By Darren Lum
Olympic standards may be only numbers on their own, but for Haliburton County’s only Olympian, Lesley Tashlin represents so much more and stands for what is possible.
Tashlin, married to Craig Taylor, and mother of two daughters, Jorga, 19, and Emma, 24, with her own business in Ottawa, ran the 100 metre hurdles and the 4 x 100 metre relay at the Atlanta Games in 1996.
A year before Atlanta she was the Canadian champion and several years before that won gold for York University in 1992. Her close to 10 year career representing Canada on the world stage racing the best track athletes in the world included reaching finals in four major international events, including fourth place finishes in the Commonwealth Games and the Pan Am Games. Tashlin retired from track in 2002.
Tashlin, the Haliburton Highlands Secondary School graduate and Athlete of the Year in 1988, is a humble hero that is an inspiration to young people here, who were compelled to put forth an effort to have her (and her brother Taly Williams) be included among the professional athletes that have their likeness in murals on the side of the A.J. LaRue Arena.
Before Tashlin had national and international success in university and on the world stage, she was an all-around athlete in high school, competing for the field hockey team, badminton team, volleyball team and the track team at Haliburton Highlands Secondary School.
When she went to school athletics was integral to her life there, she said.
“Academics was not the draw,” she said. “It was, ‘I get to play field hockey. I get to do volleyball. I get to do this. Ok, I’ll be there.’ Also, kids don’t get exposed to what maybe they might have a talent for. I think when I was going to school regardless how you felt about academics a good number of us were involved in sports teams that were available, male and female. It was just part of school. I found it really valuable. You learn a lot on a team. How to work together. How to get over your differences and when kids don’t have that opportunity I’m thinking, perhaps, they’re not getting life skills just while playing a sport,” she said.
High school track coach and teacher Paul Morissette said her story is about how anyone from humble beginnings can achieve anything.
From his experience, high performance athletes often put sport first, but that wasn’t the case with Tashlin just like her four siblings, who were all excellent academic students, he added.
He remembers how she was an introvert by nature unlike her siblings, but let her performances and attitude on the pitch and court speak volumes.
With the exception of track athletes like Canadian sprinter Andre Degrasse, who won gold at Tokyo, money is difficult to come by. Track is for a love of sport and camaraderie for athletes such as Tashlin.
“To be a high level athlete in a non-monetary sport and most of our Olympic sports we just watch them in summer other than the gold medallist and that sort of thing. All the other members of the teams it’s a day to day thing. It’s got to be a love of competition and the dream of becoming an Olympian, knowing full well … it’s not like hockey, baseball, or basketball. It’s a love of sport,” he said.
Without discounting Tashlin’s talents, he said it was her drive and discipline she exhibited during her time training at the post-secondary school level of athletics that he believed was pivotal to her achievements in becoming the best in Canada and among the best hurdlers in the world.
“Of course you need talent, but Lesley was never a high school champion. She medaled at OFSAA. Never a gold medal. She did all the other sports as well. Most kids who are at the highest level as a high school athlete begin to refine into one particular sport. She didn’t do that,” he said.
He remembers how she competed at the all-provincials in mixed doubles badminton and was then out training for track because to her it was fun.
“The main thing I would thrust [forward] is that sports has become so highly perfected and even at a young age you see these young hockey players at 10 or 12 years old and everything is AAA and they have shooting practice it’s almost work. For her it was fun in her youth. It was always fun. That’s the lesson. She only got serious when she was at university and beyond,” he said.
He adds part of her athletic achievements came after she had her first child in 1997, which at the time was not the norm like it is now. He said it was inspirational her improvement was achieved despite the logistical challenges, juggling being a parent and a high performance athlete.
The narrative of coming from small town Haliburton and making it big wasn’t really part of Tashlin’s motivation.
“For whatever reason, in my outlook coming from a small town didn’t mean I couldn’t do it. Maybe it was because I wasn’t solely in a small town all the time,” she said.
She adds she was born in Toronto and left for regular trips to the city with her mother and spent three years attending a gymnastics school in Toronto. It offered her perspective and broadened her sense of what was possible.
“My achievement was just something I decided to do. I won’t say anyone can do it because clearly that’s not the case, but there is at least the opportunity there to do your best to get to where you want to go. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to, or sometimes unfortunately the talent level isn’t quite there, but that doesn’t mean anyone should stop. Try because you never know,” she said. “That’s the thing for myself. I had no idea. I didn’t leave high school in Haliburton thinking I was going to the Olympics. I didn’t think about that at all. I just decided to continue to do track and field.”
She said it took a person to tell her that she had the potential that motivated her to work towards the Olympics at a time when athletes are peaking.
The past several months, area youth have taken to her story as motivation for their own aspirations for what is possible. Last year, when a Grade 7 and 8 J. Douglas Hodgson Elementary class with teacher Marina Thomazo learned about her story and her brother’s they knew it needed to be celebrated and saw the mural wall of athletes for the perfect recognition of her Olympic achivement. From what they perceived to be an injustice, it led the way for them to campaign for her and her brother to be included on the side of the A.J. LaRue Arena like other high standing athletes.
Tashlin credited the students for their efforts, particularly Sky MacArthur for writing her, seeking approval to pursue the town council’s approval, which initiated the effort.
“It wouldn’t have happened if she didn’t say, ‘hey can i send this woman an email,’” she said. “Whatever triggered her to do this I’m going to do this.’ I don’t know … but good on her.”
It’s not only youth here, but also her daughters, who have appreciated the story of the class’ effort.
“They heard about it as it unfolded. They think it’s really cool mum will be on the side of the arena. Mum is a little apprehensive about seeing a big picture of herself up there to be honest with you. They’re pretty pumped about it. I have to say they think more about the fact I went to the Olympics than I do myself,” she said.
Her youngest daughter, Jorga, 19, is striving to follow in her footsteps, she said.
Thus far a broken ankle and the pandemic has done little to dissuade her on her path to the Olympics, but she remains steadfast in her desire to follow in her mother’s footsteps.
Tashlin and her husband made a conscious decision to not push their talented daughters into high performance sports.
“Just because I did it doesn’t mean you have to do it,” she said.
Her daughter though is keen to represent the nation like her mother.
“I never said you had to hurdle. And she just gave me this look and said, ‘Yeah, but I wanted to do what you did,’” she said.
Giving back to sport after competing is more fulfilling for Tashlin than her past achievements, she said.
After competing for Canada at the Commonwealth Games in 1994 and 1998, the Pan American Games in 1995 and 1999, the Olympics and Jeux de la Francophonie in 2001, she rejoined the national program as a registered sports massage therapist, providing care to athletes because of seeing another Canadian athlete, who left athletics and became a massage therapist and returned to help other athletes.
“One of the things that stands out for me is not necessarily what I personally did as an athlete. What I really enjoy through all of this was giving back by being able to as a massage therapist help other athletes trying to get to where they want to go,” she said. “When I was an athlete it was pretty lean. Even with the integrated support team they have now [which includes] massage therapists, chiropractors, physiotherapists, sports med docs. All those people. When I was travelling before you were lucky if you had a massage therapist and then everyone wanted to see that one massage therapist and I’ll give credit to them. They worked their butts off to help us.”
Despite the broader coverage of help and support available to high ranked Canadian athletes, which is a contrast to when she competed, she believes she can still help. It’s a contrast to when she was competing when a massage therapist was hot commodity among athletes, leaving her to work out things on her own. She’s taken this past experience, bolstered by her techniques to help other athletes.
“To be able to share the things that I had learned. You know in how to take care of myself when there is nobody around. Little tricks,” she said.
Enabling others to live a pain-free life is an important motivator to Tashlin.
“An athlete may come and afford a half hour, but they need an hour and a half. For me, knowing what it was like to not have it and need it I feel good about being able to give back to them for them to get their success,” she said. “That’s one of the things I look back at and I’m pleased about that.”
Although she hasn’t worked with national team for a few years, she did work with Canadian shot put thrower Tim Nedow, who competed at the Tokyo Summer Games this year andfinished 16th in the world, who came to her after the games to thank her.
“It makes it all worth it,” she said.