When the parents of Norwegian sisters Tania Longe and Erika Longe-Gronner died in an 11-month span in 1986, their Canadian-based uncle, Winfield Longe, promised that he would always be there for them.
As a captain with Upper Lakes Shipping, he spent about three months annually from 1985 to 1992 in the Scandinavian country overseeing mooring arrangements for large ships docking alongside concrete oil platforms.
That meant Longe had the opportunity to visit his nieces regularly.
Thwarted in his attempt to become their guardian and bring them to Canada because the sisters wanted to remain in Norway, Longe was comfortable with the person selected to be their custodian.
He remained in close contact with his nieces and was aware that Tania had emerged as an outstanding high school athlete.
Wanting to give her an opportunity to compete collegiately in the United States, he made the call in 1994.
“I remember my uncle calling one day and asking if I would like to attend an American university,” said Tania. “I had just completed high school and was trying to figure out what I wanted to do going forward. I love physical activity and was willing to give it a shot.”
Assured that she was interested in pursuing a track career if given an opportunity, Winfield Longe contacted a Trinidadian friend who put him in touch with Kent Bernard, who graduated from Michigan State University (MSU) and was a member of the Trinidad & Tobago 4 x400-metre team that won a bronze medal at the 1960 Tokyo Olympics.
Bernard connected Longe with James Henry, who is in his 31st season with the MSU women’s track and field program.
“When I told James I had a niece who was excelling in the sport back in Norway, he told me he or some other university coach would have heard of her already if she was that good,” said Longe, who resided in St. Catherines at the time. “He however promised to have a look at her providing she completed the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) required for college admissions in the United States.”
Tania Longe prepared for the SAT at Kaplan International College in Toronto and attended English as a Second Language (ESL) classes in St. Catharines.
Though barely passing the SAT, Henry was impressed with the athlete’s raw talent and offered her a full scholarship.
She didn’t disappoint.
In her freshman season in 1994-95, Longe led the Wolverines to victory over Indiana in a two-team meet, winning the long and triple jumps and the 55-metre hurdles and finishing second in the shot put. Three months later, she placed third in the Penn Relays heptathlon.
While some of the times she posted were off the chart, the number that caught Henry’s attention was 3.4, which was her grade point average.
“That meant that her low SAT grade had everything to do with her having difficulties with the language and not her learning ability,” concluded her uncle.
Longe left the university as a nine-time Big Ten champion and two-time All-American in the heptathlon and her outdoor long jump record of 6.60 metres set in 1997 still stands. In one meet, she scored 35 points, which was more than the combined total of two Big Ten teams.
A few weeks ago, she returned to the university campus for the first time since leaving 17 years ago to be inducted into the women’s track & field program Hall of Fame. During the weekend celebrations, she and the other honourees attended the MSU men’s basketball team’s exciting 56-54 win over Northwestern and the Simmons-Harvey invitational track & field indoor meet.
“The juices started to flow and it was like I wanted to get on the track,” said Tania. “Going back to the university brought back good memories and I felt like I was back home. It was a real good environment for me and I felt I belonged there. The people were great and the program was excellent. I felt good about what I saw the first time I arrived on campus and knew this was the place for me. I am normally shy and private, but Michigan allowed me to come out of my shell and be more confident. My teammates helped me to grow as a person.”
Longe said she was surprised to get a call from Henry informing her of the induction.
“I guess I really didn’t understand what I accomplished at the university and how much it was appreciated,” she said.
Her older sister and Mariaann Wormdahl, who helped raise the girls after their parents died, attended the induction ceremony.
“Mariaann had never been in an environment like that, so I was happy that she was able to be with us and get of sense of what I did while I was in the United States,” said Longe.
There were two other people who she wished would be there.
Her Norwegian mother succumbed to breast cancer while her father – Guyana-born Clive Longe, a former Royal Air Force (RAF) soldier in Wales who won a silver medal for that country in the decathlon at the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Jamaica and represented England in the multi-sport event at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics – was found dead in his residence in Bermuda, where he was the island’s head track & field coach.
“I certainly miss both of them and I cry once in a while,” she said. “These are the times when I wish they were around to see what their children have accomplished and are doing with their lives. My mom encouraged me to take up track and field because she felt I had the genes, seeing that my dad was a world-class performer.”
After graduating from Michigan State, Tania went to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World in Florida to train with legendary American coach, Brooks Johnson.
The stay was short-lived.
“Coming from a tight team environment at Michigan State and going to Florida where I really didn’t know many people was something I couldn’t handle,” she said. “I was not mentally ready for that.”
After two months, Longe packed her bags and returned to Norway where she continued competing in track and field before retiring in 2003.
Tania is one of four massage therapists at the Norwegian Olympic Sports Centre and travels the world with Norway’s sports teams. She accompanied the men’s ice hockey team to the 2008 world championships in Halifax and the Sochi Olympics and was with the women’s soccer team at the 2007 China world tournament and the women’s handball side that captured the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics.
“I always loved to travel, so I am definitely enjoying what I am doing now,” she said.
Winfield Longe, Canada’s first Black sea captain, didn’t attend the induction ceremony because of ill health. However, he’s satisfied that he was able to fulfil the promise he made 29 years ago.