By RYAN MCCRACKEN on August 20, 2020.
When Zaynna Willoughby began track and field at the age of seven, she hoped to follow the path forged by local Olympian Sage Watson.
Now 14 years old, Willoughby is well on her way.
The Medicine Hat Panthers Track Club sprinter was recently honoured with a spot on Athletics Alberta’s Top 10 list of U14 female track athletes. Her name appeared just a few pages away from Watson, one of the province’s open female athletes of the year.
“She’s been a big inspiration for me since I was as little as I can remember, and I’m definitely striving toward the same goals that she had – being in the Olympics, being a professional athlete,” she said.
“As I go over hurdles, it’s a different type of feeling. It’s almost hard to explain, because it just brings me so much happiness for no apparent reason. Training and working for a goal is when I’m the happiest.”
Willoughby admits the past few months have been quite the challenge with COVID-19 halting her track season with the Panthers, but the pandemic hasn’t prevented the Crescent Heights High School student from developing at home.
“I got myself the hurdles from the Panthers that I was very grateful that they let me use during the pandemic,” said Willoughby. “Just getting to the track and trying to improve as much as I could by myself, it was a really great thing that I know lots of other athletes were not able to do. I’m very grateful for that.”
Panthers head coach Sonya Brown says Willoughby was consistently searching for new ways to train, from hurdling in her backyard to core and mobility workouts over Zoom. Given that tenacity, Brown says she wasn’t surprised to hear the news that Willoughby had been named one of Alberta’s top 10 athletes in her age bracket. Brown has coached Willoughby since she began and says she’s always brought a competitive drive to the track.
“I’m just really excited for what’s in her future because I think it’s going to be pretty bright,” said Brown. “She was just one of those athletes that, even at a young age, was just very competitive, very driven and very determined. She’s just always had that grit about her. Seeing her grow and develop throughout the years, she’s one of those athletes that’s the hardest working one out there. She’s the first one at the track, the last one to leave, the one always looking for constructive criticism, the one that’s always looking for feedback to become better and always working super hard. She was like that at a young age, and as you can tell it served her well.”
While Willoughby specializes in sprinting and hurdling, Brown says she’s a very well-rounded athlete who will compete in any available event at a meet.
“She will join the cross country team, she will throw javelin and discus and shot put. She’s the girl that will go to the track and field meets and participate in every event just so she can do them all,” said Brown. “She’s still quite young so hurdling events, she’s just starting to be able to compete in them, but I think she has a passion for hurdles. Sage Watson has always been a big role model of hers and Sage Watson was also a Panther.”
While Watson is her role model, Willoughby says it was Brown who helped her grow a passion for hurdling into a potential future on the track.
“Sonya has always been there for me,” said Willoughby. “She was my first coach I ever had and she really grew my love for hurdles. She used to set up these little tiny hurdles and then I worked my way up to normal hurdles.”
With cross country season on the horizon, Brown, Willoughby and the Panthers will be kicking off a new five-week speed and power session for sprinters who had their summer season cancelled due to COVID-19. Willoughby says she can’t wait to get back out onto the track with her teammates and continue pushing toward her dream of representing Canada at the Olympic Summer Games.
“I am very happy that’s happening. I really miss the track community,” she said. “Training with other people will definitely motivate you differently than when you’re training by yourself, so I’m really happy that’s being put together.”