Sam Effah is riding a stationary bike like a man possessed. Then he attacks a chest-dip bar the same way. But he’s not at a gym — he’s alone in the living room of his Toronto apartment.
His roommates, though, are all at the track, running. That’s where he wants to be, but he’s injured — again.
Five years ago, Effah was set to be Canada’s next great sprinter. In 2010, he clocked 10.06 in the 100 metres, making him one of the fastest Canadians of all-time. And, since that result came so early in his career, he seemed destined to join an elite club before too long.
The pool of people with the physical potential to run a sub-10 second, 100-metre sprint is small, and it gets even smaller for those who also have the mental strength and discipline for the training it takes to meet that potential. Even then, they still need to find the right coach and training environment and, above all, stay injury-free long enough to peak.
So much can go wrong, and that is the story of Effah’s career and why he is working out in his living room.
His lowest point came at the 2012 Olympic trials on his home turf in Calgary. He was the defending national champion, and his picture was on all the promotional posters.
“I wanted it so bad, I was the hometown hero,” Effah says. “Everybody was there, from my elementary school teacher, to my high school principal, my pastor — everyone who had been there every step of the way was there to watch me run.”
What they didn’t know — couldn’t know, because he’d kept it quiet — was that 54 days before that race he had pulled a muscle in his left leg. He was in treatment every day and didn’t run until the day of the race.
“I’ll just feed off the crowd,” he told himself.
Effah had heart, and that’s what wins races in the movies. But without Hollywood’s dramatic artistic licence, life often does not turn out that way.
He did advance through the rounds but, by the final, no amount of crowd cheering could make up for so much lost training, and he finished eighth. He needed to be first or second to be eligible for the London Olympics.
“When you’re an athlete and you have a dream of going to the Olympics and that’s taken away from you, it doesn’t get worse than that,” he says, but the years on either side of that race haven’t been much easier.
He’s been injured and in pain more often than not.
The drive to change the story of his career, while there’s still time, is what brought Effah to Toronto. He hoped the wraparound coaching, conditioning and therapy services at the Athletics Canada training hub here would help keep him in one piece.
Of the fast men who now train there — including Team Canada 4x100-metre relay regulars Gavin Smellie and Dontae Richards-Kwok — Effah is the one coaches believe has the most potential.
“If he’s healthy, he could be deadly,” sprint coach Desai Williams says.
So far, however, that success has proven as elusive here as it was in Calgary.
After Effah moved to Toronto in September, he began feeling sharp pinching pains in his hip. By the middle of November, he was under a surgeon’s knife having a tear in the labrum, a ring of cartilage in his left hip, repaired.
He timed the surgery, hoping he’d be back on his feet in time to make the team for this summer’s Pan Am Games and world championships — and, beyond that, strong for next summer’s Rio Olympics. Doctors said his recovery would take at least six months; Effah gambled that he would do it in four.
“I’m watching my teammates getting stronger, getting faster and I’m happy for them, but I wish I was doing the same thing,” he says. “They have an indoor season ahead of them and I can’t walk.”
Having so much time on his hands led to lot of conversations with himself along these lines: “If this doesn’t work out, what are you going to do?”
It’s a logical question. The wonder is that he hasn’t asked it sooner, since he admits the last time he “truly felt good” was the 100-metre final in the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.
He was the guy in the middle lane there, the one who had the fastest time going in and was expected to be a contender for the win. But his starting blocks slipped, throwing him off balance and awkwardly into the runner in the lane next to him. That race — in its disappointing and embarrassing entirety — is easily found on the web.
“I still watch it,” Effah says. “It hurts.”
In his next event, the 4x100-metre relay, he felt tightness in his left quad, and “that was it.” He’s been injured on and off ever since.
He’s never matched his 10.06 time, let alone hit the times that others expected him to or, more importantly, that he still expects of himself. Five years is a long time to keep a dream as elusive as athletic excellence alive.
“When my time is over, it’s over,” Effah says. “But right now, I’m just focused on getting back to it. I just assume that I’m going to be great.
“If there are hardships, I have to overcome them.”
He wants to know how good he can be and, really, that’s the essence of all sport. It’s also something that Toronto teammate 100-metre hurdler Nikkita Holder understands all too well.
She’s had injuries, too, but what she’s trying to come back from now is far less common in elite sport: childbirth. Her son Kaedence was born in October of 2013, a year after she married fellow Toronto sprinter Justyn Warner.
But the pull of the track was so strong that their marriage didn’t survive. He moved to Oklahoma to train with a new coach and she thought about going with him — even considered giving up racing to do it — but in the end, Holder says, just as he wasn’t ready to hang up his spikes, neither was she.
“After not competing for awhile, you kind of go crazy,” she said. “You see everyone else in your event doing well, you see them dropping time and you think ‘Oh, man, can I still run?’ ”
When Kaedence was 3-months-old, Holder came back to find out.
A comeback in time for these Pan Am Games will be difficult for her. Holder is a 100-metre hurdler, and that’s it. She’s not like sprinters who can try for places in, say, the 100 metre and the 200 metre and the relay squads. She runs one event, and only two hurdlers will make the Canadian team.
So despite all the work she’s done to get back to peak form — the frantic dash to get home after practice; stealing her son’s teddy bear so she’d have something to hold when she was away missing him at a training camp — Holder may not even get the chance to compete in Toronto.
“I can’t go in thinking that there’s even a possibility that I won’t make it,” she says. “I’ve just got to go and say ‘this is happening and that’s that.’ ”
Such strong desire to make a Pan Am Games team is unusual; Effah qualified for the 2011 Pan Ams in Mexico and didn’t even bother going.
“It was looked at as a development thing,” he says. “Now it’s in Toronto, and everyone is hungry for it.”
Holder thinks the Toronto games are the best shot of making Canadians care about track again.
“If Canada performs well it could put track back on the map.”