First out of the blocks is a position Justyn Knight ’14 is quite used to. This time, the backdrop is not a lane on a track. It is his former high school.
“It means a lot to me for St. Mike’s to invite me back for this mentorship programme,” says Knight, a long-distance runner who now competes professionally for the Reebok Boston Track Club.
The Athlete to Student-Athlete component of the St. Michael’s College School (SMCS) Mentorship Programme officially launched this fall, with Knight, a world-class runner, carrying the baton.
PAVING THE PATHWAY
“It means that they’re really proud of me. I’ve accomplished a lot and I’ve been very respectful in doing so. For them to invite me back to help mould the future St. Michael’s athlete and help them become great student-athletes in their next chapter --- means a lot,” he says.
Mentors played a significant role in Knight’s meteoric rise from a scuffling basketball player to the first SMCS student-athlete to win Individual Gold at the OFSAA Cross Country Championships in 2013, to capturing three NCAA Division I titles, to a pair of top-10 finishes at the World Championships in 2017 and 2019, and soon vying for a spot on Canada’s Olympic team for the 2020 Tokyo Games.
“I’d be wrong if I told anybody that I don’t want to win an Olympic gold,” Knight says with a smile. “You get to a certain point, you are a professional athlete and if you are not striving to win, you are not competitive enough.”
PUSHING THE RIGHT BUTTONS
Knight specifically recalls a sort-of ‘awakening’ courtesy of his Grade 10 gym teacher at SMCS.
“He kind of pushed me to be great in gym class, even though gym kind of came a little more easily to me,” recalls Knight, the youngest of two boys. “The last unit left was running and to get my grade up, I made sure I was at the front of the pack every day and I tried to win the annual 5K run that the Grade 10s had to run. After that my running was discovered.”
The Toronto native says he “had no plans on going to school in the States, until I realized I was good enough to get offers from a lot of these schools.” He poured over the options with his family, focusing on key criteria. “Academics is something that was always very important to me, so even though I was receiving athletic scholarships, I wanted to make sure that the institution that I picked was respected on both sides of the border, for academics as well,” he says.
Armed with a degree in Social Work, Knight graduated from Syracuse University in 2018, where he is listed as the ‘greatest distance runner in Syracuse University cross country and track and field programme history’.
MEANT TO MENTOR
Speaking recently to two groups of current SMCS student-athletes to launch the programme, the 23-year-old candidly answered a broad range of questions, offering sage advice.
“Through everything that you do, work hard. Work even when you think no one is watching, it doesn’t go unnoticed,” says Knight, who lists his parents and older brother as his key mentors.
“Make sure you balance academics and athletics because you never know what your future might hold. And sometimes it might look like you’re going this way but you actually might be successful somewhere else. To always make sure you are well-rounded in every area of life is just something I would encourage.”
For Knight that includes focusing on the details. “The simple stuff. Like make sure your tie is done up all the way, make sure you are clean-shaven --- all that little stuff that people might not tell you but, you know, it’s an expectation when you go into the real world.”
Having faced his share of adversity, Knight says he often relies on a short memory and the support of his mentors to help shift his focus from disappointment to setting and achieving the next goal.
“Before being successful, there’s a lot of things that go into it. You have to work hard, you have to endure. You have to sometimes fail in order to be successful. And I think as long as I do everything to try to be successful, maybe you might not accomplish your goal, but you might come very, very close to it, which is still its own success,” he says.
In addition to his Olympic aspirations, Knight wants to continue to give back through charity and working with youth, making his role in the SMCS Mentorship Programme a natural fit.
He is the first of more than half a dozen SMCS graduates -- high-performance athletes --- who are part of the Mentorship Programme. The goal is to have these various mentors visit current student-athletes on a regular basis to share their experiences and knowledge.
“Just saying hi to a kid or asking him about his day, could change his life,’ says Knight. “He might feel like he’s wanted. I think that’s just the attitude that I carry with me in life. And it doesn’t take anything out of you to be a good person.”
With a packed training schedule and other professional commitments, Knight says his trips back home to Toronto are few and far between, but --- always special.
Every time I’m home, I come back to St. Mike’s because people here are like family to me. I see a lot of the teachers and the people that are involved in the school that played a big role in me becoming who I am, so when I come home seeing family includes seeing teachers at St. Mike’s.”
“Justyn is a glimmering example of the SMCS experience. As a student he worked extremely hard to improve initially mediocre grades to become a strong student in his graduating year. He recognized early that discipline and hard work were paramount to future success. He fully embraced the entire experience. He literally never missed a practice, always listened to and acted on his coaches’ instructions and he routinely sought out extra help from teachers to improve his chances of doing well in class. Receiving a scholarship to Syracuse was the culmination of his talent, his dedication to training and his focus on doing well academically. He totally embodies the motto of our school as he clearly learned and developed goodness, discipline, and knowledge.”
Former SMCS track and field coach
“What stood out about him was his motor. He was a defensive specialist and never seemed to be tired. If the other team called a time out after we put on our full-court press, his teammates would be hunched over out of breath and he would hardly have broken a sweat. What also stood out was that he was always polite and respectful. He has a winning attitude and an unparalleled work ethic. He never questioned the programme.”
Department Head, Modern Languages and Classics
Knight’s former basketball coach
“I was struck by Justyn's genuine humility and graciousness as a competitor and teammate. As coaches at St. Michael's, we preach respect and appreciation for our competition, for without them, there is no race, no personal bests, and no opportunities for victory. However, Justyn's wonderful disposition took this message even further as he would often wait at the finish line after a race to shake the hands of his competitors, win or lose. By this I mean that he would not just shake the hands of those that finished in second or third place.... but, everyone....19th, 20th, 21st...and so on. I still see this graciousness and humility in him today as a world class competitor.”
Knight’s former cross-country coach
Since we are fortunate to have so many gifted athletes who are both looking to pursue athletics through academics and an education through athletics, we developed the Athlete to Student-Athlete component of the Mentorship Programme. It can be very intimidating when choosing this route so to have the voice of experience guiding you through some of those decisions can be an immense help. Our goal is to make this process as comfortable as possible for our students and their parents while helping them make an informed decision.”
Manager, Community & Learning Partnerships
Knight’s former science teacher
“My immediate family, they’ve been my hero. My mom and dad always expected the best from me and never settled for just mediocre. And my brother he’s just always been a great role model for me, just showing me everything that’s right.”
Justyn Knight ’14
Reebok Boston Track Club