Don't Stop Playing

By Kevin McKay

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Photo by Kevin Mckay Olympian Don Steen coaching his track athletes at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby.

The world was a different place when a team of Canadian hockey players lined up in Toronto against the Soviet Union on the night of September 4, 1972. An ocean away in Munich, Canadian Olympic Track and Field coach Don Steen was among a group of Olympic coaches and athletes who wanted to watch the game.

“Because the game took place in the middle of the night in Germany, access to and from the Village was restricted by locked gates so we had to resort to climbing fences to get to the media centre.”

After watching Team Canada’s victory, the Canadians made their way back to their dorms. “We jumped back over the fence and went to bed. Unbeknownst to us, shortly after we went over the fence, Palestinian rebels did the same. I got woken up by a couple of athletes banging on my door and declaring all hell was breaking loose. Our dorm was right next to the Koreans who were beside the Israelis. I peeked around the corner of the Korean building and saw this guy wearing a hat and carrying a machine gun, obviously one of the rebels. He was close enough for me to talk to. A policeman pulled me back and, within minutes, the Village was on lockdown. The rest of the story is history. Despite the tragedy, the athletes did not want to leave, and continued on with the competition, though security really tightened up at that point.”

Having a front row seat to one of the most notorious terrorist attacks in modern history is just one act in the remarkable life of one of Canada’s greatest competitors and coaches. Born in 1935 into an athletic family, Don grew up in Vancouver first, and later Burnaby, attending school in both cities. Though he became best known in the field of athletics (track and field) his first love was basketball.

“I was very heavily into basketball,” says Don. “I went to Sunday school as a youngster and the son of the minister had been a professional athlete in California. He took me under his wing and was very instrumental in teaching me the game, though I have to say I didn’t need much convincing. When I was going to Lord Byng High School, my basketball buddies and I used to pick the lock of the women’s gym at UBC. The security guy got so tired of catching us there, after a while, he just told us to make sure we locked up when we left.”

While playing for Burnaby South, Don achieved a scoring record during the provincial championship tournament that stood for 11 years; was named tournament MVP once; and twice named to the all-star team. He even made it onto the Vancouver Clover Leafs, a Senior-A men’s basketball team, when he was just 16 years old. Don also competed in high school rugby and track and field and continued his winning ways by representing Canada in both rugby and track and field.

After graduation, Don accepted a track and field scholarship to attend the University of Oregon, where he obtained both a Bachelor and Master’s of Science degree. During his time there, Don was coached by Bill Bowerman and had a teammate named Phil Knight. That pair would later team up to form a little shoe company called Nike. While at university, Don had one final hurrah with the sport of basketball. When he was entering his last year of college eligibility, he asked his track coach if he could try out for the basketball team.

“My coach did not think that I had any chance to make the team, so he told me to go ahead. Well I did make the team, much to his chagrin, and really enjoyed playing that year.”

Though Don set the Canadian record for the decathlon, a grueling two day-long competition involving 10 different track and field events, he was denied a chance to compete in the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 due to a lack of funding for Canadian athletes. Though he never had a chance to experience Olympic glory as an athlete, Don was thrilled to attend the 1988 Games in Seoul, where his son David set his own Canadian record en route to winning the bronze medal in the same event. Unfortunately, the Ben Johnson drug-tainted win and subsequent disqualification in the 100-metres overshadowed Dave’s amazing performance.

“Prior to the Seoul Olympics, the doctor working with Ben approached David and offered him a special ‘vitamin’ supplement, promising it would make him an even better athlete. David refused, saying he wanted to win on his own. He then insisted Athletics Canada test him monthly leading up to the 1988 Olympics to prove he was competing clean. I was very proud of him for taking that stand.”

Don has another reason to be proud - *Sports Illustrated* has listed him and Dave as the top father-son combination in the world when you add up their best decathlon scores.

Every decathlete has events they are better at than others. Don says with a laugh, “The pole vault was my weakest event. I would continually smash my face against the bar while training and when I would get home, my mother would say ‘Oh, I see you have a fat lip. You must have been practicing pole vault.’ My long jump and high jump were pretty good and my hurdles weren’t bad, but javelin was probably my favourite and that is what I spend most of my time coaching now.”

His long career as a coach began at Burnaby South High School where he worked as a teacher and established a program that dominated the track scene for years. He also founded the Burnaby Striders Track and Field Club and served as head coach during a time when the club churned out several Canadian Olympians. He was the first head track and field coach at Simon Fraser University, during which time he created and hosted the first BC high school track and field championships.

In 1969, Don’s life took another turn when he got involved with a new organization looking after athletic competitions in BC schools.

“I was conscripted by a group of school superintendents to create a school sports federation, which became the organization we know today as BC School Sports. This became more than a full-time job, communicating with hundreds of schools all over the province and all the various sports commissions, and putting on championships for the many sporting groups.”

Along the way, Don became involved with BC Blind Sports and Recreation Association. Since getting involved, he has coached many athletes who are visually impaired or blind, something that brings its own unique challenges.

“Working with these athletes has been very rewarding for me, though you need to find new ways to do things. When you are teaching a discus thrower who is visually impaired, you cannot just tell them to watch you. You have to use sound cues and other strategies to teach the techniques.”

Don has been a staff coach of Team Canada at the Paralympic Games in Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney and Athens as well as a number of World Championship and Pan American teams.

Don continues to coach today, including the current Canadian champion in javelin, Curtis Moss, who competed at the London Olympic Games last summer. But some of his favourite times are coaching a group of masters track and field athletes between the ages of 60 and 66.

“They have taught me some very valuable lessons,” he says. “I swear they are getting younger each year. In 10 years, I can see them all bragging about how much stronger they are now than they were when they were in their sixties. I believe that at any age, our bodies are capable of growing and people should always pursue a healthy lifestyle, regardless of age. The thing I have said for years is this: ‘Man does not stop playing because he grows old, man grows old because he stops playing.’”

At 78, Don Steen, a man of impressive accomplishments, including membership in the BC Sports Hall of Fame, Burnaby Sports Hall of Fame and BC Athletics Coaches Hall of Fame, is living proof that for all the work he has put in, he has not even begun to stop playing.



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Showing 1 to 2 of 2 comments.

I was in grade 9 when Don an Bob Ramsay led BSouth to Sr. boys prov basketball Champions....inspired many of us

Posted by Wayne Pitchko | August 17, 2016 Report Violation

Don Steen was my wrestling coach from 1964 to 1967. He was far ahead of his time when it came to motivating individuals and teams. We had an excellent wrestling team at Burnaby South under Don's coaching. To me Don was the best! I have never forgotten him or his teaching to pursue excellence in all one's endeavours. I still love that man. Garry

Posted by Garry Stone | December 29, 2013 Report Violation

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