An array of star power as Canada’s track and field athletes rebound from tough 2017

2018 Canadian Track & Field Championships – July 3-8 – Ottawa’s Terry Fox Athletic Facility

By: John MacKinnon

As you’d expect, sprinter Andre De Grasse is on the marquee at the Canadian Track & Field Championships this week, but he may not have top billing this go-round.

That honour falls to Toronto sprinter Aaron Brown, who beat the 23-year-old De Grasse in a 100-metre race at the Harry Jerome Track Classic in Burnaby, B.C. last week and who earlier this season ran a sub-20-second (19.98 in Oslo on June 7) 200-metre time for the first time in his career.

Brown, a young veteran at just 26, is having a resurgent season, while De Grasse, a triple medalist at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, is working his way back to top form after suffering a hamstring injury that kept him out of the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London.

The entire Canadian team sagged at the 2017 World Championships, owing to injury, illness and the sub-performances that are part of sports. The team came away with no medals at all.

But the Canadian team that grew from winning a single medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London to five and eight medals at the 2013 and 2015 IAAF World Championships, respectively, and then to six at the Rio Games remains a diverse, competitive team, with elite quality across a broad portfolio of events.

“He (Brown) was the guy, he was the next guy and then Andre (De Grasse) came along,” said Mathieu Gentès, Athletics Canada’s Chief Operating Officer. “And then it was like, ‘Who’s Aaron Brown, what happened to Aaron Brown?’”

Brown predated De Grasse as a phenom at the powerhouse University of Southern California track program, breaking the longstanding Canadian record in the 200 metres, among other achievements.

De Grasse emerged a couple of years later, winning the sprint double (100- and 200-metres) at the 2015 NCAA Division 1 Championships. In 2016 at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, he won silver in the 200 metres, and bronze in both the 100 and the 4x100-metre relay.

Brown has been a relay teammate of De Grasse’s, winning bronze at the 2015 World Championships and the 2016 Olympic Games. The battles between the two teammates in the 100- and 200-metre sprints this week should be epic.

“You hate going back to the sprints all the time,” said Gentès. “But those men’s 100- and 200-metre races should be lights out, just completely lights out.”

Crystal Emmanuel of Toronto, who has won the sprint double at Nationals three times, including the last two years straight, is back to defend her titles. She is another Canadian who had a breakthrough season in 2017, setting the current Canadian 200-metre record of 22.50 at a meet in Cork, Ireland, and qualifying for the women’s 200-metre final at the World Championships, the first Canadian woman to do that since Angela Bailey in 1983.

This year there is added incentive at Nationals, because the first finisher in each event is guaranteed a spot on the Canadian team that will compete at the 2018 NACAC Championships in Toronto from Aug. 10-12.

The growing depth of talent means that Nationals are no longer a mere formality for Canada’s track athletes.

“They all say it, ‘Nationals mean a lot more now,’” said Gentès. “It helps internationally when you have to come to Nationals ready, focused to win, because it’s not a cakewalk. In the past, (it) was basically a check mark on a piece of paper.”

One bright spot in 2017 was the men’s 5,000 metres, in which Mohammad Ahmed, 26, of St. Catharines, Ont., finished sixth and Justyn Knight was ninth. Knight, 21, capped a stellar four-year career at Syracuse University by winning the 5,000-metre title at the NCAA Division 1 Championships in June.

With Ben Flanagan, the 2018 NCAA 10,000-metre champion in the mix, along with Charles Philibert-Thiboutot, the 1,500-metre man from Quebec City, who plans to compete in the longer distance in Ottawa, the men’s 5,000 should illustrate what depth of talent can mean in an individual event.

Flanagan, of Kitchener, Ont., whose NCAA title capped off his senior year at the University of Michigan, is coached by Michigan alumnus Kevin Sullivan, who finished fifth for Canada at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

In the women’s 400-metre hurdles, Sage Watson of Lethbridge, Alta., has emerged as a star. Like Knight, the 24-year-old Watson closed out her collegiate career by winning the NCAA Division 1 title in her specialty in June 2017.

She also was a finalist in the women’s 400-metre hurdles at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London, finishing sixth. Watson has set her sights on bettering Rosey Edeh’s Canadian record in the 400-metre hurdles. With a personal best of 54.55 seconds, Watson is within striking distance of Edeh’s 54.39, a mark set back in 1996.

Multi-event man Damian Warner, of London, Ont., is back on track after illness derailed his golden ambitions at the 2017 World Championships and a bizarre no-height in the pole vault eliminated him at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia in April.

On May 27, Warner set a Canadian record in amassing 8,795 points in the two-day decathlon at the prestigious Hypo Meeting in Götzis, Austria, the fourth time he has won that event.

Warner, 28, who moved to Calgary following the 2016 Olympic Games to train with coach Les Gramantik, will compete in the 110-metre hurdles and the long jump this week in Ottawa.

Brittany Crew of Toronto continues to set and reset her Canadian record in the women’s shot put. The 24-year-old 2018 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist in Gold Coast, Australia, nudged the standard up to 18.60 metres at a meet in Madrid on June 22.

Long jump has not been a depth area for Canadian athletics, historically. But currently, with Canadian record holder (6.99 metres) Christabel Nettey of Surrey, B.C., and 22-year-old collegian Jared Kerr, who is coached by U.S.A. track legend Carl Lewis at the University of Houston, Canada has an elite leaper in both the women’s and men’s long jump.

Nettey, who won gold in the event at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, has two of the top five-ranked jumps this season, including a jump of 6.92 metres, which she achieved at a meet in Poland on June 8.

A rich slate of Paralympic athletics events this week will feature Brent Lakatos, Athletics Canada’s 2017 Athlete of the Year. Lakatos, a transplanted Montrealer who now lives and trains in London, England, will compete in the 800 and 1,500 metre T53 wheelchair races in Ottawa.

Marissa Papaconstantinou of Toronto will be an athlete to watch among the female Paralympians. Just 17, Papaconstantinou is back competing after suffering a gruesome hamstring injury in 2017 at the World Para Athletics Championships in London. She competes in the T44 (single-leg amputee) 100 and 200 metres.

2018 Canadian Track & Field Championships highlights:
Tuesday morning/afternoon: U18/U20 heptathlon/decathlon events
Wednesday: U18/U20 heptathlon/decathlon events; Para seated shot put finals; seated club throw finals
Wednesday night: Para 5,000m wheelchair final, Para 400m ambulatory finals; Para 1,500m Ambulatory final; Para 100m wheelchair finals
Thursday morning: 200m heats; Para seated discus finals; Para ambulatory discus finals; Para ambulatory long jump
Thursday afternoon: 100m heats; 400m heats; Long jump qualifying
Thursday night: Para wheelchair 1,500m finals; Para 800m ambulatory finals; 3,000m steeplechase finals; 5,000m finals; 800m heats
Friday morning: Para 200m wheelchair finals; 1,500m semifinals; 400m semifinals
Friday afternoon: Para wheelchair 800m finals
Friday night: Para ambulatory 100m finals; Long jump finals; 100m semis and finals; Men’s shot put final; Women’s discus and hammer throw finals
Saturday morning/afternoon: 400m hurdles heats; 200m semis
Saturday night: 200m finals; 400m finals; Javelin finals; 110m and 100m hurdles finals; Men’s pole vault final
Sunday morning: 400m hurdles finals; 800m finals, 1,500m finals; Women’s shot put final; Women’s pole vault final

The Canadian Track & Field Championships runs from July 3-8 at Terry Fox Stadium. Click here for the full meet schedule.

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