Derek Rope’s best-ever workout didn’t involve any running.
Rope was in his rookie year running track for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies when he and a few teammates went to the home of their coach, the late John Fitzgerald, before a workout. They talked about life, family and school. Then one of the athletes asked when the workout would start.
“That was your workout,” Rope recalls Fitzgerald telling them. “He was like, ‘Look at you guys: You’re so pent up and your whole being right now is track and field … What happens if you get injured tomorrow? You would be lost.’”
The next year, Rope suffered an ankle injury. He tried to run through it, but ultimately it ended his competitive track career. As Fitzgerald predicted, Rope felt lost. He took time away from university to travel and work with youth organizations.
Working with youth made him feel alive, and he was soon looking for ways to combine that with his love for track and field. Rope is a member of the Pasqua First Nation and, in his short track career, he and his brother, Kelly, rarely saw any other Indigenous competitors at meets. Rope was sure more would participate—and thrive—if given exposure to the sport and access to coaches. So he founded Saskatchewan Aboriginal Track and Field in the early 2000s.
The organization (now a registered non-profit with partnerships across Saskatchewan) hosts track meets and clinics in Indigenous communities, and mentors coaches so they can operate their own programs.
“He’s paved a road for Indigenous athletes by building relationships,” says Mike Tanton, the chef de mission for Team Saskatchewan at the North American Indigenous Games (naig). “When you show a genuine interest in the benefit and positive outcome of the athletes in a specific community, that’s how trust is built.”
Rope still makes time to be on the ground at meets and clinics. “Had I rehabbed (my ankle) for another six months, my life would be completely different,” he says. “Things happen for a reason, and I definitely think I’m where I’m supposed to be.”—