Lisa Brooking stands on a landing partway up a set of wooden stairs within 1001 Step Park in White Rock, B.C. The forest that surrounds the steps provides a colander-like canopy as runners and walkers alike traipse up and down, rain or shine, from a quaint hillside community to the edge of the Pacific Ocean and back up again.
Today, it’s raining on and off, which seems most appropriate for a photo shoot with a transplanted West Coaster.
Yet, on this particular morning, the wet conditions can’t wipe the smile from Brooking’s face. She is supposed to be serious in the photos. She’s instructed to look focused and powerful, but a quick laugh becomes a regular interruption. That’s okay. It’s been quite the year and a half for Brooking, 29, and these days, a smile is her most natural look.
In less than a week, the Orillia, Ont. native will compete in the 2017 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Kampala, Uganda (Mar. 26 at 5:55 a.m. PT). It will be the first time she has run in a world championship race and it will mark the culmination of a two-year stint at Trinity Western University that has seen her rapidly rise to the upper echelon of Canadian cross country running.
Since joining the Spartans in the fall of 2015, Brooking has represented Canada at the both 2016 Pan American Cross Country Cup and 2017 NACAC (North American, Central American and Caribbean Athletic Association ) Cross Country Championships, but now she will have the chance to compete against the best in the world – an accomplishment that was almost unthinkable prior to her arrival on the Langley, B.C. campus.
“I couldn’t have dreamed that my time at Trinity Western would have been any better,” says Brooking, who has seen her impressive ascension come under the guidance of Spartans endurance coach Mark Bomba. “Three months after I came here and joined Bomba and the team, I was already an All-Canadian and then I made my first national team three weeks later. Then this year, winning the B.C. provincial championship and then making the NACAC and World team has been beyond my wildest dreams.”
After seven years away from university competition – Brooking initially raced for the University of Windsor and was an All-Canadian in cross country in 2007 and 2008 – she came to TWU in pursuit of two things: a masters degree in nursing and a chance to once again run at the U SPORTS level.
“I just wanted to get back to a high level of running within the university ranks. I never thought beyond that,” says Brooking, who came to TWU already possessing a Bachelor of Science from her time at Windsor and a critical care certificate from BCIT (British Columbia Institute of Technology). “I thought I was just going to be juggling running varsity and my shift work and doing my masters.”
Then, her running career surged. She finished seventh at the 2015 university cross country championships, earning the third All-Canadian honour of her career and helping the Spartans to a second-place finish overall. She followed that up by finishing 10th at the Canadian Cross Country Championships, which saw her earn a spot with Team Canada for the 2016 Pan American Cup.
A year after that, she finished fourth at the 2016 U SPORTS Cross Country Championships and eighth at the 2016 Canadian Cross Country Championships and once again found herself with another chance to don the Maple Leaf – this time in a World Championship year.
“I was slightly blindsided, but extremely grateful that this whole Team Canada thing has come about,” Brooking says. “If someone told me that this would all happen, I would have laughed.”
Brooking stood at the start line of the 2017 NACAC championships just a few weeks ago in Boca Raton, Florida and wasn’t quite sure how things would turn out. It hadn’t been an ideal winter of training for her or anyone on the West Coast of Canada. The unusually snowy and wintry weather in the Vancouver area forced Brooking and her Spartans teammates into a variety of alternate workouts. The local outdoor tracks were regularly closed and, as such, workouts were compromised.
However, eight kilometres later, Brooking, who was also battling a bout of bronchitis, finished seventh overall and helped Canada win the team event.
“I think it was a good fitness indicator,” Brooking says. “After that race, I felt that I could have kept up that pace for another two kilometres (the World Championship race is 10 kilometres), so it was definitely a good confidence booster.”
Brooking competed at the U SPORTS championships the following weekend in Regina, finishing 9th in the 3000m and 10th in the 4x800m, but with her focus now squarely on the World Championships, she appears primed for an impressive culmination to her time at TWU.
“I’m happy that it’s the last race on the books, so I can definitely just leave it all on the line,” she says. “This is the first time for me competing at a world championship. We hope to run strong and run together as a team. We’re a really unified team and being able to bond over going to Uganda will only further develop that team spirit.”
In the spring of 2016, Brooking travelled beyond the North American borders for a race for the first time in her running career. Competing at the Pan American Cup in Caraballeda, Venezuela, she finished fifth overall, but along the way she got sick and needed medical attention. The nursing student immediately saw something she hadn’t anticipated.
“It was a bit of an eye-opener to the realities that other countries face in terms of providing medical care and the limited resources and funding,” she says.
With her passion for nursing every bit as strong as her love for running and with Uganda hosting this year’s world championships, she wanted to be more than just a competitor. When Brooking boards her flight for Uganda this week, she will do so with a hockey bag full of medical supplies.
“Last year’s experience in Venezuela definitely left a lasting impression on me to the point that my goal at nationals was to qualify for NACAC and Worlds because this was the first thing on my check list,” she says. “I want to contribute back. I’ve been collecting medical supplies for a donation at a hospital in Uganda. Hopefully I can also talk to some of the physicians there and understand some of their challenges. It’s only a small donation, but hopefully it can have some sort of impact.
“I feel that I’ve been blessed with a true passion for nursing. I just love the profession. When I see that patients abroad aren’t receiving good health care, it just brings out the strong advocate in me to help and be a voice.”
Brooking looks out at the ocean. The rain pitters and patters. She smiles, thinking about what is to come over the next week. In a few short days, she would be travelling halfway across the world to race against the very best in the world. It’s something she never imagined, but now that it has become a reality, her dreams tell her that this is just the start.
With the 10,000m as her focus on the track, the IAAF World Championships in London provide this year’s target. The Olympics in 2020 is her ultimate athletic goal.
The clouds open up and a downpour ensues. Brooking jogs down a windy route that extends from the bottom of the stairs to the beach. She and the photographer find a brief reprieve from the rain in a small tunnel that tucks under the railroad tracks, which parallel the path.
Wearing her red and black racing kit with “Canada” emblazoned prominently on the front, she stands still and looks out to the ocean. It sometimes still seems a bit surreal.
But for the masters in nursing student, all this – the national jersey, the World Championships, the Olympic dreams, the packed bag of medical supplies, her excitable smile and the clearing skies with the sun starting to emerge – suddenly seems most appropriate.