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COLUMNISTS

Sun, August 22, 2004

From cheerful to cheetah


Sammy Felicien always knew his little sister was something special by the way she attacked life. Whether it was devouring books in her bedroom of their Pickering home from the time she learned how to read.

Or meticulously pasting pictures of her childhood hero, Gail Devers, on those bedroom walls and dreaming of being just like her.

Or the dogged determination she showed to succeed, especially during the times when the odds seemed loaded against her.

"Oh man, I think there has always been something special about Perdita, she always was a lot different than the other kids," Sammy Felicien said recently.

"The way she was brought up, she never had anything given to her. She was never a spoiled kid and never had time to follow any bad companions.

"She gets all her motivation from wanting to be the best."

The smiling face you see on cereal boxes and bus shelters, in the bank and all over your television these days is a shining positive female image. That smile won't disappear away from the track, no matter what happens here in Athens.

Perdita Felicien's journey to what she hopes is Olympic gold begins today in the opening heat of the women's 100 metre hurdles. The final goes Tuesday. Felicien will break from Lane 4 today in a group of seven, which should offer little resistance for a pass to the semis tomorrow.

Felicien didn't get to the elite level by merely flashing that golden smile, however.

The cheerful personality, the one that has been serenading her teammates with poetry this week in the Olympic Village, will undergo a transformation when her competition begins.

She'll go from cheerful to cheetah when the starting gun fires.

"It's like my alter ego. When I get on the track, it's game on," Felicien said this week. "It's completely different. If I were Perdita the person on the track, I probably wouldn't win very many races. On the track, you have to be extremely selfish.

"Sometimes, it's the biggest challenge for me to kind of separate the two."

So far, the reigning world indoor and outdoor champion has kept the two Perditas in check rather well. The personable Perdita has been just accessible enough to accommodate a country craving a legitimate Olympic track star and serious medal threat.

The competitive Perdita comes to these Games sitting pretty atop a six-race winning streak and nicely living up to the mantle of hurdling queen.

It has made her the gold-medal favourite here, the choice to defeat her 37-year-old childhood idol Devers, who has never won gold in the hurdles.

It all began in a suburb east of Toronto, where Felicien was encouraged to try hurdles by a club coach and initially wondered why.

"I remember the first time I tried hurdles, I hated it," said Felicien, who will turn 24 a week from today. "I wanted to quit right then and there."

Except for one thing -- Felicien doesn't quit.

"I like to tell people the story of the first time I raced in hurdles and I cried and cried because I finished third," Felicien said. "Then I came back the next year because I wanted to prove I could do it."

Within a couple of years, she was a high school standout good enough to catch the attention of U.S. college coaches. The one that caught Felicien's eye was Gary Winckler at the University of Illinois.

Four years later, Felicien was a multiple NCAA champion and one of the most decorated track athletes in Illini history.

"Her personality won me over right away," Winckler said. "Unlike other athletes you recruit, she really took an interest in our program. She was genuine in everything she did."

It didn't take long for Winckler to learn about Felicien's other side, the one that turns her into a tigress on the track.

Though she wasn't a great physical specimen at the start of university and needed some serious technical fine-tuning, there was never a breakdown in her driveshaft.

"Perdita's strength to me has always been her ability to focus at the moment," Winckler said. "She likes to compete and when it comes time, she has the power to do that.

"That is truly a gift. I've only coached maybe two or three athletes in my 30 years that have that ability. And it makes the coach's job very easy."

Felicien has wisely kept Winckler on board and has graduated from the college ranks to professional track with verve. She also has surrounded herself with a strong, understated support group that is more of a team than an entourage.

A recent kinesiology graduate, Felicien has impressed those around her by the way she accepts counsel from those whose job is to give it.

"She's the type of individual who knows what has to be done to get the outcome," Canadian team chiropractor Wilbour Kelsick said. "She listens and is very process-oriented. It's what gives her the opportunity to develop and expand."

The win a year ago at the world championship in Paris was a coming out party. When followed by an indoor crown in Budapest in March, no longer was she Perdita the college star, but Perdita the pro.

Those accomplishments soon had agents lining up to get her business. In typical Felicien fashion, she did her homework. She asked questions and shopped around, eventually settling on U.S.-based Octagon, where one-time American hurdles star Renaldo Nehemiah would handle her account.

Nehemiah has been impressed by both Felicien's personality and her commitment to this week. She turned down as much as $50,000 from appearance meets this summer to focus on Athens.

"She is able to be a complete lady away from the sport and is very approachable yet very competitive when the gun goes off," Nehemiah said. "She embraces everything her sport has to offer, loving every moment on and off the track, yet understanding it is a passage in her life that doesn't define who she is.

"As for the money, her focus has always been on the most important day in August. That was a real sign of maturity. The money is going to be there."

It has become clear that Felicien's biggest strength is the resolve she shows in the moments before a race.

She talks about checking out the colour of Devers' famed fingernails -- Felicien has painted Canadian flags on hers -- or the most minuscule observation in a stadium jammed with thousands of people.

"Even in the commands if I'm on my knees and there is an ant crawling by, I can say 'oh, there's a bug,' " Felicien said. "And when the gun's gone, I'm gone.

"It's a thin line. Every time I line up and I see those 10 hurdles in front of me, it's like 'how am I going to get over these.'

"It's good to be like that. It's part of getting ready."

It's remarkable, really, that a year ago only track junkies knew the name Perdita -- which, by the way, came to her mother Cathy Moe from the name of a contestant on the Price is Right.

When she won the world indoor championships in March, defeating Devers, those who may have thought Paris was a fluke were silenced.

"Confidence is a dangerous weapon and she is extremely confident right now," Nehemiah said. "She's continuing to mature and she's nowhere near her prime."

Back in Pickering, the enormity of her daughter's accomplishments may surprise Moe, but not the fact that she is a success.

"Perdita was a wonderful child," said Moe, who will watch her daughter's races with friends and family. "She was very obedient and has always had a great personality. When you have that, it can take you anywhere."

The first hurdle

n Pickering's Perdita Felicien begins her quest for Olympic gold today in the opening round of the women's 100 metre hurdles. She'll be joined by fellow Canadians Angela Whyte and Priscilla Lopes:

Here's the field Felicien faces tonight at Olympic Stadium:

LANE NAME COUNTRY 2004 BEST

2 Fiora Redoumi Greece 12.86

3 Susanna Kallur Sweden 13.13

4 Perdita Felicien Canada 12.46

5 Lacena Golding-Clarke Jamaica 12.69

6 Mariya Koroteyeva Russia 12.70

7 Maila Machado Brazil 12.86

8 Yiping Su China 13.15


Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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