Mon, September 23, 2013

Canada on right track?

Coaches split on whether Canadian 4x100 relay team fast enough to medal in London

By STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency


Brianne Theisen of Humboldt, Sask., (left) and Jessica Zelinka of London, Ont., compete in the heptathlon women's 100-metre hurdles at the Canadian track and field Olympic trials in Calgary. Each already has qualified for the 2012 London Games. (Al Charest/QMI Agency)

CALGARY - Calgary sprint coach John Cannon has never been a guy who worries about being politically correct or stepping on anyone’s toes.

When he was an Olympic Games coach in years past, he was known in media circles as Loose Cannon.

So when asked on Wednesday, during the first day of competition at the Canadian track and field trials, what he thought of the 100-metre sprint and 4x100-metre relay situation in this country — marquee track events in which Canada once excelled — Cannon didn’t hold anything back.

“We have a lot of guys who can run between 10.10 and 10.20,” said the coach of rising Calgary sprinter Akeem Haynes. “But in the real world, that isn’t going to cut it.”

“In Jamaica alone, there are eight guys who can run under 10 seconds,” he said. “We don’t have any.”

True. The most recent Canadian to break the 10-second barrier was Montreal’s Bruny Surin, who ran a 9.84, back at the 1999 world championships in Seville, Spain. The Canadian record in the 100 is held by Surin and Donovan Bailey (times set back in the 1990s). The Canadian record in the 200 is held by Toronto’s Atlee Mahorn, a 20.17, set way back in 1991 at the world championships in Tokyo.

Even during the halcyon days of Bailey and Surin and Mahorn, Athletics Canada official realized that given the size and depth of talent in this country in track and field, it was unreasonable to expect a Bailey and a Surin to come down the pipeline every four years.

So AC officials decided to concentrate on the relay team, and hired Glenroy Gilbert — a member of Canada’s gold medal-winning relay team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics — to be the coach. And there has been some success in recent years, including a sixth-place finish at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

But the question is, given the fact that Canadian sprinters can’t seem to break the 10.15 barrier anymore, can the men’s 4x100-metre relay really expect to win a medal next month at the London Olympics? Cannon isn’t convinced it can, but Olympic team head coach Alex Gardiner is hopeful the relay team can rise to the occasion — which would be a huge bonus for a national track and field program that’s expected to win only one or two medals (shot putter Dylan Armstrong and Priscilla Lopes-Schliep in the 100- metre hurdles) in London.

“We’re looking for them to make the final, and we’re looking for them to be in the top five and have a dark horse shot at the podium,” said Gardiner. “Technically we’re very good. They’ve been together for three, four years. They’re capable. But do we need some better performances individually out of the 100? We do. But we haven’t seen a couple of the younger kids here run here yet — people like Aaron Brown and Akeem Haynes. We want to see what they look like and we know they had experience in the U.S.”

There is some young sprint talent coming up. Toronto’s Brown ran an impressive 10.18 at the Pac-12 championships this month. Justyn Warner of Markham, Ont., who turns 25 on Thursday, has run a legal 10.20 this year and is the 2006 junior world championship silver medallist. Justyn’s younger brother Ian Warner, 22, posted a 10.24 at the NCAA championships and Calgary’s Haynes, 20, ran 10.27.

So there is promise. But what Gardiner and Gilbert are counting on is for the young sprinters to improve on those times over the next few weeks heading toward London. If they can do that, perhaps a medal is possible. As for the 2016 Olympics, Gardiner is even more optimistic.

“We’re clawing our way back,” he said. “These guys are all relatively young. I’ll be personally disappointed if these guys aren’t down around 10 flat, at least 10.10, over the next two years.”

The 100-metre finals at the Canadian track and field championships at Foothills Athletic Park will be run on Friday.

FUTURE LOOKS GOLDEN

The Olympic decathlon champion often is referred to as the greatest athlete in the world.

Of course, that’s all subjective. But as far as Canadian senior national team coach Les Gramantik is concerned, London, Ont., decathlete Damian Warner is one of the best athletes he has seen.

And Gramantik, like pretty well everyone else involved in Canadian track and field, is over the moon in terms of where Warner may be when the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics begin, and, for that matter, where Canadian heptathlete Brianne Theisen will be in 2016. As far as Gramantik is concerned, Warner and Theisen should be medal worthy, perhaps even gold medal worthy, at the Rio Games in their respective events.

“Warner has abilities that we never had in the decathlon (in Canada),” said Gramantik, who coached former great Michael Smith. “He’s fast, he’s got incredible speed. The decathlon, moreso now, depends on speed and good jumps. Throws aren’t going to make a huge difference. Look at Ashton Eaton’s world record (9,039) this year. He only threw (42.81) metres discus. Because of Damian’s speed I can assure you that if the training protocol is right (going forward to 2016), he can be very competitive in 2016.”

Warner is only 22 in an event where the top performers often peak in their late 20s. As for Theisen, the 23-year-old Humboldt, Sask., native posted a personal best 6,440 this season — the ninth best heptathlon in the world. Jessica Zelinka of London, Ont., who finished fifth at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with a PB of 6,490, is still a contender at 30. The decathlon and heptathlon got underway at the Canadian track and field trials on Wednesday. Zelinka and Theisen already have made the Olympic qualifying standard, so there is no pressure on them at this event. Instead, they are trying to peak in London, though they had good first days Wednesday. Zelinka leads with a score of 3,982 while Theisen second (3,838).

“I was happy with all my events, they were all consistently bang-on and it was exactly what I wanted coming out the first day,” said Zelinka. “I had my Beijing Day One results.”

Warner can qualify for London by either making the A Standard (8,200 points) or get in on the Rising Star program by making the B Standard (7,950). He finished second after Day One of the decathlon with 4,176 points, right behind Windsor’s Jamie Adjetey-Nelson (4,182), who is 28.