Track community mourning coach's passing

In happier times, Richmond Kajaks
In happier times, Richmond Kajaks' middle distance coach Mike O'Connor (left) and runners Graeme Wells and Ryan Hayden. O'Connor died this week at the age of 65.
— image credit: ub

A man known for his relentless determination ultimately lost his final battle to cancer.

Mike O’Connor was just 65 years old when he passed away earlier this week, shaking a mourning track and field to its core.

“He was like a father to me,” repeated Ryan Hayden, one of his many students at the Richmond Kajaks Track and Field Club where he coached the middle distance runners from 1988 through 2005.

Trying to hold his emotions, Hayden spoke of an individual in O’Connor who he said was instrumental in the careers of so many young athletes.

“Mike was always much more than just a coach,” said Hayden. “He was always such a committed and loyal person and one who was always positive. He wanted everyone to be happy and successful and if you were fortunate to know him you saw what a nice, caring and gentle man he was.”

Hayden—who through O’Connor’s coaching went on to become an elite university athlete at Philadelphia’s  Villonova University and along with fellow former Kajak Graeme Wells is among a select number of British Columbians to have ever ran a sub four-minute mile—still marvels at O’Connor’s incredible dedication and commitment.

“He had a wife (Noreen) and a son and daughter (both in their 30s now) and a career as an engineer,” Hayden said. “Yet he found time to work with us athletes.  He’d go into work at six every morning and then come out to meet us at Minoru at five that afternoon and practice with us until eight or nine that night. Then he’d go home and do more coaching work like organizing our races, travel plans, or whatever else needed to be done. He treated us like family and I can’t describe what that guy meant to me.”

O’Connor had been battling cancer for the last four years, said Hayden, and had becoming increasingly thin. But he never lost his zest for life. He apparently even walked into hospital last week under his own power.

“He was like that every day, relentless in his approach,” added Hayden, who was a wet-behind-the-ears teen when he first began training with O’Connor. “Everything he did he gave 100 per cent. He never slacked off for a minute.”

Hayden said he recently got a phone call from O’Connor after the latter read an article in The Richmond Review detailing Hayden and Wells’ memories of running a sub-four minute mile. It was published on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Miracle Mile at the British Empire (now Commonwealth) Games on the PNE Grounds in Vancouver.

“He talked to both of us. It totally made him happy,” said Hayden.

Hayden also remembers O’Connor as “a big kid” who while always responsible and accountable also knew how to have fun.

“He had a great sense of humour and enjoyed playing tricks on people. I think that’s one of the reasons we related so well to him,” said Hayden.

O’Connor was a winner, armed with a competitive spirit that never waned. He always strived for the best an encouraged his athletes to do the same.

“He was very dedicated,” remembers longtime coaching peer Richard Collier. “He put a lot of athletes through college as one of not only B.C.’s but Canada’s best middle-distance coaches. You always saw progress in his athletes. He took a lot of kids and turned them into very good athletes.”

Hayden said a service celebrating O’Connor’s life is being planned for next week.

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