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Athlete Jerome Drayton (right) shows a trophy he won in Japan to his coach Paul Poce. Mr. Poce’s greatest legacies include the many meets that he organized and encouragement he gave to athletes.HARRY MCLORINAN/The Globe and Mail

In the 1940s, Paul Poce changed his chosen sport from boxing to running. The consequences of that decision would reverberate for decades, helping boost Canada’s presence in international competition.

Mr. Poce became a champion distance runner and legendary coach, co-founding the Toronto Olympic Club, one of Canada’s oldest track and field organizations, and developing many Olympic and national-level athletes. He also coached Canadian Olympic and national teams, organized events and remained active in athletics (the modern term for track and field), until shortly before he died on May 22 at age 99 in a hospital in Mississauga, Ont.

“He was part of the backbone of the sport – that is for sure – for a very long time,” said Bruce Kidd, a 1964 Olympian and professor emeritus of sport and public policy at the University of Toronto.

Mr. Poce’s greatest legacies include the many meets that he organized and encouragement he gave to athletes – regardless of who they ran for, added Prof. Kidd, who has written extensively about the history of sports. Prof. Kidd was never coached by Mr. Poce but, as a member of the rival East York Track Club, competed against TOC.

“He gave these richly rewarding experiences, chances for growth, to hundreds of men and women across Canada,” Prof. Kidd said.

Harvey Mitro, a former national champion distance runner who trained under Mr. Poce at TOC, called him a constant builder of opportunities for athletes competing at every level.

“He had a real steadiness to him in his approach to dealing with all types of personalities,” said Mr. Mitro, adding that runners benefited from his consistent methods and reassuring, kindly energy.

Paul Francis Poce was born Sept. 19, 1924 in Toronto. He was the oldest of seven children born to Italian immigrants Francesco and Catherina (née Miraldo) Poce. (The family name rhymes with “dose.”)

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Between 1943 and 1945, Mr. Poce served as a WAG, an airplane’s wireless radio operator-air gunner and navigator in Nova Scotia and British Columbia. Mr. Poce went on to hold various coaching positions with Canadian track teams at four Olympics from 1972 to 1992.Courtesy of family

After graduating from high school in the early years of the Second World War, teenaged Paul worked for Inglis at a factory producing Bren light machine guns for the Canadian and British armies. He competed in boxing while he was at Inglis and, in the war’s later years when he was old enough to serve, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. His roommate at an RCAF wireless communications school in Guelph, Ont., then encouraged him to run competitively.

“He did – and that was the last time he ever boxed,” said his wife, Lorraine (née Watt) Poce.

Between 1943 and 1945, he served as a WAG, an airplane’s wireless radio operator-air gunner (albeit not in combat) and navigator in Nova Scotia and British Columbia. Near the end of the war, he excelled at military meets in Vancouver, where he easily won a one-mile race in just under five minutes and lapped the field in a three-miler, according to a newspaper account.

After the war, he briefly studied accounting at the University of Toronto, toiled for General Electric on the development of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line, a series of Arctic radar stations; worked in sales with chemicals firm Charles Tennant and Co. and clothing firms John Gordon and Son and Penmans. He also ran for the West End YMCA and Toronto Red Devils, under their founder Lloyd Percival, a multi-sport coach whose hockey handbook was used by the Soviets against Canada in the 1972 Summit Series. Mr. Poce also worked at Mr. Percival’s Sports College, a correspondence school.

In 1954, while he was still competing, Mr. Poce co-founded TOC, largely for runners who preferred distance events, which include 800 metres to 3,000 metres on a track, and longer road races such as marathons. At the time, such races were considered almost unseemly, recalled Doug Clement, a Vancouver-based former Olympic runner and Olympic and national team doctor and coach who served with Mr. Poce at many high-level competitions.

Distance runners would get catcalls from people wondering why they were running on the streets.

“If you were running on the track, that was accepted,” Dr. Clement said.

Running coaches like Mr. Poce were also rare.

“It’s almost like coaches were illegal,” Dr. Clement said.

In the 1970s, after Penmans proposed to transfer Mr. Poce to Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., he ended his sales career and focused on building TOC. He also became the national distance running co-ordinator for what is now known as Athletics Canada and held various coaching positions with Canadian track teams at four Olympics from 1972 to 1992, when he was the head athletics coach at Barcelona. He also coached a plethora of Commonwealth Games, Pan American Games and World Cup teams and many other Canadian squads internationally.

Mr. Poce personally developed 13 Olympians and some 30 athletes – men and women – who competed for Canada at international events.

“I ended up being one of the top marathoners in the world, and it was all because of Paul Poce,” Jerome Drayton said.

A two-time Olympian, Mr. Drayton placed sixth at the 1976 Games in Montreal, where he was hampered by a cold, and was a three-time winner of an invitation-only event in Fukuoka, Japan, which served as the unofficial world championships. He also won the 1977 Boston Marathon.

Mr. Drayton held the Canadian men’s marathon record for 50 years, setting new benchmarks four times: once in 1968, twice in 1969 and once in 1975. (Cam Levins took over as the record holder in 2018.)

Despite being two decades older, Mr. Poce served as the best man at Mr. Drayton’s wedding.

“He was not only my coach, but also a personal and valued friend,” Mr. Drayton said.

Another internationally renowned athlete Mr. Poce worked with was Abby Hoffman, an 800-metre specialist who won a Pan American Games gold medal at age 16, went on to compete in four Olympics and captured a slew of Pan Am, Commonwealth Games and Universiade medals, along with eight national titles. She held the Canadian record for 13 years (1962 to 75).

Robert Moore, a longtime TOC executive member, said Ms. Hoffman was among many international-calibre female runners that Mr. Poce attracted to the club, because he was one of the first coaches to recognize women’s athletic potential and make them feel welcome.

“He didn’t treat them as second-class,” Mr. Moore said.

Whereas many top coaches prefer to train elite athletes, Mr. Poce enjoyed coaching people of all ages and abilities.

“He was successful as a coach for Olympic-class athletes like Jerome Drayton or Abby Hoffman, but he was also equally good and inspiring for people – like myself – of lesser talent,” said Paul Hoffman, Abby’s brother.

Mr. Hoffman was one of three TOC members who, despite being first-time marathoners, won the team title at Boston in 1964.

Altogether, Mr. Poce was TOC’s head coach for 65 years, completing his final session via Zoom in mid-May. For all of his coaching, he only received honoraria – never a salary.

“It almost was a calling,” his wife said. “He wanted to help people.”

Mr. Poce leaves Lorraine, his wife of 43 years, and two sisters.