Alumni Profile Leah Pells

BA in Psychology, Simon Fraser University, 1989
BEd Education, Simon Fraser University, 2009
MEd in Counselling Psychology, University of British Columbia, 2014
Certificate in Substance Use, Justice Institute of BC, 2016

Leah Pells is a registered clinical counsellor and retired track and field athlete who began training with SFU Athletics in the late 1980’s. She was inducted into the SFU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1994 and later into the BC Sports Hall of Fame in 2015. She represented Canada in three consecutive Summer Olympics: Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996, and Sydney 2000. Pells won the silver medal in the women's 1500 metres at the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg. Having published an autobiography in 2012 titled "Not About the Medal," she now works as a school counsellor with the School District #43 in Coquitlam.

1. Where do you currently work and what is your position? 

I currently am a school counsellor in School District #43 (Coquitlam) in a small indigenous alternative program, called Suwa’lkh. I am also the owner of my private practice where I see clients and tend to focus on trauma and substance use, but will work with anyone who seeks healing.  In addition, I work for WorksafeBC on their critical incidence team and am a published author of “Not About The Medal”, my story of growing up with my alcoholic mom as well as how I pursued the Olympic dream.

2. When did you know that you wanted to pursue a degree in psychology? 

I always knew I wanted to be a healer and always had that in my mind. I grew up in a home with substance abuse, as well as physical, verbal and sexual abuse. As a result, from a young age I felt compelled to help and understand people. I was also curious about developmental trauma (at the time, we just called it family secrets). I wanted to normalize my own suffering and in doing that, also help others. It’s a big part of why I wrote my book.

3. What were your favourite courses / who were your favourite professors at SFU psychology?

I really enjoyed all of my psychology courses at SFU. I loved learning about humans and why we behave the ways we do. I really enjoyed learning from Dr. David Cox, who later was my Olympic sports psychologist, and now my friend.   

4. What did you originally plan to do with your degree in psychology during your undergrad, if you had any ideas at that time? Is that different than what you do now? If so, how?

I always knew I would be a counsellor, it was my goal from day 1. However, training for the Olympics and being on the National Team for 12 years just delayed it a bit. I believe that we humans must help and love each other - it is our only duty and I have always connected with that value. 

5. Were there ever periods during your undergrad when you felt unsure about your future? If so, how did you cope with that?

There were of course times during my undergrad when I felt unsure and scared of what I might do with my life. I believe this is very normal for a young person trying to learn about life. I coped by running, as I always have and will. While I was unaware exactly how and why exercise was so healing, I knew that if I exercised in the beautiful running trails on Burnaby Mountain, my stress would greatly be reduced. I know now of course that the soothing endorphins were very helpful. I still run daily to keep myself mentally well.

6. What advice would you give to students that you wish you knew in your undergrad?

I would suggest they follow their gut instinct and take their time learning who they are. I would also suggest they offer themselves love and compassion and accept that it takes time to figure ourselves out. Exercise daily and keep your stress down so you feel well.   Practice mindfulness so that the day is enjoyable. We cannot change yesterday and we have no control over tomorrow. Be kind.