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Pells chronicles triumph over adversity while dealing with alcoholic mother

05/08/2012 03:04 EDT | Updated 07/08/2012 05:12 EDT
COQUITLAM, B.C. - On the outside, she was a confident aspiring Olympic middle-distance runner.

But for years, a storm raged within Leah Pells.

In her new autobiography Not About the Medal, Pells reveals how she dealt with the source of the emotional turbulence — an alcoholic single mother — over the course of decades, but still represented Canada in three Olympics and came within a half-second of winning a medal.

"I'd been carrying around a lot of these things that happened for a long time and I just felt I needed to release them," she said of her motivation for writing the book.

"So that was my first reason. The second reason is, I'm not satisfied with the way our society treats addicts. I just feel there needs to be much more compassion surrounding that particular illness. My mom was an alcoholic and the way society treats people with alcoholism and addiction is so negative, and I feel that it makes it even harder for the addict to seek recovery."

She's hoping her personal story will help others begin the conversation about addiction.

"It's like I want to normalize addiction in the sense that I want people to openly talk about it," the 47-year-old said during an interview at her Coquitlam, B.C., home. "I don't want there to be so much shame associated with it."

In the book, published by Word-Nerd Language and Education Ltd., Pells explains the shame she felt of being the daughter of an alcoholic while pursuing her Olympic dream. After going to a track meet with her father at the age of six, the Langley, B.C., native lived to run and told a teacher she would be in the Games one day.

But the dream was constantly challenged after her parents divorced when Pells was around nine years old and she and her younger brother went to live with their mother. Along the way, she endured poverty, verbal and emotional abuse, and witnessed her mother being beaten several times by a boyfriend.

But few knew of Pells' plight, not even her father.

"When I was a child, I lied a lot to people about what was going on," she said. "That was difficult, because when you lie to people about how things are going at home, you start to forget what's the lie and what's true. I developed some coping mechanisms that were not good. The running was a good coping mechanism. But the lying and trying to be perfect were probably not good coping mechanisms. In my kid's brain, I thought that being perfect would ease my mom's stress so that she wouldn't drink, but of course it didn't work that way."

But the desire to be perfect still helped Pells seek constant improvement on the track and develop the necessary dedication to train.

"I was more afraid of being trapped like she was in an unhappy life," Pells writes in the book. "My whole life, I fought for success. I think part of my urgency and necessity to succeed came from seeing my mum never doing or achieving what she wanted to do. ... I wanted out."

With the help of counsellors and Al-Anon, a support group that assists the family members of alcoholics, she battled her way onto the Simon Fraser University track team. Watching her mother make much out of little, she also overcame financial hardship to earn a spot on the Olympic team before sponsorships allowed her to become a full-time runner.

"I taught myself to be good at compartmentalizing," she said. "When I was on the track and at track with my coach, I was just 100 per cent there. I would drive up to the track and that would be it. I would be completely absorbed in what I was doing. I was very good about being very present, because I loved it so much, too. I was so grateful to get to the track and all the guys that I ran with. It was such a relief."

To Pells, running was like peeling off a heavy coat. As she ran, she took the figurative layers off and became lighter, happier and "just good."

Ultimately, her Olympic quest was about proving to herself that she could achieve what she had set out to do, even when others said it was impossible.

"The more times I heard people saying I couldn't or wouldn't make it, the more I knew I could and I would," she writes. "No matter how many failures I had, how let down I felt on any given day or how broke I was, it just didn't deter me from my goal. I just had it in my mind that I was going to be an Olympian. Loving what you do and having a real passion for it makes the process enjoyable, the journey worthwhile and the ultimate success inevitable. Not achieving was never an option."

Ultimately, the struggle was about seeing something through to the end. That also meant never quitting or losing faith in herself. As a result, Pells never became overly distraught at missing out on a medal by a split second in the 1,500 metres at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, where she still achieved a personal best of four minutes three seconds.

Instead, it was a race where everything came together one perfect — and only — time.

"Just being in the final was a huge dream for me," she said. "I could have been dead last and I still would have been happy. I never looked at it as I just missed a medal."

Pells always sought to be the best runner that she could be, regardless of the result.

Atlanta was actually her second Games. At the first, in Barcelona in 1992, she got caught up in the opening ceremonies and other festivities, suffered from dehydration in extremely hot weather conditions, and did not advance beyond the preliminary heats. Following the Atlanta Olympics, she had a relatively easy time qualifying for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. However, she suffered a broken bone in her foot in the preliminaries, went through months of recovery and retired in 2003, when she found it too difficult to be away from her infant son.

Her mother died at the age of 63 in 2004. Pells and her husband John Turenne came across her lifeless body in her home and paramedics could not revive her. The exact cause of death was never verified because an autopsy was not done, but her mother's demise was attributed to heart failure brought on by alcohol abuse.

Not About the Medal is disturbingly graphic and underscores the abusive nature of alcoholism and its devastating effects on relationships. But the book also offers insight into the difficulties that low-profile amateur athletes face while trying to reach the Games. The challenges and sacrifices are often taken for granted by fans, but Pells sheds light on them through a rarely offered first-person lens.

Today, Pells teaches at-risk youth at an alternative high school in Coquitlam, providing one-on-one instruction to Grade 10, 11 and 12 students in the morning and guiding physical education classes in the afternoon. Meanwhile, she is pursuing a masters in psychology at the University of British Columbia and enjoying life away from the track with Turenne and their nine-year-old son Luke.

Satisfied following a long competitive career, she still finds solace by running every day and pursuing her new dream of being a counsellor.

"I had a long competitive career," Pells said. "I wanted to do other stuff.

"There are so many things to do."

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