During the first week of September 1995, Ella Lee walked onto the track area of the BC Senior Games in Oliver, and wondered what she was doing there. She knew she was entering some races in a track meet; it’s just that, at 57, she had never competed in one before.
“This was my very first ever experience at a track meet,” she laughs. “I was so green, I didn’t even know that there were such a thing as running cleats. I just used my runners and ran in them. I hadn’t even done any track training prior to the meet. I met the coach for the first time up there. I was very fortunate that our zone co-ordinator, Rod Palmer, and his wife Margaret were watching for me. They took me in their hands and made sure I knew what to do and where to go.”
Ella’s first foray into the world of track and field was a successful one. She was entered in the 55-60-year-old age category, the youngest group in the Seniors Games, up against the best female runners at the meet. Before trying her hand at track and field, Ella had played softball for many years, both as a young girl and then later as an adult. She claims this helped her decide which events to enter.
“I knew from my years of playing ball that I could run from home plate to first, as well as all around the bases fast. This helped me to decide to concentrate on the shorter races in track. I signed up for the 100-metre and the 200-metre races. I got a silver in the 100-metre, and won the gold in the 200-metre, while wearing runners.”
This led to even more success. “Rod asked me if I would help the girls run a relay race. I said to him, ‘Sure. Just tell me what do I do.’ We entered in the 4 x 100-metre race and I ran lead. We won the gold medal, and this same group of four women won about three or four gold medals together over the next few years.”
Ella competed again in 1996 at the Senior Games in Kamloops and, again, did very well. At least this time, she had cleats! From there, she decided to go on and compete at the first-ever Canada Senior Games held that September in Regina. Despite the fact she was still a very inexperienced runner, Ella did herself proud. “I ran very well and managed to win two silver medals in the 100 and the 200 metres, only losing to a woman from Alberta,” she recalls. “When it came time for the relays, there were only four of us there from B.C. including my husband Art. Even though he did not run track, he was a good sport and agreed to join us to form a four-person team for the mixed 4 x 100 metre relay. Despite our lack of training, we won a silver in that race as well. Those games were an awesome experience. Everything was so well done. It was funny, the banquet was held in a funeral home and we were all joking that they certainly knew where to put the seniors!”
Ella and Art took advantage of this trip to Saskatchewan to visit Ella’s roots. They drove the two hours to the old family farm. Ella and her seven brothers and sisters grew up on the farmstead. And like most farming youngsters from the Prairies, Ella had her share of chores and work to do on her parents’ grain farm. She remembers they grew wheat, flax and barley, and had some cattle and pigs.
“We were up early and had to do all our chores before we went to school,” says Ella. “I had to feed the pigs every morning and often fed the chickens as well. We also had chores to do in the house, cleaning, and everyone pitched in at meal time.”
In those days, Ella and her siblings walked to and from school every day until winter hit. When the conditions got too tough, her father would give them all a ride to school on a horse-driven sleigh. She claims to have picked up some very important lessons from her parents. “I saw how hard they worked. None of us will ever have to work as hard as they did. My Dad taught me that if you are going to do a job, do it right or don’t do it at all, while my mother always told us not to leave the house looking like we came out of the washer. To this day, I still iron my clothes.”
Though she considered herself an average student, Ella admits to enjoying her physical education classes, which led to her love of sports. “I used to wish we had gymnastics at our school,” she says, “but we didn’t, so I played fastball in the summer and, in the winter, I curled. I enjoyed these sports right up to the time I left high school.”By the time that happened, Ella had worked a couple of part-time jobs at a grocery store and a theatre. The experience she gained handling the cash made finding a job in a bank easy when she finished school and moved to the big city of Regina. Her long banking career took her and her first husband to places like Regina, Swift Current and Winnipeg before they eventually wound up in the Lower Mainland in 1973.
Ella’s first husband passed away in 1984 and, by 1986, her son had grown up, so when a friend asked her if she wanted to join a slo-pitch softball team, Ella was delighted to say yes after 30 years away from playing sports.
“I tried it, I liked it and I have been playing ever since,” she says. “When I started playing, there was this teammate of mine named Art Lee. We started dating and got married in 1993. We have played ball together for over 20 years now, and we never fight about it.”
Although she has played a lot of ball for many teams over the years, Ella claims her career highlight was playing for a women's team that went on a trip down south in 2005. That team entered a tournament in Las Vegas and won the silver medal before moving on to the prestigious World Masters Tournament in Utah, where her team won the bronze medal.
While competing in slo-pitch during her first BC Seniors Games, in 1994, in Prince Rupert, Ella started paying attention to track and field and decided she would give it a try the next year. She did, and by the time her third Senior Games came around in 1997, Ella got to compete close to home during the New Westminster Games. She remembers those games fondly because, “Helen Sparkes, who was the Mayor of New Westminster, at the time, ran with us and we won gold in the 4 x 100-metre relay.”
A couple of years after that, Ella started training for track on a more regular basis following the formation of the Tri City Greyhounds Track Team. They practise up to three times a week, allowing Ella and the other 40-plus members to train with others close to their own age group. “It motivates me to see these people who don’t do anything,” she says. “If you try, you can at least do something. We have to count our blessings. A lot of people our age can’t do it or never could.”
Now, after years of winning medals in many track meets, including a silver medal in the javelin during the 2000 Senior Games in Kelowna, Ella is most proud of a record she achieved last summer. At the BC Masters Track and Field competition held in Surrey in June, Ella and her three teammates set a Canadian record in the 4 x 100-metre relay for senior women 70 and up. Like in most of her relay races, Ella ran lead, getting her team off to a flying start.
“I like running lead,” she says. “I feel comfortable doing that because I know when I have to pass the baton. That was such an incredible feat because that team had never even practised together before that meet.”
So, what is next for this amazing woman still setting records at age 70? “Definitely, sports is a very important part of my life. I love all the social benefits to it. With our running club we just have a hoot,” says Ella. “We go for food after a meet and have a big wind up event at the end of the year. For me, it’s as much about spending time with the people as it is about the sport itself. Every year, I tell myself that this is it: I’m going to quit, and then I just keep on going. With ball, I want to quit when I become a hindrance to my team. With track, I will probably go on a little longer - as long as I can run a decent time for my age.”
It doesn’t sound like these cleats will be hung up any time soon.
JULY 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER
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