Four weeks ago, I found myself jumping up and down in my living room yelling, “WOW! Oh my God! Holy CRAP!” Andre De Grasse had just obliterated the field at the NCAA Championships in the 200m, running 19.58 seconds. An hour prior, he won the 100m in 9.75 seconds, a time, if not wind-aided, would have ranked the 20-year-old second in the world.
“Can you describe the current state of Canadian track and field, and why do you think this is happening?” is a question that I am asked a lot.
I never know how to answer this besides just rattling off the long list of world class performances we’ve seen so far in 2015. From the throws to the sprints, the multi-events to the high jump, long jump, and pole vault, Canada has athletes ranked in the top 7 in the world in 10 different events, probably the highest volume of world-class performances our country has ever seen.
Canada has a rich track and field history with names like Harry Jerome, Debbie Brill, and Donovan Bailey coming to mind. Follow that up with more recent stars like Perdita Felicien, Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, and Dylan Armstrong, and athletes my age had plenty of opportunity to witness what these people did, and what it took to be at the very top.
I train in the United States in Eugene, Oregon where most of the US Championships are held. Every year, I experience the atmosphere at this meet and the very best way I can describe it is confident and empowering. It feels as if each athlete goes into the championships fully intending on not only making the US team, but medaling at the World Championships and Olympics. They have this aggressive nature about them that radiates confidence.
We were lacking this atmosphere in Canada. Although the small percentage of veteran, medal-winning Canadians knew what it took to win on the world stage and carried around the necessary confidence, it seemed like the rest of us leisurely went about our business, completely satisfied with just making a team and getting a new stamp in our passports.
I say this, because I was guilty of it. In 2009, at 20-years-old, I made my first senior national team. I was extremely excited to compete at the World Championships, but that was enough for me. I had the “I’m here for the experience” attitude. I just wanted to soak it all in and didn’t care what happened. I understand that going into it with the “I’m going to win a medal” mentality would have been extremely unrealistic, but I could have at least challenged or given myself the opportunity to learn from my teammates about what it took to be successful on the world stage.
The same thing happened the Olympic year. I was thrilled to make the team and although I wanted to do well at the Olympics, I just didn’t possess the mentality it took to do that.
That year, we won one medal in the men’s high jump. It came from someone two years younger than me, Derek Drouin. We also had a close medal call in the men’s 4x100m, as well as an amazing 5th place finish by another young buck, Damian Warner in the decathlon. I watched these young athletes with intense interest, trying to figure out what set them apart. I now know that it was because they went into those Games fully expecting to win a medal, whereas the rest of us young athletes maybe had a bit of that, “I’m here for the experience.”, “I’m ranked 10th so the chances are slim that I’ll medal.”, and “I’ll just see what happens.”
I think these athletes started a trend. They had a fire inside them after their success at the Games, and I think the remainder of us young athletes caught on. That “why not me” mentality that Andre De Grasse possessed during the NCAA Championships was running rampant among track and field athletes in Canada after the Games. We got a glimpse of what our careers could be, and what the future of Canadian track and field could be, and we all wanted it.
2013 was the turning point. A few athletes retired while others went on maternity leave. The veterans who had mastered and exemplified the mentality it took to win for so many years left our group of rookies to hold up the fort. This meant that at the Canadian National Championships, we had to aspire to more than just making the World Championship team and going for the experience.
We ended up walking away from that year’s World Championships with 5 medals, the highest ever Canadian World Championship medal count. Did this happen because of what we had learned from our teammates in London? Did it happen because we were motivated by what the future could hold for us? Were we inspired by the athletes who came before, led, and paved the path for us? Or was it just a decade where Canada bred more track and field athletes?
I think it has been all of the above. I know that success is contagious and inspiring, especially when it comes from teammates. When I see another Canadian track athlete compete well, I get excited and it motivates me to want to be a better athlete. When Derek won the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic Games I thought to myself, “He’s doing his part, he’s bringing home medals. I want to do mine.”
The athletes who came before us started a ripple, which has now turned into wave of inspiration we’re all riding, fueled by one another’s success. Hopefully we can do the same for those who come after us.