When Leah Pells walked out onto the track at Atlanta’s sold-out 85,000-seat Centennial Olympic Stadium for the 1996 Olympic 1500m final, the energy, in her words, was “beautiful.” There was a strong Canadian presence down in Georgia that warm summer night, buzzing just minutes after Donovan Bailey and the Canadian men’s 4x100m relay team had won gold. Canadian flags were flying everywhere and now they were yelling for the veteran international runner from Langley.
“You couldn’t help feeling that energy,” she recalled, as she merely went out and ran the race of her life on the world’s biggest stage. Sitting back in the pack for much of the race, on the final lap she unleashed an all-out, driving kick to pass three competitors and finish fourth in a personal best 4min 3.56sec, just half a second from a bronze medal. To this day, it remains the best-ever Olympic finish for a North American woman in the event.
Her unbridled jubilation at the race’s conclusion resonated with Canadians from coast-to-coast. Hundreds sent her cards, letters, and faxes. Back at home days later, an old woman approached Pells ina Walmart and amid tears told her, “That race was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” Pells still gets emotional thinking about that moment. Few knew the challenges she’d overcome to make it to the top during a 12-year international career as one of Canada’s best-ever middle distance runners.
Growing up in Surrey and Langley, one day at Bear Creek Park she saw kids running on the track and immediately wanted to join them. Early on, she tried all track and field events, but truly connected with running. A poster of Mary Decker, the queen of middle distance running, soon hung on her bedroom wall. Years later, Pells would race against her idol too.
By age ten, she was running nearly every day, usually in a pair of beat-up Northstar runners because they couldn’t afford anything better. Long runs of two hours or more became regular, as she loved the peaceful isolation of south Langley’s quiet country roads. After her parents divorced and her mother sunk into destructive alcoholism, running also became her way out of a difficult home life. The adversity she faced fuelled her athletically.
“Part of my success as an athlete was my resiliency,” Pells said. “You don’t grow up like that without becoming an extremely resilient person.” At Langley Secondary School, she trained under coach Steve Read and committed herself to making the Olympics. At SFU, coach Mike Lonergan took her training to the next level, logging 80-90 miles in an average week, and he guided her throughout her career. Fellow BC Sports Hall of Famer Lynn Kanuka also served as a key mentor.
During a long, consistent career that extended into her late thirties, Pells represented Canada at six world championships, three Olympic Games, and three Commonwealth Games. For a time, she was ranked first in the world in the 1500m. Winner of eight national titles at 1500m and 3000m, her Canadian mile record of 4min 23.28sec still stands. In 1999, she electrified Canadian fans at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg by taking silver in the 1500m. After suffering a devastating fractured talus ankle bone at the 2000 Olympics, she amazingly recovered to make the 1500m final at the 2001 world championships in Edmonton.
Since retiring in 2003, Pells has written a book, Not About the Medal, and worked as a Coquitlam counsellor and teacher, guiding at-risk youth.
Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.