Over the years, I've had the pleasure of listening to Esther Sieben speak with pride and passion about the athletes of Cochrane High. Having this one opportunity to learn a little about her athletic accomplishments and the inspiring "Mr. M" that planted the seed was a rare treat.
Cochrane High teacher Esther Sieben has been named as one of four inductees of the first-ever all-Pandas class into the University of Alberta's Sports Wall of Fame.
What many here may not know is that this exceptional coach was one of the most dominant athletes to ever compete for the Pandas track and field program on the national and international stage and to this day holds significant athletic records.
A multi-event star, Esther earned 13 Canada West and four CIAU medals between 1992-96, setting U of A program records in the 60m hurdles, heptathlon, long jump, and triathlon.
The 1996 UAlberta Female Athlete of the Year was also a three-time Canada West Track Athlete of the Year and competed at multiple Canadian Championships, the 1995 Pan Am Games in Argentina, where she placed fourth in the heptathlon, and the 2013 World Masters Games in Toronto, where she won silver in heptathlon.
In addition to competing for the U of A, she won a silver medal at the PAC 10 Championships for Washington State University.
This latest recognition follows her 2014 induction into the Alberta Schools' Athletic Association (ASAA) Hall of Fame for her athletic achievements while attending the Ecole Mallaig Community School. It was in Mallaig, a rural hamlet northeast of Edmonton, that her family operated a dairy farm after immigrating to Canada.
"It was so small that in order for us to have a school team, all of the girls would have to do all the sports," she says.
There, she competed in track and field, cross-country running, volleyball, soccer, and softball, and quickly learned she could run fast and jump.
In grade 10, she won a provincial gold medal in long jump. Because teachers were working to order, there were no provincials in grade 11, but in her senior year, she won gold medals in 100m, 200m, long jump, and hurdles. Esther's senior girl’s long jump of 5.80m has stood as an ASAA record for 33 years.
Esther says her inspiration came from the school's coach, teacher, and assistant principal Ian MacGillivray, affectionately known as Mr. M, who was also inducted into the ASAA Hall of Fame in 2014.
She says he was dedicated to making that small school a great place to be, and it left her with a lasting impression.
"He just became my hero and all through high school I just remember thinking, 'Oh my God, how lucky am I to have a phys ed teacher like this guy."
"He gave me that fire because up until that point it was always teams sports. I played soccer, played volleyball, just kind of a well-rounded athlete. But he said, no I'm serious here. I don't see you being a volleyball player. I see you running track and doing it really well."
"I think because of Mr. M that's why here at Cochrane High for the last 20 years, I've loved this community and I want this community to be a great place for kids to be, just like he did in Mallaig."
She went on to initially join the Edmonton Olympic Track and Field Club and was encouraged by coaches to compete for other teams.
"The next thing you know, you're winning provincial championships and then I got pushed into heptathlon because I was a well-rounded athlete. I had good speed, I had a good arm, and I could jump like the dickens."
"It was just one of those things where you realized you had some talent and if you don't pursue it you'll never know how good you could be. I just kept going, and it was all because of Ian McGillvaray telling me to keep going."
After competing for Washington State University, she came back to pursue her education degree at the University of Alberta.
"That was really cool because your family is close by, your support network is close by, and I just kept training and getting better and faster and jumping higher and throwing farther."
She ended off her university career usually being ranked first, second or third in the nation in the heptathlon.
"It brought me a lot of good things in my life, so I made a pledge to give back."
She says being named to the wall wasn't top of mind.
"This honour of being inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame is pretty humbling because you get to a point in your life where you're not thinking about what you've done anymore. Now you're thinking about kids, you're thinking community programs and how to build them and how to make kids more involved in sport, stuff like that. Then all of a sudden, something comes out of your past, and you say, oh, look at this, I can't believe it. What an honour."
She hopes the recognition will inspire kids to pursue their talents, no matter where they live.
"Whether it's a 1A community or in Cochrane, a 3A community, it doesn't matter. If you have the support networks in place and some good coaching, you'll get to where you need to go if you have the talent."
While proud of the award, her inspiration has long come from watching students experience success.
"When you get them in the sport, they stick with the sport and they realize this is so cool, look at all the doors this has opened, that's when you say, hey, this has come full circle. It's pretty cool, pretty cool."
The university's athletics ceremony is on Nov. 2, and the alumni awards are on Nov. 3.