion…Olympic champion…Olympic champion…NOBODY!” joked the 35-year-old Gollish, sporting short dyed blonde hair, as she recalled the experience a few minutes later.
But Gollish, who will run the senior women’s 10,000-meter race after winning the Canadian Championships in November, is not a nobody. In fact, the Toronto native has one of the most interesting stories of the 557 athletes entered in Sunday’s meet. I’d have to double check, but I’m fairly certain she’s the only entrant in the field who took eight years off from competitive running in the middle of her career.
Gollish, who began running at age two, has always been active, and she ran for a year at the University of Toronto (where she ran 4:28 for 1500), but she quit the team during her second year after injuries and burnout sapped her love for the sport. That was 2002. She graduated two years later and went on to earn a master’s, going to work as an engineer building roads.
Gollish has always loved the outdoors, however, and stayed active by alpine skiing, hiking, playing tennis, and biking. A friend introduced her to ultimate frisbee, which quickly became a passion.
“If you ever want the best speed workout one could ever do, you play ultimate frisbee savage, which means there are no substitutions,” Gollish said. “And for an hour and forty minutes, you sprint.”
Gollish didn’t totally abandon running, as she took up the duathlon (biking and running), earning bronze at Worlds in the 30-34 age group in 2013. But track database All-Athletics lists no running results for Gollish from May 2002, when she was 20, to May 2010, when she was 28, and for the better part of 12 years, she was not training and racing seriously as a dedicated runner. Gollish also drank a lot of beer (“By trade I am not a runner, I am an engineer. I went to engineering school. Used to build highways. I drank a lot of beer, which is what engineers do,”), and as a result, at one point she said was 50 pounds heavier than her racing weight on Sunday.
“If you feed yourself right and you train right, your body naturally become what it needs to do to accomplish what you want to do,” Gollish said. “Yes, while drinking beer and being an engineer, I was a little heavier than I was now — by about 50 pounds. But I never panicked, I was never self-conscious about how I looked. At the time, I was really strong; I was an alpine skier, I needed the quads…sure I’m lean now, but at the time I was a lot heavier. But that’s what I needed to be.”
One winter, Gollish began working as an alpine skiing coach in addition to her full-time job as an engineer. She became so busy that one of her running friends complained that she never got a chance to see Gollish anymore, begging her to swing by the track and run some workouts. Gollish began racing again in 2010, but she only trained intermittently, and for the next three years, she never ran faster than 2:12 in the 800 or 4:28 in the 1500.
By May 2014, Gollish was 32 years old and knew her window was closing in the sport. So she decided to raise her level of commitment. She began running every day and showing up to practice three times a week at the University of Toronto for workouts. Gollish began to see results almost immediately. She won her first 1500 of the year, a twilight meet in Toronto on May 27, running a PR of 4:24.60, and two weeks later smashed that time by clocking 4:18.09. That was enough to get her to Canadian nationals, where she finished fifth. After traveling to Europe and running another big PR of 4:13.63 that summer, Gollish’s coach told her she needed to take some time to think about how she wanted to proceed in the sport. Gollish talked it over with her mother, Patricia, and decided to quit her job in August 2014.
“Academia was the most important thing that we could have done [in my family],” Gollish said. “We were not allowed to quit a job without having one. The importance of working hard was always instilled in us. And when my mom, who is the hardest-working person I know, told me I had to quit my job to pursue running, it really made me step back and think about what I was doing.”
While Gollish has a variety of sponsors, Oiselle and Skechers being the most prominent, she doesn’t bring in a lot of money from running and often has to lead fundraising efforts to help make ends meet. But her old engineering boss also lets her come back to work part-time when money is tight, which allows her to continue receiving benefits.
As for running, Gollish has only continued to improve since 2014. In 2015, she rejoined the University of Toronto team (Canadian Interuniversity Sport eligibility rules differ significantly from the NCAA) and won the 1k, 3k and 4×800 relay at the CIS indoor championships. Outdoors, she ran 4:07 and capped her fairytale comeback with a bronze medal at the Pan-Am Games in Toronto.
Inevitably, when an athlete improves as rapidly as Gollish has over the past three years, questions arise about the legitimacy of that athlete’s progress. Gollish knows that no athlete is above suspicion of drug use but says that she has nothing to hide.
“All I can say is that I don’t use PEDs,” Gollish told Canadian Running in 2015. “One of the other hats I wear is that I am on the Ontario Cycling Association board of directors and I lead the initiative for anti-doping policy and I stay on top of what WADA is doing and CCES (Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, Canada’s national anti-doping agency) and there’s nothing in it for me in using PEDs. I’ve got this great career. I run for fun. There’s no place for them in my life.”
Last year, Gollish tried to move up to the 5,000, but even though she was second at the Canadian trials after battling an IT band issue and crippling migraines earlier in the year, she lacked the Olympic standard. She actually came closer to making the Olympic team in the 1500, where was fourth at the Canadian trials, and only .08 short of the 4:07.00 Olympic standard (she ran 15:35 for 5000 – the standards is 15:24). She bounced back, however, and on November 26, one month shy of her 35th birthday, she won her first national title at the Canadian cross country championships, dropping the field with two kilometers to go.
As for Sunday’s race, Gollish knows that she’s overmatched by her far younger, faster East African rivals.
“I don’t have very high expectations,” Gollish “I don’t think I’ll be in the top 10, I don’t even think I’ll be in the top 30. [But] I’m not here for the experience. I’m here to do as best I can.”
But her presence at the press conference, the fact that she was on a stage this morning alongside a slew of Olympic champions, was proof in the power of dreams.
“I think it’s great to encourage other people who didn’t have a traditional path to try and chase dreams. To not be afraid. And to do whatever they feel they need to do.”
Video interview with Gollish
Note: My camera cut out at the 7:50 mark — the question that provoked the next response was along the lines of, “How did it feel to be up on stage with so many accomplished athletes?”
Find out what happened at the rest of the press conference here: 2017 World XC Press Conference Highlights: Olympic Champs Asbel Kiprop, Faith Kipyegon, Stephen Kiprotich and Seb Coe About XC’s Important With XC Legent Paul Tergat