MacDougall sisters sprint through Canada

Sisters’ loyalty to Queen’s a testament to long-term opportunities for university runners 

Branna (left) and Brogan MacDougall (right) swept the first two places at this year’s OUA championships.
Branna (left) and Brogan MacDougall (right) swept the first two places at this year’s OUA championships.
Credit: 
Supplied by Queen's Athletics
Last fall, Brogan MacDougall had her choice of school at her fingertips—all she had to do was give the nod.
 
Her prerequisites spoke for themselves: national junior cross country champion, OFSAA record-holder in the 3,000 metres, and a bronze medalist at the 2017 
Youth Commonwealth Games.
 
Yet, with offers from Princeton and Michigan on the table, she chose Queen’s. In fact, it was never a discussion of going anywhere else for the now soon-to-be 18-year-old and Kingston native.
 
“She didn’t put herself out there and in terms of contacting coaches and therefore wasn’t that heavily recruited,” cross country Head Coach Steve Boyd told The Journal. “I think a lot of schools thought that she’s too good to bother recruiting because if she wanted to come, she’d just say it.”
 
Her decision to sign with Queen’s as one of the most sought-after cross country recruits in North America was unprecedented. While it quietly spoke to the strength of the school’s program, it also highlighted the value of staying in Canada for post-secondary athletics. 
 
The message was clear: this wasn’t a sacrifice.
 
Brogan had also recently witnessed her sister, Branna, transfer to Queen’s after spending a year at the University of Iowa. In four months, Branna sustained a sacral fracture, stress fracture in her femur, and IT Band tightness. 
 
Brogan’s recruitment process was a contrast to her sister’s decision to cross the border, though; Branna never considered coming to Queen’s when she was in grade 12.
 
“The intention was never to have [Branna] in the picture,” Boyd said. “We never necessarily wanted her here because we looked at what was best for her.”
At the time, they both agreed it was the best decision for her both in the short and long-term.
 
“I thought that would be the best choice for me because I wanted to have a long-term career,” Branna said of her initial mindset, which shifted when she realized she wanted to leave Iowa. “After being injured I wanted to come back to coach who knew me and got me to a new level before. I wanted to have that again. I knew I would get that.”
 
When it was Brogan’s turn to pick schools, one of the most critical factors was her desire for continuity after being coached by Boyd throughout her junior career. Boyd said the MacDougall sisters are “unusual athletes who like things to be the same.” However, Boyd also said there are differences in how coaches approach their programs in the United States. Of particular note is the lack of flexibility; NCAA athletes are generally required to run in every race.
 
“One of the first questions I ask an athlete when they’re considering going to the NCAA is, ‘Could you run a race that you were not prepared to run?’” Boyd said. Under his system, the coach often allows his athletes to pick their races with the exception of the OUA and U Sports Championships.
 
For example, this year’s OUA Championships was Branna’s first race of the season due to a lengthened recovery from injury. She secured second place 
behind Brogan.
 
“That’s what we do—we look after our athletes,” Boyd said. “We give them that kind of flexibility. We ask and they help us build a program that’s going to help us recruit other athletes and create a real centre of excellence.”
 
Now, the MacDougall sisters are taking Canadian university running by storm. 
 
Last year, Branna won the OUA Championships and placed third at the U Sports Championships. This year, in her rookie season, Brogan has won all three of her races including an NCAA competition at Lehigh University and the OUA Championships. Boyd said there’s “no doubt in [his] |mind” that Brogan would currently be top-five in the NCAA had she chosen that route.
 
Their time at Queen’s will be one chapter in their long careers, which likely have Olympic-sized opportunities awaiting them. Both have entertained the idea of pursuing the marathon, according to Boyd. 
 
“We’ve talked about shooting for the highest levels, making Olympic teams,” he said.
 
With that in mind, the sense of continuity extends further than their junior and university careers—perhaps into their early 30s. Boyd is the founder of the local running club Physi-Kult, which has served Olympic-level athletes and will, barring any changes, be the MacDougall’s home when they graduate from Queen’s.
 
“They know what they’re going to be doing in five years,” Boyd said of the sisters. This, among a number of the other factors, is how he’s retaining Canadian athletes and persuading them to stay in the country.
 
Boyd isn’t against the NCAA though—his daughter, Cleo Boyd, ran for the University of Virginia. He said it just “takes the right kind of athlete.” But his central belief remains steady: north or south of the border, opportunity for success isn’t far.
 
“They’re going to run just as well here as they would’ve there,” Boyd said of the MacDougall sisters. “They’ll probably do better.”

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