It's okay to be amateurish

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:00 AM ET

Nicole Stevenson is 35 years old, Canada's premier female marathoner for the past six years and feeling as cozy in her own skin as a kitten at nap time.

Once shunned by Athletics Canada, there are days Stevenson feels invincible. And others when she feels like a dinosaur -- the remnant of a lost breed that once dominated amateur sports.

"I could be in my twilight years, I could be having a rebirth. I could be totally past my prime. I don't know," Stevenson said yesterday with a a laugh as the starting line of the Toronto Marathon beckons Sunday for 13,000 runners.

The trendy route to international sporting success is to train full-time. In Toronto an international shoe company has set up a $1.5-million home and training centre for a dozen elite marathoners dedicated to full-time training, and Dave Scott-Thomas has set up the Guelph Speed River Club -- all with eyes set on the 2012 Olympic Games. The winner of this weekend's race could walk away with up to $70,000, including bonuses.

Stevenson is from a different, perhaps not better, time.

"We're true amateur athletes," Stevenson said. "I have a full-time job and a career and I'm also trying to run world-class times.

"My competitors outside Canada train full time and think I'm absolutely crazy. They tell me: 'How can you do all this? Why don't you do one or the other? What's wrong with you?' But I'm not sure I have the mental wiring to train full time ... I like a more comprehensive life."

She has represented Canada at the Commonwealth Games and at world championships. She is a career-woman with a job in marketing as a pharmaceutical product manager. In May, she ran a 2:41.04 marathon in Ottawa which should qualify her for Canada's team at the 2009 world championship in Berlin.

"If I train four hours a day, I'd still have 20 hours to kill," Stevenson said. "That terrifies me. It's not me. But for other people, maybe it will work (she says of the Brooks project). I'd love to see a Canadian in the marathon at the Olympics again."

That hasn't happened since 1996 with May Allison and Danuta Bartoszek, although many argue Stevenson should have been in Athens. In January 2004, she ran a 2:33:37 in Houston, within international standards for the Games.

"But Athletics Canada set its own higher standards," Stevenson said.

"They've set the bar so high it's almost discouraging. It was Athens, home of the marathon. We should've been there but Canada chose not to because I wasn't ranked in the top 16 in the world.

BE PROUD

"To me it's better to have someone there and be proud of them than to say: 'Sorry but if you're not going to get a medal we don't want you wearing our colours.' I felt ripped off to be honest. I don't want to sound full of sour grapes because I'm grateful for many things but it is certainly an opportunity missed."

Not just for her, for the country.

"I've had people call me an Olympian but I'm not. I just wish I had that title. I go and talk to kids at schools and I'm introduced as international marathoner ... but if you can say you're an Olympian it carries so much more weight.

"It's all about setting bars and if I'm the bar for women's marathoning there's going to be a ton of kids who think: She went to the Olympics at 2:32 or 33 -- I can run faster than that. It's all about chasing the carrot and right now there's no carrot."

Her own carrot? Break 2:30.

"It has been a goal for six years and the clock is ticking," Stevenson said.

She came close in 2006, with a 2:32.56 but then sat out 2007 with "burn-out."

Thus, this weekend, she said, is "to see if I can get back to my vintage days."

That may include taking another shot at the Olympics.

"When I watch the Olympics I want to see people from my country," Stevenson said.

"Could it be me? Maybe. I don't know. But as long as someone is there, I'd be happy.

"Maybe you don't win this time but you're going to help someone else become a winner. It's about the growth of the sport. It's about competing and inspiring others."

If that's what it's all about, Stevenson crossed that finish line long ago. She just hasn't realized it yet.


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