Salee Johnson-Edwards’ basketball career began, like many, when she was a child in her hometown of Brampton, Ontario. “I just picked up a ball and started bouncing it.” She described it as something that just came naturally. Her grandfather bought her a basketball when she was 8 and by grade five, Salee was playing for her school’s team and beginning to stand out as an athlete with potential.
After Johnson-Edwards’ first year, her coach told her parents she was really talented and continued to push her. Johnson-Edwards’ mom was particularly impressed after seeing her daughter play for the first time, especially since no one had shown her how to play. From there it developed into family events, to her playing in high school, to travel teams and rep teams. Johnson-Edwards decided that she wanted to pursue sports at a post-secondary level. While she also played a lot of volleyball at her high school, St. Augustine Secondary School, it was basketball she fell in love with. “But I chose basketball, the sport I would push myself in.”
Johnson-Edwards left Canada on a basketball scholarship to the University of New Hampshire. Her first year was challenging. Being so far away from home made her homesick, but a resilient Johnson-Edwards learned to navigate the challenge over the course of the following few years, while she played in a demanding Division One program.
“It was definitely like a full-time job,” she says. “It’s a demanding program, [and it’s] very demanding to be a division one athlete. I stuck out and ended up having a really good experience there. I enjoyed my time there.”
Johnson-Edwards played at the shooting guard position as an athlete. Though she played at the point guard spot on occasion, it was the shooting guard position that she naturally fit into.
“I was a two guard and helped out at the point every so often. But I was more of a shooting guard. It’s what I did growing up. I was also one of the shorter ones so I wasn’t going to be playing a forward position. I was an undersized two [shooting guard] as well.”
As a young athlete, Johnson-Edwards drew inspiration from people in her life she held in high regard. “I looked up to my parents. Both very inspirational growing up. I grew up really loving Chamique Holdsclaw, she played for the University of Tennessee. I grew up watching her journey and what she did on the court. I also grew up watching UCONN’s women’s basketball team. As well, [I was part of the] the typical Jordan era, so I grew up watching the Bulls. I was a fan until Toronto came around.”
Johnson-Edwards closed her chapter as a student athlete by graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in journalism, and moving back to Canada. Johnson-Edwards had an interest in coaching, but figured it wasn’t an avenue she would pursue until later in life. Back home she needed a side job. She began her coaching career with an AU Youth program out of Newmarket. “After the first practice I remember driving back home with my dad, who came out to watch, and I was like I think I can do this.” Johnson-Edwards loved the experience. Like basketball, it was another role she found herself falling into naturally. After coaching the team for two years, Johnson-Edwards took a junior college coaching job in Maryland and moved back to the U.S. She coached the team for two years, and by the time she left they were having their best season yet. From there she eventually found herself part of the coaching staff at Fordham University. Coaching at a higher level, she was part of the team that built the program from the ground up, turning yet another program into a winning one.
When she came back home to Canada she figured she was done with coaching. According to Johnson-Edwards, coaching in the United States is a full-time job.
At the time she had been married for a couple of years and had just had her first child. It was getting hard to navigate being a mom and a coach.
“Either your family life was going to suffer, or your work life was going to suffer,” recalled Johnson-Edwards. “And you have to make sacrifices. I just knew that I didn’t want to be away from my kids. So we decided to come back home and start over. I also just wanted a break to be more present at home.”
Back home she had her second child.
It seemed like her coaching career had ended until she received a phone call from the former Varsity supervisor about a coaching position with the Developmental Basketball team. “I took it on because it was one practice a week and one game a week.”
Johnson-Edwards coached the Women’s D-League team for the next few years. Each season the team improved, winning more games and becoming more of a championship contender. In her third year, the team upset the undefeated St. George Black team to win the Tri-Campus Championship.
UTM was getting ready to enter the OCAA with two new varsity teams: Varsity Men’s and Women’s basketball. Johnson-Edwards had to decide if she wanted to step aside or continue being a coach and go varsity.
Johnson-Edwards stayed on to coach the Varsity Women’s Basketball, which began its inaugural season in the OCAA in 2017. Being a very new team, in a league with many seasoned programs, Johnson-Edwards was eager for a challenge. “It was a brand new program, and I liked the challenge of building a program. This was an opportunity for me to do that again, but as the head coach. It was a great opportunity to challenge myself career-wise. It was an opportunity to take the things I’ve learned along the way and use them. I thought I was ready.”
“My kids were a little bit older, and I knew that in terms of the commitment it wasn’t as heavy as coaching in the States so I could balance my work and home life.” But coaching at UTM was slightly different than coaching U.S. student athletes on scholarships. Johnson-Edwards’ coaching staff each have years of experience as student-athletes. All of them have played at the university or Division 1 level.
“We all kind of understood what it meant to play at a high level. So, when we took the program, we went into the program as if it was high-level. Our mindset was always going to be to run it like a top-level program, minus the financial aspect. And that meant running practices and holding athletes to our high expectations.”
Johnson-Edwards never viewed her coaching and involvement in sports as paving the way for other women, especially women of colour, in a still very male dominated profession. But that’s exactly what she’s done. There are very few female coaches among coaching staffs in the OCAA, and even fewer female head coaches. UTM’s Women’s Varsity Eagles Basketball team has the only all-female staff in the league.
“It definitely makes what you’re doing little more impactful. Growing up, some of the coaches that really impacted my decisions and how I played were women who had gone through it before. So, I think being a woman, especially a woman of colour, could maybe represent a demographic that is very much underrepresented. I definitely take the job I do seriously. Our whole coaching staff definitely understands being female leaders in this regard and being able to impact the next generation. “
Her position, and that of her coaching staff, aim to inspire young underrepresented women of colour, through their interactions with their athletes, other members within the league, and with referees.
“I think we can be the change,” says Johnson-Edwards.
It wasn’t something they had planned to do, but Johnson-Edwards realized that they’re in a position to really be of influence.
Coach Johnson-Edwards and her staff hope the athletes that play for them take away life lessons that instil key values and character skills that help the players develop.
“At the end of the day, a portion of the players I coach go on to play professionally. Whether that’s in a league or overseas. But all of them have gone on to do great things, because that’s what we’ve equipped them to do.”
Discipline, teamwork, the value of hard work, and being resilient are all traits Johnson-Edwards thinks are very important for young women to have and work towards: “You might not realize that you’ve learned until you’re in a situation where you draw on the skills and strengths you’ve developed as an athlete. That’s our goal.”
But her athletes aren’t the only ones learning. Johnson-Edwards’ athletes have taught her a lot of individual differences, and how to deal with different personalities. She’s learned to tailor her approach and interactions toward each of her players.
“Each player comes differently packaged. I wanted to be a player’s coach, to be relatable. I wanted my athletes to be able to come to me for anything. I understood them, especially with the change of coming back home and coaching the D-league team. I wasn’t coaching high level scholarships athletes. They may not be a high level, but they have the same level of passion. They want to win; they want to do their best. So, I had to change my approach in terms of how I dealt with them. I had to learn my players very quickly.”
And that’s something Johnson-Edwards continues to work on. She continues to learn about her players, what drives them, and what pushes them away. What works with one might not work with another. Her players have taught her how to be more balanced in her approach.
As a coach, Johnson-Edwards still looks up to others for inspiration, like other female coaches that are making waves and opening doors for women in a male dominated field. “[I look up to] women who are crossing over into coaching and taking head position jobs. It’s not just one person. It’s a collective group of women making noise in coaching. Women who I’ve grown up watching, go into coaching. We’re crossing into territories we’ve never been in. That inspires and drives me. We’re doing it. We’re going to be the change for the next generation.”
Johnson-Edwards recognizes the changing landscape for women in positions traditionally seemingly out of their reach. Representation has become an increasingly prevalent topic, and highly relevant in the growing BLM movement. She, like many, hadn’t realized she was the first female head coach for UTM’s Varsity program’s history. “It wasn’t something I had set out to do.”
And the Eagles are coming off their best season to date. In just their third season, our Lady Eagles made it to playoffs. Johnson-Edwards and her staff gave themselves five years to turn the program into a contender, and in three years it’s clear they’re getting closer and closer to that goal. But for Coach Sal, as her players and fellow coaches call her, it isn’t enough to rack up wins. For her and her coaching team, it’s more than just basketball.
Coach Sal will undoubtedly leave behind a lasting legacy at UTM. She won two Coach of the Year awards in her three years with the Developmental team. This year, she took home her first UTM Varsity Coach of the Year Award, coming off an incredible season that saw a winning record and the program’s first ever playoff appearance. But those accolades aren’t the only things Johnson-Edwards can be proud of. In her few years at UTM, she’s already inspired several of her former players to become coaches themselves. And that’s the legacy Johnson-Edwards ultimately wants to leave behind: to inspire and drive her young female athletes to aim for the stars.
“My hope is that I’ve touched enough lives to inspire my players to go and achieve great things anywhere they go. You can look at the win-loss record, it’s pretty great. But for me that only captures a portion of the picture. I want to inspire our students and let them know that if you put yourself in a position to do the best you can, not only will you succeed but you’ll be able to affect change, influence other people, and overall push the department to a different level of greatness for varsity athletics at UTM.”