More than a dozen years ago, a teenaged Tyrell Mara – who was getting set to embark on a college basketball career south of the border – made a pact with his Richmond Kajaks discus coach, Richard Collier.
When Mara – who was a two-sport star at White Rock Christian Academy – was eventually done with hoops, he would make a return to track and field.
“It was a pretty meaningful conversation,” recalled Mara, now 30, of the talk he and Collier had prior to his leaving for a six-year stint playing college basketball, first with Portland State University in the NCAA and then at Trinity Western University in Langley.
“He said, ‘Tyrell, go play basketball – chase your dream. But when you want to be really spectacular (at discus), come back and talk to me, and let’s go to the Olympics.’
“He basically planted that seed in my head when I was 17 years old.”
Fast forward to 2015. With Mara’s basketball career wrapped up, and enthusiasm for his newest athletic goal – leading a team to qualify for the World CrossFit Games – also beginning to wane, he decided the time was right for another turn with track and field.
During his basketball career and three years with CrossFit, Mara had “checked in” a few times each year with Collier, letting him now when he might be ready to come back.
“We’d go back and forth, and that seed slowly, slowly grew, then finally I was ready… and they were still on board,” Mara said.
“It had always been in the back of my mind. The first time I ever appeared in the Peace Arch News, it wasn’t about basketball. It was with Richard and it was about discus. I was in Grade 6 or 7 and there’s a picture of me with a discus in my hand.”
Though he may have started Mara on his journey, the elder Collier wouldn’t be the one to see the end result. He passed away in December 2015. Garrett Collier, Richard’s son, now serves as Mara’s coach, and the pair have formed a special bond as well.
“To be doing this now with Garrett is special. We’re 100 per cent on the same page, and sometimes I’m blown away at practices because he understands me so well, and understands how my mind works,” Mara said.
No matter his endeavour – be it athletic, professional or family-related – Mara is not the type of person to do something halfway. It’s why, with the encouragement of his wife Natasha and their two young children, he has fully immersed himself in the discus, with the end goal being a spot on Canada’s track-and-field team for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
In every conversation about his Olympic dreams, Mara is quick to point out that it’s Natasha who is the key part of his journey, and is someone who had made numerous sacrifices to enable him to take aim at his big goal.
“Without her, none of this is possible,” he said.
“One thing I’ve learned is that to be truly world-class at something, you have to dedicate, typically, a respectable amount of time at it – years and eventually decades. But also, you really have to sacrifice everything else for that singular focus.”
Despite CrossFit helping prepare him for discus – Mara has added significant size and power to his six-foot-six frame since his days on the hardcourt – the transition was not exactly a smooth one right away. Even now, despite podium finishes and both nationals and provincial championships this summer, he admits that he has plenty of room to grow.
“I came back thinking I’d maybe just have to dust off the rush… but I literally had to start again from zero,” he explained.
“It was hugely humbling. I quickly realized it was going to be much more difficult than my ego originally thought it would be.”
Early struggles aside, Mara was undeterred, and managed to juggle early-morning and evening practice sessions around a full-time job and a family. He’s also spent time speaking to groups about his journey in an attempt to inspire others to chase what Mara calls “big, crazy dreams.”
“In the winter, we’d use a blowtorch to melt the ice off the throwing ring. Training in the dark, in the rain – the progress is happening, so there’s no room to stop.”
And when not at the track with his coach, he was often in the backyard of his Langley home, miming his throwing routine – over and over – in order to perfect his technique.
“You can’t jump onto the world stage and expect to be good. And if you could, it wouldn’t be worth it anyway,” he said. “So the point isn’t that you can’t do it, it’s that it’s just going to be really hard. Framing the Olympics this way has helped me appreciate the fact that it is the obstacles and struggles… that make it worth it.”
At Canadian Track and Field Championships in Ottawa in July, Mara – just a few weeks after making a technical change in his throwing motion – threw a new personal-best distance of 53.1 m – a 10-m improvement over his best distance a year-and-a-half ago. While he didn’t repeat that feat at B.C. championships later in the month, he still feels he is on pace to improve enough over the next few years to meet the 2020 qualifying standard. (For the 2016 Games in Rio, the Canadian qualifying standard for men’s discus was 66 m.)
Regardless of the end result, Mara said he is grateful and excited to have the opportunity to chase another athletic goal – especially one that has been percolating in the back of his mind since Collier first told him the Olympics were possible.
“It’s crazy, the legacy that he’s left. I’m on this cool journey that he inspired over the last 20 years. He will have inspired me to the get to the Olympics, and his son is the one who will have propelled me to get there,” he said.
“We’re doing this together.”