BASSETERRE, ST. KITTS AND NEVIS — Canada’s fastest women are running drills and exploding out of the blocks.
“Don’t rush it,” sprint coach Desai Williams shouts.
This seems an odd thing to say given the circumstances, but these athletes are 100-metre specialists and they all know what he means.
He’s talking about the vital first phase of the race. The first 30 metres is where the runners need to stay low, their shins and torsos at a powerful and aerodynamic 45 degree angle to the ground, heads down. That takes discipline.
It’s key to building speed, but it feels awkward and the tendency is to rise up to a more natural, but ultimately slower, running position.
“Stay down,” Williams says. “This is 30 per cent of your race here, you’ve got 70 per cent left, don’t cheat yourself, trust it.”
He calls them into position: “On your marks.”
Khamica Bingham, Crystal Emmanuel, Shai-Anne Davis and Kimberly Hyacinthe are already dripping with sweat in the scorching morning sun at this Caribbean island training camp.
Bingham jumps up and down and shakes her legs, her powerful thigh muscles moving in solid waves back and forth before she settles down, feet in the blocks, hands on the pale blue lane in front of her.
Williams, to the runners: “Set.”
Bingham is on the tips of her fingers, ready to explode out of the blocks on the whistle.
When coaches talk about Bingham, they start with how powerfully built she is – she was a gymnast until it became too expensive and she turned to track – or how good her results have been – she’s the Canadian university record holder and the fastest Canadian woman currently racing – but the thing that always comes next is how young she is.
That’s code for potential. There are big hopes for her.
At the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, Bingham, who turned 21 in June, was the only Canadian sprinter — male or female — to make it to the 100-metre final. She was the youngest in the field and the youngest Canadian woman in a 100 final in over four decades.
It’s all very impressive, but she’s not actually that thrilled about her result.
She finished seventh. Looking back, she sees that she could have — probably should have — done better. But at the crucial moment when she needed to step it up mentally and physically, she gave in to doubt and undermined herself.
“In the heats, I was determined, ‘You can’t get knocked out,’” she told herself. But then came the final. She looked down the line and saw four Olympic medallists, some with more than a decade of experience on her.
“I don’t think I can beat these girls so easily, but I’ll try,” she recalls thinking. “That was my thing in the final, ‘I’ll try.’ Before it was, ‘I will.’ I was so determined and then in the final it was I will try my hardest and that’s not the same thing. I will remember that forever.”
Every athlete wants to win, but it’s the losses that teach.
“I don’t want to just settle for just being really good in Canada,” Bingham says. “I want to be feared on the world stage.”
Sprinters are like the brightest light. They are on or they are off. There’s no dimmer. They give everything in a sprint, and then meander back to the line with a lazy-looking gait, more like teenagers who spend their time wandering the local mall.
“You go and you’re done. Everything we do is deliberate,” Phylicia George says. “It’s about being efficient and getting the most out of your body. People underestimate how hard running is because everyone can do it.
“But it’s hard to run well and run fast.”
In between drills, Williams puts his arm on Emmanuel’s shoulders for a coaching chat. She starts out looking defensive, but is soon nodding her head and, in the end, smiling.
Other times, he decides the light touch is not what’s needed. Dushane Farrier — who joined this group after graduating from the University of Alabama — gets a steady stream of criticism for his running technique and perceived lack of effort.
Whether the coaching comes as a quiet chat or a shouting prod, it has to be full of confidence: These athletes are suffering. They need to believe it’s for a good reason. With just about any training program an athlete is going to improve but in a sport where fractions of a second determine their fate they need to trust that this is the best program for them.
They’ll train all winter through the awful months of base training, where they go home too tired to do anything but recover, without any certainty that all this hard work will pay off.
It’s not just that they might not win a medal — this is sports after all, there are always more athletes than winners — it’s that they may not even get a chance to compete at one of the few events that really matter when the world, outside their small circle, is actually watching.
The competition to get to these Pan Am Games is, in some ways, fiercer than for the next world championships and Olympics. Canada will be able to send three qualifying athletes in each event to Beijing for worlds in August and Rio in 2016 but only two, no matter how good they are, get to run in the Pan Ams here at home.
After the final training sprint of the day, Davis, barely able to breathe and carrying one spiked shoe in her hand — she hasn’t found the energy to take the other one off yet — manages to say “good job” to Emmanuel.
These women are training partners and knowing the pain they feel is shared eases it, slightly. They push and support each other and they’re all friends.
But of the four women training together now – who all have similar dreams and goals – only half of them will even get a chance to achieve them in the marquee individual event at the Pan Am Games. And that’s assuming another athlete training somewhere else doesn’t swoop in to take one of the two spots.
They all know the numbers and try not to think about it. Because, really, what is the point of all this suffering if you don’t even get the chance to race for glory?
Not being the one to make it to the Pan Ams and then on to worlds and Rio, is about the worst thing they can think of happening in the athletic bubble they live in.
At their next camp, they’ll find out differently.
The Toronto Star’s Kerry Gillespie and Steve Russell spent nine months following some of the country’s fastest sprinters and hurdlers as they try to earn the right to represent Canada at the Toronto Pan Am Games in July.