Bruny Surin: Trailblazing
Bruny Surin is a hero in his hometown, not only for his accomplishments in track and field, but for the philanthropic work he continues to pursue. The Haitian-born Canadian is a former 100-meter champion whose talent and dedication has led him to receive multiple awards, including several world championship medals and an Olympic gold medal at the 1996 games in Atlanta. For the last 20 years, Surin has been blazing a new trail, one that has seen him become a successful businessman, motivational speaker, and philanthropist. I had the honour of speaking with Surin just days before his bi-annual marathon was to be held in Blainville, Quebec.
By Akeem Johnson-Pierre
At this point people know and respect you for your work both on and off the track, can you speak on how you went from being an Olympic gold medalist to launching numerous business ventures and a foundation in your own name?
My first reason [as to why] I wanted to be an Olympian; I remember watching the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and I saw Carl Lewis winning four gold medals, and I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be an Olympian and I wanted to run as fast or even faster than him. For five years, every year, I had a track coach try to recruit me to do track but I was a basketball player. So, finally after seeing Carl Lewis, my problem was [that] I didn't have any money to buy equipment, I didn’t have any money to buy competition shoes, and I didn’t have money to do training camps. So, I was knocking on doors, I was very tough. To make the long story short, I remember the first guy who helped me owned a restaurant. I went to his house one day and just told him that I wanted to participate in the Olympics and I don’t have money or equipment or anything, and he sent me a check of 500 dollars. With that 500 dollars, I went to buy my first pair of Nikes for that competition. Years later, I had sponsors and a great career, but that story always stayed on my mind. Even before I retired I said, “There’s a lot of kids today still, they are in the same position that I was. They want to do sports, they have big dreams, but they don’t necessarily have the money or the tools to do it.” So, I said to myself one day, “I need to give back.” For me, it’s automatic to give back. That’s how I started the foundation about 20 years ago. I was by myself, and after five years it was very difficult to make it grow by myself. So that’s why I said to myself, “I need to surround myself with people who believe in the mission of the foundation.” That’s why we did the partnership with Groupe VP (Vo-Dignard and Provost), who helped me organize the last event that we did. So far, in the 15 years with them, we’ve raised more than 1.5 million dollars that we give in grants, and we organize training camps for kids from 15 to 23 years old. We also do a lot of speaking in schools, you know, to make the kids believe in themselves, and it’s been going on for 15 years now and to me it’s a dream come true. I see the number of athletes that we help in various sports. To me it’s a big bonus and I really enjoy doing that.
In the 20 years of the foundation, what has been the most fulfilling to you?
I’ll give you an example. The last time we were at the Ritz-Carlton for fundraising, I saw the room was packed. We were in a situation where I didn't even have time to send the invitation to all my contacts, and it was sold out. That’s a good problem, but at the same time I had many people who were kind of mad at me because they didn’t get a chance to come to the Ritz-Carlton. But I felt as though all the people who were there supported the cause. At the same time, we do entertainment; people really enjoy that. People come and congratulate us and tell us that we are doing great work. To me it’s like, well, at least people believe in our mission, they help us, and every year we can help more and more athletes. I don’t want to just give money away like that, I want to be involved. The last training camp we did, we went to Bradenton in Florida. We stayed there for like ten days. Every day I was with the athletes and I could see how they were motivated. They were training at the same track as Olympic champions; world champion athletes were training at the same track as them. They have the best coaching from the best coaches in the world. I had a chance to witness that every day. To me, it was like what was happening there was the thing that I envisioned years ago, that I wanted to do, I was projecting that. Today, we are living it. It’s like a dream come true.
Can you speak on the upcoming marathon in Blainville? What will the proceeds go towards?
We do two events per year with Groupe VP, my foundation is the major foundation who receives the proceeds of the event. And now we are supporting four other foundations, but my foundation has most of the proceeds. We organize our own road race. It’s a half-marathon. Last year we raised 85,000 dollars, and this year we are hoping to reach 100,000 dollars. This one is 100% from my foundation. We have a contract with the city, and a part of that money goes to the schools and all the foundations from the area, since the city provides the police and the firemen. In return, we give them a percentage for their community. It’s a win-win situation, I would say.
What are some things you’ve learnt as an athlete that helped you to continue to be successful?
I need to surround myself with great people. I mean, look at the partnership with Groupe VP, it's been 15 years now. Even in other aspects of my life like in business. It’s the same thing [with] clothing. I started by myself, it was tough because I didn’t have experience. I started to be in the market and at some point, I said, “I need to surround myself with people with experience, people who believe in what I’m doing, they have to have a fit.” It took me about two years, now I partner with some people who have 30 years [of] experience in the field. As a result, my company skyrocketed. The key is you have to be around good people, you have to network, and you have to go and ask, you have to tell people where you want to be, where you want to go. That’s how you're going to find partnerships and people who believe and invest in you. That’s what we have been doing so far, and it’s been working.
Do you feel as though those who are in a position to help others have a responsibility to do so?
Yes, yes, they do. I truly believe that. I truly believe that people with experience or net worth also. To me, someone who is not only rich money-wise, but rich in every aspect, should share what he learnt, his wealth, and time. Time is important also. Today I’m very busy, I still have time for kids, I still have time for mentorship. I’ve been in track and field for 18 years. All the knowledge I have, if I don’t share it with the younger generation, to me it’s like I’m not doing a good job. It’s the same thing with the business people, a lot of people who were at my gala, they do that and that’s what I like about it. I can call one of them to ask for advice and they will answer me right away. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. I want to encourage people to continue to support and to make the foundation grow, and thanks to all our supporters.
Surin ended our conversation by thanking all his supporters; supporters who, like the restaurant owner early in his career, have donated their resources towards the gold medalist and his now 20-year-old foundation. Bruny Surin used to run for medals, now he runs marathons for the youth – people just like him who need a helping hand in hopes of achieving greatness.