Mon, September 23, 2013

With stars out, Canada faces a hurdle

By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency


Four years after winning bronze in Beijing, Priscilla Lopes-Schliep (L) banged hard into a hurdle and never recovered on the way to a sixth-place finish and out of the running at the Canadian Track and Field Olympic Trials in Calgary this year. (AL CHAREST, QMI Agency)

For Canada's struggling track and field program, the women's 100-metre hurdles event has been a source of both joy and agony in recent Summer Olympics.

When Priscilla Lopes-Schliep pulled off a mild upset four years ago and captured a bronze medal at the Beijing Games, it was the first Canadian podium visit in an athletics event since 1996. That's your joy.

When Perdita Felicien, arguably the greatest hurdler Canada has produced, tripped over the first hurdle in Athens eight years ago in the final, a race in which she was the clear favourite to win, that was your agony.

This year, however, the pain happened long before either woman made it to England. After the dramatic Canadian Olympic trials at the end of June, the team was left in the uncomfortable position of having two of its brightest medal hopes not even qualifying for the Games. Felicien's star-crossed career had perhaps its final gutting when she false-started before the final and the subsequent disqualification ended her Olympic dream.

Lopes-Schliep, nine months after giving birth to a girl, banged hard into a hurdle and never recovered on the way to a sixth-place finish and out of the running. The shock waves were felt far and wide since it was clear Lopes-Schliep was to be one of the most visible Canadian athletes heading to the U.K., based on the network promos that were starting to air even before her stumble -- not to mention the prominent endorsement deals attached to her new motherhood.

When the dust had settled at the trials in Calgary, Felicien, 31, and Lopes-Schliep, 29, were out and three new women were in as first-time Olympians in the event.

Led by heptathlon ace Jessica Zelinka, 30, the qualifying Canadian hurdlers include up-and-comers Nikkita Holder, 25, and Phylicia George, 24, who someday may match the accomplishments of the fallen veterans but likely are too early in that journey to be considered serious contenders. The three qualified fair and square, but rather than produce the best opportunity for a medal in London the Olympic trials may have compromised the process.

"Certainly Priscilla Lopes-Schliep and Perdita Felicien have the credentials to hit the podium -- they've done it at world championships, and Priscilla has done it at the Olympic Games," Athletics Canada head coach Alex Gardiner said when announcing the team headed for London. "Certainly that was a bit disappointing, but we're going to see them back, I think.

"Most importantly, the three women in the event also have the credentials to get to the podium."

Both of Gardiner's points are debatable. Felicien, arguably one of the more accomplished female track athletes Canada has produced, may end her career with the dubious distinction of never having crossed the finish line in an Olympic final. At Sydney in 2000, she was a rising star who was there for experience. In Athens, she tumbled as the heavy favourite and in Beijing in 2008, injury kept her off the team.

As for the other three, Zelinka has a good shot to get to the podium -- but that's in her priority event, the heptathlon (which includes the hurdles as one of the disciplines). That said, the native of London, Ont., makes no apologies for getting to the line first over her two compatriots with the impressive credentials.

"I know Canada wants to send its best and I've proven my fitness in hurdles," Zelinka said. "It would be ridiculous not to want to replicate that in London."

Felicien and Lopes-Schliep can only wish they had the chance.