While spectator sports such as basketball, hockey and soccer garner the majority of fan attention at Dalhousie, some of the less publicized teams are equally deserving of the public eye. Holly Van Gestel would agree.
“I think that if people gave running a bit more of a chance, they would also fall in love with it. It can be really addicting, and I’m not just saying that as a runner,” she says with a chuckle. “I think running does make you a better you.”
The Antigonish, N.S. native has accumulated countless awards and honours in her career, competing in both cross-country and track and field. She even represented Canada as a junior at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in 2004.
But for her, running has always been about the journey rather than the finish line.
Van Gestel first took up the sport in grade 6, accompanying her mother on runs. She became enamoured with it, and proceeded to set the pace throughout junior high and high school, eventually running collegiately at St. Francis Xavier in her hometown.
However, after her third year, she decided to take a break from the competitive circuit.
“I went through a stage after high school where my heart wasn’t in it,” she says. “I was still running, but racing became more of a chore than an enjoyment. So at that point I decided it was best to just step back from it and run for myself for a little.”
She shifted her focus to academics, going on to graduate with an honours degree in kinesiology, but her desire to compete would return.
“A couple years passed, and I realized how much I missed it and Dal was right there waiting for me,” she says cheerfully. “In my first year back on the cross-country circuit, all of those old feelings were back. I was ready to run.”
Now studying for her master’s in kinesiology, the veteran team leader attributes part of her ability to reconnect with the sport to her Tigers teammates and coaches.
“It’s an amazing group. There are some real characters on our team. I love them all to death,” she says.
Van Gestel is quick to acknowledge the importance of her teammates in what is considered by many to be an individual sport. At cross-country nationals, teams submit seven racers, with the times of the five fastest counting toward the team’s score.
While the nature of the sport does not offer much opportunity to converse mid-race, sometimes all it takes is a point forward to signal someone to catch up and run together. “If you do have [a teammate] that’s your pace, and they’re trying to work with you, it’s great to have somebody there,” she says.
An affable and outgoing person, Van Gestel takes time to give back to her community while juggling a year-long training schedule. She volunteers at the IWK every Wednesday, continuing a love for helping others that began when she was at St. FX.
Although this is Van Gestel’s final year of CIS eligibility, the experienced runner isn’t too hung up on the end of her collegiate career. With the conclusion of cross-country last semester, she intends to enjoy the upcoming track meets she has left as the Tigers endeavour to bring home their 23rd consecutive AUS banner later this month.
Even when the season comes to a close, she’ll still be able to do what she loves most: run.
“I feel like running clears my head, it makes me happy and relieves a lot of stress,” she says with her trademark ear-to-ear grin.