Canadian track and field athletes prepare for crucial qualifier ahead of world championships
World championship spots on the line at Canadian track and field championships
🔴ʟɪᴠᴇ🔴🏆░▒▓█► Canadian Track and Field Championships 2022 Live
🔴ɢᴏ ʟɪᴠᴇ🔴🏆░▒▓█► 2022 Canadian Track and Field Championships Live
De Grasse, Warner among key absences for Langley, B.C., event beginning Wednesday
Evan Dunfee of Richmond, B.C., seen above after winning bronze in the men's 50km race walk at Tokyo 2020, will be the only individual track and field medallist from the four in Tokyo competing at national championships beginning Wednesday in Langley, B.C. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
In a post-Olympic year like no other, Canadian track and field athletes are ramping up for another jam-packed summer of international competition.
Their quest for the podium at the world championships next month in Eugene, Oregon goes through the Township of Langley, B.C. this week as the track and field national championships are set to begin Wednesday — a crucial qualifier for athletes still looking to earn their spot onto the Canadian team heading to worlds.
"It's a totally unique Olympic cycle through to Paris. It's a unique year having two major championships in the same year. The world championships and Commonwealth Games. That's never happened in Athletics before," Simon Nathan, Athletics Canada's high performance director, told CBC Sports.
For the next five days, upwards of 1,650 able-bodied and Para athletes registered in senior and U20 categories will be competing at MacLeod Athletic Park. Competition begins with the 10-kilometre and 20km race walk events.
"With the way the World Athletics qualifications work now, there are these points and bonus points. The national championships have the biggest number of bonus points and literally every country in the world is having its national championships this weekend. So there could be a lot of shifting around," Nathan said.
Nathan assumed his role with Athletics Canada five years ago. In fact, his first event as high performance director was at the world championships in 2017. He says there are some parallels to then and now, including having some big name athletes missing from action at nationals.
Olympic champion decathlete Damian Warner is out due to a sore knee. Six-time Olympic medallist Andre De Grasse is out with COVID-19. And Mo Ahmed, who won silver in Tokyo in the 5,000m event, is also out due to injury.
"I feel like we've been a bit unlucky with some of these issues but in the end you make your own luck. I'd much rather these guys all there. Let's be honest. Nobody is playing games. They all want to be there," Nathan said.
"It's not great but I'm not losing sleep over it."
Nathan goes on to talk about those 2017 worlds — the first world championship after the 2016 Olympics. He went back and looked at the trials to see what happened in that post-Olympic year.
There were four individual medallists at those Rio Games for Canada. Only one of them would go on to compete at nationals and the world championships that following summer — that was Warner, who would end up placing fifth at worlds.
Notable Canadian absences
Now once again only one individual medallist from the four in Tokyo, bronze medal winning race walker Evan Dunfee, will be competing at nationals.
"I don't like the situation at all but I think just looking back there's a big hit from the Olympics," Nathan said.
"It's unfortunate and we'll do what we can for those athletes. But at this particular point I'm concentrating on the ones who are there and putting on a good show."
Nathan says De Grasse, Warner and Ahmed have all received medical exemptions from Athletics Canada's chief medical doctor and expects all three to compete at the world championships in July.
"It's my understanding that all three should be 100 per cent at worlds. They won't be held back in any sense," he said.
Nathan says he expects to send a team of about 50 athletes to the world championships. The way to qualify for the international meet is a tad complex.
"The World Athletics have this complicated entry system. You can qualify by entry standards or you can qualify by points. Entry standard is meant to be the high level. They're looking to have 50 per cent of the whole world championships qualify by that entry standard and 50 per cent by the points," Nathan said.
"As we sit right here we're expecting a team of about 50 athletes to go to worlds and 40 of those are through the relays or entry standards. We're really up there in the quality of our athletes."
Opportunity for new stars
Nathan says the momentum around the Canadian track and field team is a real thing and while the Olympic medallists who aren't competing will garner a lot of the attention, he says this week there are going to be battles playing out at a very high level and stars will emerge.
"I think what people should look for at nationals is the competition. Just how competitive our athletes are at the line. It isn't just with the medallist. They lead the charge. But we have talent across the board. Hopefully they'll step up at these nationals and perform again at the worlds," he said.
"There's an opportunity for some of the newer stars and people to really put their best foot forward and fill that gap."
Canada is coming off one of its best collective performances ever at an Olympics having won six medals in Tokyo and finishing fifth out of 70 countries on the placing table.
Nathan credits the coaches and athletes across the country and beyond who have remained focused and resilient over the last number of years, especially considering how challenging it's been to train throughout the pandemic.
Now in the wake of all of that, Nathan wants to ensure Canadian athletes continue to make strides on the international stage, beginning at home this week during nationals.
"I'm incredibly proud of the athletes and their coaches," he said.
"They're trying to represent Canada and they're trying to do it at the highest level. It's a great team and a very strong team."
LANGLEY, B.C.—The Canadian track and field championships kicked off Wednesday with elite athletes looking to book their ticket to the July’s world championships in Eugene, Ore.
But due to illness and injury the five-day event is missing several of its expected headliners.
Of the four Canadians who won Olympic medals in individual athletics events at last summer’s Tokyo Games, only one is here: race walker Evan Dunfee.
Three-time Tokyo sprint medallist Andre De Grasse pulled out after catching COVID, decathlon champion Damian Warner is resting a sore knee, and Mohammed Ahmed, who won Canada’s first medal in the 5,000 metres, is also not here.
Brendon Rodney, who was part of Canada’s silver-medal 4x100-metre relay team, scratched from the event so, along with De Grasse’s absence, that leaves half of the relay team’s fast men here: Aaron Brown and Jerome Blake.
Competing at the national championships can be an important step in getting named to Team Canada for the world championships but it’s not the only route and, in cases of injury and illness, Athletics Canada has provisions that allow top athletes like Warner and De Grasse to still be named to the team.
Canada expects to send a team of around 50 athletes to the worlds and, unlike some years, the team looks set to include strength and medal potential across all the run, jump and throw disciplines.
Two-time Olympic pole vaulter Alysha Newman is coming back to form after a concussion derailed her Tokyo Olympics and Tokyo Games high jumper Django Lovett is ranked fifth in the world.
LANGLEY, BRITISH COLUMBIA — A few strides from the finish line, Evan Dunfee pumped his fist in the air twice and flashed a grin — a moment of pure joy in what's been a frustrating year since his thrilling bronze-medal triumph at the Tokyo Olympics.
"I was pleasantly surprised," Dunfee said. "Coming on here today was just for testing … I'm pleasantly surprised and happy with how it went today, and now it's continuing to build back form and hopefully take this pace from today and extend it another 15k over 35 (kilometres, the world championship distance)."
The 31-year-old from Richmond, B.C., captured his ninth Canadian race walking title on Wednesday, pulling away from world bronze medallist Ben Thorne some 18 kilometres into the 20K event at Mission Raceway — normally home to motorsport — crossing in one hour 23 minutes 28.30 seconds.
Dunfee had been dealing with a nagging hamstring injury for months, but his mental health has taken the bigger beating. He suffered from post-Olympic blues that many athletes describe — and for which an Olympic medal is clearly no guaranteed salve. There was also the blow of the elimination of his best event, the Olympic 50K, after he'd so vigorously lobbied the International Olympic Committee to keep in the Games.
"There was slew of factors there with the hamstring injury, and then not properly dealing with the loss of the 50K. And just trying to sort of power through it without actually mourning the fact that it was gone," Dunfee said.
Athletes find solace in physical activity.
"But in those moments when training wasn't pain-free, it became another thing that was kind of drawing motivation away from me," said Dunfee.
He eventually reached out to Canadian team doctor Paddy McCluskey and his sports psychologist Kirsten Barnes.