Brandeis University Hall of Famer Jean Olds Cann did not begin her athletic career until her sophomore year of high school, but has made running a major part of her life ever since. The two-time UAA cross country medalist and six-time All-American in cross country and track & field continues to coach and write about running.
"I grew up on a farm and didn't compete in any sports," Olds Cann recalled. "Then in gym class, jogging was a unit and the gym teacher said I might want to think about taking up running."
The high school team she ran on was successful and she was the fourth runner on the squad. She began her college search by looking at several small schools in New England with her last visit being to Brandeis. "Jamie Chisum was a co-competitor of mine in high school who went to Brandeis and succeeded there," Olds Cann said. "It was my last visit and I really liked it. I remember (head coach) Norm (Levine) made the women's team seem unbelievable and I thought I would be fighting for a spot. In fact, the team had only one really good runner, Nicole Fogarty, who ran with her boyfriend."
Photo: Jean Olds with late Brandeis Cross Country/Track & Field Head Coach Norm Levine
Freshman season was an adjustment on various levels for her. "I think Norm may have made up some of the other runners he told me about," she laughed. "The other freshmen were more middle distance runners, so no one was running more than five miles at a time. I peaked way too early, in late September."
By the middle of sophomore year, Olds Cann buckled down on becoming a better runner and made sure she slept better and ate well. She won her first UAA title by taking first place in the 10,000 meters at the 1990 UAA Outdoor Track & Field title.
Brandeis hosted the 1990 UAA Cross Country Championships at its home course, Franklin Park, but it was being rebuilt for the 1992 World Cross Country Championships so there was an alternate route for the UAA meet. "They had us do a course tour, but it was a different course every week," she remembered. "There was no home advantage that year."
"I knew that we had to go down and under a bridge, but the park ranger was yelling, 'No, you need to go that way,'" Olds Cann said. "It was a wild race. The men's team was pointing which direction to go, I lost a contact, and also had to backtrack after the ranger sent me the wrong way. Fortunately, everyone else followed me and I still won the race. I think only (Emory head coach) John Curtin and I knew the correct way."
She captured her second consecutive 10,000-meter title at the 1991 UAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. "That year I got hurt during indoor track and I think that may have helped me in the outdoor season because I was more rested," Olds Cann remarked. "One day I got lost and ran 15 miles instead of 10 miles. I ran 15 miles again the following Sunday and slipped on the ice. I had only been back a couple of days before UAA indoors and it was painful to run."
Photo: Jean Olds Cann with high school and college teammate, and later Brandeis assistant coach, Jamie Chisum
The Judges were very strong the following year and won their first Association title at the 1991 UAA Cross Country Championships hosted by Carnegie Mellon University. Olds Cann repeated as individual champion, but once again things did not go smoothly. "We got fogged in at the airport the day before the championship for five or six hours. We went outside the airport to run," she commented. "We knew we wouldn't have time to run in Pittsburgh so we went to an outdoor track near the airport."
The Brandeis teams arrived at 10:30 p.m. the night before the race, but it did not prevent the Judges from winning the title. "It was a good and hilly course, which was to my advantage," Olds Cann stated. "One of the things I remember most about those championships was seeing the friends I had on other teams. I am still good friends with Carolyn Lowe (former Carnegie Mellon runner who joined Olds Cann on the UAA 25th Anniversary Cross Country Team)."
She continued to succeed in her senior year, capturing her first UAA indoor title in the 3,000-meter run and winning the 10,000 meters at the UAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships for the third consecutive year.
Her strict training schedule and only getting five or six hours of sleep per night was taking its toll on her body so she only raced a small number of indoor races in her senior season. "I ran Greater Boston, New England Division IIIs, UAAs, and NCAAs," she recalled. "It was really important to me to compete when there was team scoring."
In addition to balancing athletics, academics, and volunteering, Olds Cann was also employed by the athletic department. She worked for long-time Brandeis Sports Information Director Jack Molloy and in the equipment room. "I would take the 7 a.m. shift in the equipment room so I could bring my books and get my reading done."
Photos: L: Jean Olds Cann on poster for 1990 UAA Cross Country Championships; R: Olds Cann volunteering at Boston Marathon
After graduating from Brandeis, Olds Cann was working at a running store and running with Nike Boston coached by former Olympian and future Brandeis head coach Bruce Bickford. She was chosen to be part of the USA Track & Field (USATF) Emerging Elite Distance Program, which meant spending three months in Colorado.
"(Training in Colorado) was not as good for my running as I hoped," she said. "It wasn't what I expected. We were living with families there and I ended up running on my own a lot more than I expected." Olds Cann found out right before her junior year in college that she was anemic and her iron level got low again in Colorado.
She continued to run for Nike Boston, but two injuries ended her competitive career. "I was part of a motivational video we were making. I was wearing spikes, running 400 meters off and on, and hurt myself," she recalled. "Then a dog bite ended my running career. You have to enjoy running when you are doing it. You think you will run forever."
Olds Cann worked multiple cross country/track and field jobs after that. In addition to being a volunteer assistant with Bickford at Brandeis, she also worked for the Red Auerbach Youth Foundation, coached at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston Athletic Association (BAA).
"It was fun going back to Brandeis (to coach). I planned to stay there and at Red Auerbach," she commented. "I was expecting my first child and then Bruce left. That threw me into a head coaching role when our son was two weeks old, which was overwhelming. (Then Athletic Director) Sheryl (Sousa) was very accommodating and flexible with the hours. I would be e-mailing people at 2 a.m. My son would come to practices or stay with my husband (Brian), who had a more flexible schedule at the time."
Photo: Brandeis contingent at NCAA Division III Cross Country Championship at Augustana College in 2001; The baby is Jean Olds Cann's first child
When Olds Cann was expecting her second child, she decided to leave coaching. "It was a very hard decision," she stated. "I really liked the team and loved being at Brandeis. I was already not sleeping and couldn't keep doing it. John Evans was my assistant and I had known him for years. I felt comfortable leaving the team with him."
Olds Cann started writing for the Hopkinton Independent. "I did some writing in college and thought for a while that I may want to be an SID," she commented. "All the jobs I have had involved writing to some degree. I have written since being out of college, including for New England Runner, the NCAA Division III Cross Country preview, and wrote a newsletter and press releases at Red Auerbach."
Her work at the Hopkinton Independent gets particularly busy around Boston Marathon time. "Hopkinton has a high percentage of runners each year in the Boston Marathon. Our town of 15,000 usually has at least 60 runners," she said. Being around running all her adult life and writing for the newspaper about it, the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 hit close to home.
"I remember when it happened, I didn't know who to call," she remembered. "I knew so many people who would be near the finish line. I knew people running, working the event, writing about the event. You couldn't get through to people. It was overwhelming."
Photo: Jean Olds Cann, Mariko Tansey Holbrook, Amanda Keyes earlier this month at the Brandeis Hall of Fame Weekend
Being part of the Hopkinton Marathon Committee, Olds Cann works closely with the BAA. "The chair and I made a banner giving our condolences," she stated. "We were all shocked and didn't know what to do at first. The race director comes to our meetings and I remember when he got the call that the bombing had happened. His wife and kids were at the finish and he couldn't reach them right away. You don't forget things like that."
Coaching continues to be part of Olds Cann's life. She started an after-school track program at her local elementary school. "Most of the running is through tag games, but it is a way to introduce the students to running," she said. Six years ago, she started a summer program through Parks and Recreation that now includes about 200 youth runners. In addition, she is now coaching middle school cross country.
The oldest of her three children is now a freshman in high school and may be following in her footsteps. "He has always played a lot of sports, but he just discovered a love of running last year and is running cross country this fall."
Photo: Jean Olds Cann and Brian Cann with their three children