Track Canada needs a leg up

Canadian 100-metre women hurdlers (left to right) Perdita Felicien, Priscilla Lopes-Schliep,...

Canadian 100-metre women hurdlers (left to right) Perdita Felicien, Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, Nikkita Holder and Phylicia George pose for a photo after a news conference yesterday in Calgary. The Canadian Olympic trials start today. (AL CHAREST/QMI Agency)

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:33 PM ET

CALGARY - It was damp and cold and downright miserable inside the media tent at Foothills Athletic Park on Tuesday afternoon, site of this week’s Canadian track and field trials, but national team head coach Alex Gardiner was not going to let anyone rain on his parade.

It was suggested to Gardiner, in a very subtle, almost sneaky, way that the Canadian track and field team heading into next month’s Olympics, was not looking particularly impressive.

After all, there are really only two events — the men’s shot put and the women’s 100-metre hurdles — where Canada has a real chance to win a medal — and neither are exactly glamour disciplines — not like the old days when Canada sent world-class sprinters and decathletes to Games. But Gardiner refused to buy into any pessimism or gloom and doom.

“I think it’s going to be the best trials in my memory, and I’ve been at the sport for 30 years,” the Winnipeg native said. “All the events are really deep and there are going to be some great battles for spots.”

I suppose where the Canadian track and field team is at this juncture depends on your perspective. For the personable Gardiner, the team is at a good place. Athletics Canada expects to send one of the biggest teams in years to the Games, and are looking for 8-10 athletes to finish in the top eight in London. But from another perspective, you could say the track and field program in Canada has been spinning its wheels for years.

Athletics, as track and field is known outside of North America, is undeniably the king of Olympic Games sports. There have been basketball Dream Teams and swimming superstars and water polo blood baths, but Athletics sparkles with extraordinary performances and legendary performers. Names like Jesse Owens, Paavo Nurmi, Fanny Blankers-Koen and Jim Thorpe carry an almost unworldly quality.

And Canada also had a proud history in Athletics at the Olympics. Percy Williams, the pride of Vancouver, won the 100- and 200-metre sprints at the 1928 Games; Oakville’s Donovan Bailey captured the 100-metre title in world record time at the 1996 Atlanta Games and then anchored the Canadian men’s 4x100-metre relay team to gold a week later; Ethel Catherwood, the Saskatoon lilly, captured the high jump gold also at the 1928 Games in Amsterdam.

But in recent Olympics, medals have been few and far between for Canadian athletics. Whitby’s Priscilla Lopes-Schliep earned a bronze in the 100-metres hurdles at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the first track medal for Canada since Bailey’s double gold in Atlanta.

At the coming Olympics in London, the best shot for a medal will come from shot putter Dylan Armstrong of Kamloops, B.C., the 2011 world championship silver medallist, who finished fourth at the 2008 Beijing Games, and in the women’s 100-metres hurdles. The 100 hurdles is one of the very few where Canadians excel. Six women, led by Lopes-Schliep and 2003 world champion Perdita Felicien of Pickering, Ont., have already made the time standard necessary to qualify for the Games and the top three from Saturday’s final will automatically qualify. But after that, well, somebody like London heptathlete Jessica Zelinka or high jumpers Michael Mason of Nanoose Bay, B.C., and Derek Drouin of Sarnia, who both recorded career best leaps of 2.31 this season (tied for eighth in the world), could sneak in for a medal.

But as far as the marquee events in track, Canada’s in tough. The expected surge of popularity and outflow of talent following Bailey’s and the relay team’s momentous achievement in Atlanta never really materialized. Canadian sprinting has suffered in recent years. The best time by a Canadian male in the 100-metre sprint this season is 10.18 by Aaron Brown, which does not place the Toronto native in the top 60 in the world.

It’s a cold, hard fact that Canada is a winter sport country and has trouble cracking into the top 15 in overall medals at Summer Games. But Lopes-Schliep is hoping that if a Canadian has a breakthrough in London, that event could take off in future years just like women’s hurdling did after Felicien won the world title in 2003.

“I’m just hoping to see (results) trickle over into more events,” Lopes-Schliep said. “It just makes the entire sport better. We have a lot of talent and you see some people slip through the cracks. So hopefully we can patch up those cracks and get more medals for our country and definitely put a stamp out there saying ‘Canada means business.’”

HURDLERS HAVE GREAT CHANCE

CALGARY — Canadian track and field team head coach Alex Gardiner thought he overheard one of his athletes say, “Who is expecting?”

“I almost panicked,” said Gardiner, with a laugh. “It turns out, they were saying, ‘Who else are we expecting (at this press conference).’”

You couldn’t blame Gardiner for being a little concerned.

After all, Canadian 100 metre hurdles star Priscilla Lopes-Schliep took all of last year off to have a baby. Little Nataliya arrived last September, but Lopes-Schliep, the defending Olympic bronze medallist, hasn’t missed a beat. And neither have any of the other Canadian women competing in the 100 metre hurdles at this week’s Canadian track and field trials. Canada has become the second ranked nation in the world in the event, with no fewer than six hurdlers already recording the qualifying standard needed to compete at the London Olympics.

Lopes-Schliep leads the charge with a time of 12.64 seconds, the fifth fastest woman in the event this season. Following Lopes-Schliep are Jessica Zelinka of London (12.76), whose main event is the heptathlon, Phylicia George of Markham (12.79), Edmonton’s Angela Whyte (12.83), Nikkita Holder of Pickering (12.84) and 2003 world champ Perdita Felicien, also of Pickering (12.94). The top three from Saturday’s final will go to London.

“There’s a lot of pressure on us,” Felicien said. “And the truth is, no one knows what’s going to happen, no one can call it. I know how well I’ve prepared, I know how well I’ve trained, but you never know until the day of.”

Hurdles is a unpredictable event. Anything can happen. But someone like Lopes-Schliep, who is an instant medal contender in London if she gets through, will not let the pressure of Saturday’s race get to her.

“I believe in myself and my coaches believe in me and that’s what it is, hands down,” she said. “You have to be a believer, you can’t be somebody who’s dragging their feet. So you go out there with the attitude that ‘I’m going to do this.’”

 


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