By Howard Tsumura, The Province
NORTH DELTA — Laurier Primeau makes it his business to know just about everything there is to know about the youth delivery system that populates the high school and club ranks of B.C. track and field.
Yet the newly-installed head coach of the UBC Thunderbirds program isn’t afraid to admit that as recently as nine months ago, he had no idea about a teen sprinter from North Delta named Michael Aono.
“I pride myself on knowing who most of the up-and-coming athletes are in the high school system in B.C.,” begins Primeau, a Surrey native who last spring was four years into his tenure as the head coach of Langley’s Trinity Western Spartans. “But I didn’t know who Michael was until the first outdoor meet of last season when he beat one of my athletes. After that, I took notice right away.”
Indeed, it takes a special track and field athlete to generate headlines in January, but Aono, a soft-spoken Grade 12 student at Seaquam Secondary School, is just such a phenom.
A blue-chip recruit based on his abilities as a 100- and 200-metre sprinter alone, he is ultimately one of the continent’s best age-group 400-metre runners, and last June, at the Harry Jerome Invitational, set a new Canadian youth standard at the distance in a time of 46.79 seconds.
That record, as well as PB’s of 10.68 seconds in the 100 metres and 21.28 seconds in the 200 metres, made him the object of a full-court cycle of recruitment by some of the best programs in the NCAA, including Pac 12 heavyweights UCLA, Washington, California and Stanford.
In the end, however, Aono chose to sign with UBC, giving the Thunderbirds track program its most significant sprint recruit in at least a generation. Add the football team’s successful recruitment last season of ex-Penn State quarterback Michael O’Connor, and as of late, Canada’s most decorated collegiate program is strutting right alongside its best NCAA Div. 1 counterparts.
(PICTURED: Michael Aono makes the rounds during training with the Thunderbird track club. PNG photo by Mark van Manen)
But what attracted Aono to a school and a program which competes outside of the North American mainstream as a member of the smaller NAIA?
“I just have a lot of faith in the coaching at UBC,” explained Aono, who will train under both Primeau and Mary Chewning with the Thunderbirds. “It was important to me that I have coaches I know I can trust, and that if I do what they say, there is a high chance for success. The (NCAA schools) were tempting. But I think with every decision you have to weigh the pros and the cons, and for me, it was the right call to stay here.”
A less mature student-athlete may not have been as perceptive as Aono was in finding a place to meet both his athletic goals, and those in the classroom where he will enter the UBC’s demanding engineering program. But throughout the entire recruiting process, Primeau realized he wasn’t dealing with an ordinary kid.
“I do believe that some student athletes choose the NCAA because to them it demonstrates having made it in their sport, and there is some validity to that,” says Primeau, a former sprint hurdler who whose collegiate career included NCAA time at Auburn University, as well as NAIA time at UBC. “But I also think that Michael himself was fully aware of the fact that he was valued by multiple institutions across North America, and that he didn’t need to demonstrate his own value by signing with an NCAA school.”
And Primeau adds: “Michael’s recruitment wasn’t just an athletic one (at UBC).”
Not only did Aono personally meet with Marc Parlange, the school’s Dean of Applied Sciences, he also met with Associate Dean of Engineering Elizabeth Croft.
“Everyone knows what an incredible athlete he is, but there are multiple things that attracted us to him and it wasn’t just his athletic ability,” Primeau adds. “We are looking for students who are not just going to excel on the track, but in the classroom and also add to the greater culture of the university.”
And you can’t give any greater endorsement of Aono’s potential as a 400-metre runner than the one Primeau makes when he references two B.C. stars at the same distance: Canadian record holders Shane Niemi (junior, 45.82 seconds) of Kamloops and Tyler Christopher (senior, 44.44) of Chilliwack.
“At the same age, Michael is faster than those two across all three sprint distances,” Primeau says. “When I look for potential for faster times in the 400, I first look at natural speed through the 100 and 200, because speed is the hardest thing to develop.”
Because Aono has tapered his training in the past to accommodate all three distances, there is no telling how much more speed he will add to his 400-metre time in the future.
It’s a mystery, just like he himself was, just a few short months ago.
“One of the reasons people know about good sprinters is from the way they carry themselves,” Primeau says of a stereotypical swagger. “But Michael is not about Hollywood. He just carries himself like an unassuming distance runner.”