No stop­ping ‘The Great Jean Horne’

Kitch­ener res­i­dent is win­ning race­walk­ing com­pe­ti­tions around the world

Waterloo Region Record - - Local - KELLY PE­DRO Grand mag­a­zine

When it comes to race walk­ing, Jean Horne is hard to beat.

At 85, the Kitch­ener res­i­dent is the reign­ing world cham­pion in her age cat­e­gory. Horne laughs as she ad­mits the 80-plus age cat­e­gory isn’t ex­actly stacked with com­pe­ti­tion. But she’s been at the top of her game long be­fore now, train­ing with a coach and com­pet­ing in six races a year. And she doesn’t plan to stop. In Septem­ber, she will de­fend her five- and 10-kilo­me­tre gold medals at the World Masters Ath­let­ics Cham­pi­onships in Spain. She’s been atop the podium since 2013.

“I keep think­ing maybe this is my last (world cham­pi­onship),” she says. “But I keep do­ing it.”

Horne has long been a firm be­liever in the im­por­tance of phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity.

“I’ve been ex­er­cis­ing on a reg­u­lar ba­sis since I was 35 — that’s when I learned to swim,” she says.

She took up the sport af­ter watch­ing her two young boys at swim­ming les­sons. It looked like fun, so she signed up for classes. She be­came such a strong swim­mer that she worked as a life­guard.

Then, af­ter nearly two decades, she traded her swim­suit for run­ning shoes and be­gan com­pet­ing in var­i­ous race cat­e­gories — 400-me­tre, 800-me­tre, five-kilo­me­tre and 10-kilo­me­tre. She dom­i­nated her re­spec­tive age cat­e­gory for about 25 years but wore out the car­ti­lage in her left knee. About six years ago, she switched to race walk­ing.

Though Horne is hum­ble about her suc­cess, Stafford Whalen, head coach of the On­tario Race­walk­ers, notes that when the gun goes off, Horne is a com­peti­tor.

Whalen re­calls an in­ci­dent from about five years ago when he was coach­ing three ath­letes com­pet­ing in a race walk — Horne and two other women aged

45 and 50. All were fight­ing for the win, but Horne, who was al­most 80 at the time, came out on top.

Af­ter the race, one of the other women ap­proached Whalen, de­flated that she had lost. Whalen told her not to worry — if she kept train­ing she’d beat Horne in six months. When he turned around, he saw Horne stand­ing be­hind him. She had heard the whole thing.

“She smiled, walked by and whis­pered, ‘Not if I can help it,’ “Whalen says.


Horne is amaz­ing — not be­cause she does what she does at her age but be­cause she is who she is, her friend, Myrna Eby, says one Satur­day morn­ing as 10 women gather around a ta­ble filled with fruit, yo­gurt, muffins, cof­fee cake, nuts, fresh buns, cof­fee and tea.

The women, part of a group they call the K-W Women’s Run­ning Club, have gath­ered af­ter a brisk 90-minute walk to share sto­ries about Horne and how she in­spires the group. Horne has been a mem­ber for more than 30 years.

“We call her ‘The Great Jean Horne,’ “Eby says, laugh­ing.

Horne was at an Amer­i­can cham­pi­onship race many years ago when the an­nouncer in­tro­duced her as such be­fore the race “be­cause she kept win­ning,” Eby says. Over the years, the nick­name stuck.

Though she’s had so much rac­ing suc­cess that she was in­ducted into the On­tario and Cana­dian Masters halls of fame in 2006 and 2009 re­spec­tively, her friends are quick to point out Horne is just as im­pres­sive off the track as she is on it.

Her fam­ily moved to Canada from Eng­land when Horne was

14. She met her hus­band, Jim, at church. Now re­tired, he was a Univer­sity of Water­loo phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor and Angli­can min­is­ter. The cou­ple has two grown chil­dren and four grand­chil­dren.

Over the years, Horne be­came a regis­tered nurse af­ter tak­ing a three-year course at the for­mer Grace Hos­pi­tal in Wind­sor, then stud­ied his­tory part time as a ma­ture stu­dent at Univer­sity of Water­loo to get her grad­u­ate de­gree. Along the way, she met a woman who in­vited her to check out the run­ning club.

The group meets three morn­ings a week. On Satur­days they take turns host­ing the club, walk­ing or run­ning in their re­spec­tive neigh­bour­hoods be­fore en­joy­ing cof­fee and ca­ma­raderie.

Horne used to run with the club reg­u­larly, but the women joke she doesn’t join them as fre­quently any­more be­cause they’re too slow — though she does still take time to rec­om­mend books.

An avid reader, Horne worked as a li­brar­ian at the Kitch­ener Pub­lic Li­brary, first with the mo­bile li­brary and then at the Pi­o­neer Park branch. She re­tired just be­fore she turned 65 be­cause she was go­ing to the run­ning world cham­pi­onships in South Africa and wanted a month off to train.

Her friends also praise her in­cred­i­ble sense of volunteerism — some­thing that makes Horne sheep­ishly hide her face in her hands. She has vol­un­teered in ele­men­tary schools, help­ing chil­dren learn to read. Horne says her vol­un­teer work these days is mostly through her church and “vis­it­ing old peo­ple,” which draws a laugh from the crowd of women.

“Jean cre­ates an en­thu­si­asm for what she does,” notes friend Judy John­ston.

But mostly, Horne has been a role model for women in sport, adds Jodi Mur­ray.

“It’s an in­spi­ra­tion to think you can do it and bal­ance it with your life, be­ing a mom and keep­ing your sense of self,” Mur­ray says.

Horne is al­ways pos­i­tive, says an­other friend, Lorna Kropf. She never looks down on other women — even those who couldn’t keep up with her. Kropf says Horne was al­ways wait­ing for her when she crossed the fin­ish line.

“She’d al­ways say, ‘Oh, good job Lorna,’ even though she had fin­ished half an hour ago,” Kropf says.

Though she’s an ac­com­plished run­ner, Horne has never run a marathon — some­thing her friends at­tribute to her longevity as an ath­lete.

“Some peo­ple think that’s the def­i­ni­tion of suc­cess (for a run­ner) — to run a marathon — but Jean never felt that way,” says Nancy MacAlpine, who founded the run­ning club. “Her def­i­ni­tion of suc­cess was main­tain­ing her train­ing, do­ing well and speed.”


Ac­cord­ing to the Cana­dian Masters, Horne still holds 14 Cana­dian records for run­ning and race walk­ing be­tween the 60 and 80 age cat­e­gories. Dis­tances range from 400 me­tres to three kilo­me­tres for run­ning and five kilo­me­tres for race walk­ing. In 1999, at age 66, she set a world record in the 800-me­tre run.

Whalen says Horne will set a new record nearly ev­ery time she com­petes be­cause she keeps get­ting faster. She is poised to break the 1,500-me­tre out­door race­walk­ing record this year by nearly two and a half min­utes, he says. The ex­ist­ing record is 14 min­utes and 30 sec­onds.

“That’s how much bet­ter an ath­lete she is,” Whalen says.

De­spite her long his­tory of ath­letic suc­cess, Horne con­fesses she’s not a nat­u­ral ath­lete.

“I have to go through the learn­ing process,” she says.

But that’s what makes Horne so tena­cious, notes MacAlpine, the run­ning club founder.

Horne needed that tenac­ity when she first took up race walk­ing. She was dis­qual­i­fied sev­eral times in her first year be­cause she kept get­ting flagged for hav­ing a bent knee. In race walk­ing, rac­ers who don’t keep their front leg straight until the body crosses over the knee can be dis­qual­i­fied.

It took her years to learn the right style for the sport. To make sure she doesn’t fal­ter, Horne trav­els to Toronto twice a week to train with Whalen as there’s no race­walk­ing group in Water­loo Re­gion.

Whalen re­mem­bers the first time he met Horne. It was about 15 years ago when she was com­pet­ing in the World Masters Ath­let­ics Cham­pi­onships as a run­ner.

She was hold­ing on to sec­ond place in a pack of three women but, as they came around the fi­nal turn, the racer in third was clos­ing in on Horne. To se­cure her silver medal, Horne dove across the fin­ish line, land­ing so hard spec­ta­tors in the stands heard her head hit the track.

“I thought: Who is this? I’ve got to meet this lady. This is un­be­liev­able,” Whalen says.

Whalen — then race­walk­ing co-or­di­na­tor and coach for Ath­let­ics Canada — chat­ted with Horne af­ter the race. Years later when she took up race walk­ing, she called him for help.

“Race walk­ing is one of the tough­est events in track and field. You need the flex­i­bil­ity of a gym­nast, the strength of an 800me­tre run­ner and the en­durance of a marathon run­ner,” Whalen says. “To try and learn a new event when you’re al­most 80 years old is quite some­thing.”

In her first full year with the club, Horne was named ath­lete of the year.

Whalen coaches about 20 race walk­ers, rang­ing from be­gin­ners to Olympians, but Horne is the health­i­est ath­lete in his club with the fewest in­juries.

“She lis­tens to her body very well. She’s an amaz­ing lady. Ev­ery­one who meets her is just in awe and I am too,” he says.

With her com­pet­i­tive drive, Horne has ac­cu­mu­lated an im­pres­sive race­walk­ing record. She has com­peted in four world cham­pi­onships, trav­el­ling to the U.S. where she won bronze and silver in the five- and 10-kilo­me­tre com­pe­ti­tions re­spec­tively, and Brazil, France and Aus­tralia where she won gold in both the five-kilo­me­tre and 10-kilo­me­tre races in her age cat­e­gory. She is poised to win gold again this fall in Spain.

To pre­pare for the com­pe­ti­tion, Horne trains six or seven days a week — cross-train­ing some days and race walk­ing the rest.

She’d like to get back to swim­ming — she tried it again re­cently, she says, though “it didn’t go very well.”

But, in true Horne fash­ion, she’s not ready to quit.

This fea­ture orig­i­nally ap­peared in the May-June edi­tion of Grand mag­a­zine. Read more Grand fea­tures at grand­


Jean Horne holds and wears medals won as a race walker. On the wall are medals from her run­ning days.

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