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Remarkable Teacher

Bruny Surin.

Full Speed Ahead

Bruny Surin and the teacher who propelled him to success, on and off the track.

BY Teddy Katz
PHOTOS: Jean-Sebastien Senecal (above); Claus Anderson (below)

Bruny Surin still can't go more than a week or two without strangers recognizing him on the street and starting conversations about his feat in Atlanta, almost 25 years ago.

"The thing that I hear the most is 'I remember where I was and what I was doing when we won.' The first time I heard that 'we' I was kind of surprised," Surin says. But over time, the significance sunk in.

"I started to understand the impact this had on the nation. It became we, as Canadians, won. Not the four guys on the track. Twenty-four years later and people are still talking about it that way. It's crazy."

Surin was part of a 4x100 metre men's relay team at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. On race day — a hot Saturday evening — 83,000 people were packed into the stadium for the marquee event. In a TV interview earlier that day, the U.S. team coach had guaranteed his squad would be victorious. Media south of the border had paid the Canadians little attention, all but handing the gold medals to the Americans, before the race had even started.

But that night, the four Canucks powered past the heavily favoured U.S. team. They took the gold and bested the Americans on their home soil, capturing the hearts of Canadians in the process. "I don't think I'll have a rush of adrenalin like that again," says Surin.

Bruny Surin and his teammates (Donovan Bailey, Glenroy Gilbert and Robert Esmie) etched their names in the history books, cementing the foursome as one of Canada's top sports dynasties. Between 1994 and 1998, they were among the fastest teams on the planet, outpacing rivals not just at the Olympics, but at the Commonwealth Games and World Championships, too.

It's a path Surin says he might not have been on at all, if not for his high school physical education teacher, Mr. Seguy, at école Lucien-Pagé in Montréal.

When Surin first arrived in Canada from Haiti, in January 1975, he was a shy seven-year-old, unsure of himself and reluctant to take chances. Through all of elementary school and the early part of high school, Surin sat in the back row of each of his classes. "I was afraid and too shy to talk in front of people. When I had to do even just a five-minute talk in front of other students, I hated it," he says.

Bruny Surin at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
His teacher's encouragement started Surin on the path to Olympic gold in Atlanta, 1996.

But when physical education teacher Mr. Seguy (Bruny never knew his first name) spotted Surin's speed on the track and his long jump at the end of his first year of high school, it changed his life for good.

Three weeks before a regional track and field meet, Seguy had his gym class run through the competition events. When Surin sprinted a practice race, his teacher couldn't believe his eyes.

"I don't remember exactly what he said, but I remember the way he reacted because at that age we did 80 metres (not 100) and for him it was the first time he saw somebody so young run so fast at the 80 metres."

At the meet, Seguy helped Surin build his confidence even more. "The way he was speaking to me, I was like, 'Wow, this is interesting! This is good. Maybe, I'm not too bad.'"

Surin ended up winning several medals that day, and made it clear he was an athlete to be taken seriously. His teacher advised him to join a track club to pursue the sport.

"He's the one who gave me confidence and taught me to believe in myself," Surin says, adding, "He had a big, big impact."

Daniel St-Hilaire, a coach with the Canadian national track team, was also on hand at that same track meet. He was just as impressed seeing the way the teenager could run and told Surin he had the talent to become a world champion.

"I actually tried to recruit him for five years," St-Hilaire says. But Surin wasn't interested. St-Hilaire refused to take no for answer.

It took five years of prodding and encouragement from Seguy and St-Hilaire to convince Surin to pursue track as his main athletic goal; plus there was one other significant event. "It's only after I saw (sprinting star) Carl Lewis at the 1984 Olympics that I changed my mind. I wanted to be that guy," says Surin. "He became my idol, so that's why I started track and field."

At 17, Surin openly shared his new and lofty dream. "Everybody laughed at me when I said I wanted to participate at the Olympic Games. Everybody said that I couldn't do it. Ninety-nine per cent of people were saying that I was crazy." But Surin's goal wasn't just to compete. "I said one day I'm going to be one of the fastest."

St-Hilaire started coaching him and taught him how to train his body and his mind. More importantly, Mr. Seguy helped Surin believe his dream was possible.

In 1999 at the World Championship, Surin won a silver medal, running the 100 metres in a time of 9.84 seconds — matching Canadian Donovan Bailey's world record. "My ultimate goal was to run faster than my idol, Carl Lewis. And when I was 32 years old, I achieved it."

Now an entrepreneur, the once-shy Surin laughs at the irony that he is now in demand as a public speaker, able to share the lessons he learned from his youth. "Today when I speak at events, I always encourage people to say out loud what they want to do and to not be afraid, to not be shy because I remember I was like that. And if I didn't have Mr. Seguy and Daniel, plus my parents always pushing me to make me believe that yes, it's possible, maybe I would still be the same shy individual."

Surin last saw his former high school teacher about 15 years ago at the National Training Centre in Montréal, where those old high school competitions used to take place.

They laughed together as they reminisced about the early days. "I told him maybe two or three times, I'm so grateful that he pushed me, that he believed in me and that he made me believe in myself," says Surin. "I've said for years that I think physical education teachers (like Mr. Seguy) don't have the recognition that they deserve."

When the two last chatted, Seguy didn't want to take any credit for Surin's accomplishments, which saw him inducted into the Canada's Sports Hall of Fame and Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame.

Seguy was delighted to see the athlete and the man Surin had become, exuding a quiet confidence and remaining humble, despite his success in an event, the 100 metres, known for celebrity athletes with outsized egos. "He told me he's not surprised at all about everything that I've accomplished in my sports career, and he's very proud to have known me from the beginning."

In this profile, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have embraced the College's Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are care, respect, trust and integrity.