WINDSOR, ONT. — Alone or in little groups, they come strolling through the gates to the track, their backpacks full of race clothes, spikes, water bottles and bib numbers.
They’re leaner, stronger and faster than when they started training last fall. And this June meet is their last chance to make the Pan Am Games team. Canada can only send two athletes in each track event.
These sprinters and hurdlers have never had the opportunity to compete in an event this big at home, in front of family and friends. The thought of how great it could feel has helped motivate them through months of long, hard work in the shadows, when no one was watching. Now, they all want their chance to shine: to have their efforts publicly validated and, they hope, to win.
Getting this far hasn’t been easy. In their own ways, they’ve all had to overcome injuries, self-doubt and tragedy, and now, with the clock ticking down, they fall into three distinct groups.
Some have the fastest time in their event this year, like Phylicia George and Philip Osei, and they’re relatively safe. Others, including Nikkita Holder and Gavin Smellie, sit second and are more vulnerable to being overtaken.
“I’m hanging on,” says Smellie, who knows several of the men he’s trained with all year will try to change that by running faster and take his place in the coveted 100-metre event.
The hungriest of them all are the likes of Tremaine Harris and Sam Effah, who, at this point, aren’t in the mix for the team. Effah even rushed his rehab from hip surgery to get to the start line here and post a qualifying time by the June 14 deadline.
“There’s always risk,” he says, “but I want to see where I’m at.”
Within seconds of the gun going off in Effah’s heat, his coaches Anthony McCleary and Desai Williams exchange knowing looks.
“He’s afraid,” McCleary says as he watches Effah, once the fastest man in Canada, be distanced by other runners because he’s not extending his stride.
He makes it through his heat, but as he dissects the race afterwards, Effah agrees.
“I have in the back of my mind: have I done all the rehab, have I done everything right?” he says. “I have screws in my hip, is that going to hold?”
“Trust it,” Williams tells Effah before his semifinal.
“Right,” Effah responds. “Just run.”
For a time, it seemed as if Harris wouldn’t get the chance to run. He came here looking to join his teammate Osei in the 400-metre event but somehow missed signing in at race registration.
The coaches look like they’re ready to pull out their hair (if they only had some) but an official takes pity, and Harris is added to the start list.
He says he wasn’t worried: “I don’t have a panic button.”
On this day, he doesn’t have speed, either.
“It’s frustrating but the whole year hasn’t been smooth,” he says, referring to the team’s nomadic lifestyle, forced on them because their training venue at York University was closed, twice, to prepare for the Pan Am Games.
As disappointing as the season has been for him, Harris is happy for his teammates that will be named to the team.
“It’s not a sport where you can be mad at someone for achieving something,” he says. “They did what they had to do in their lane, you didn’t do what you had to do in yours. It’s a reflection of yourself,” he continues.
“The sport is heartbreaking, it’s emotional, it will take a toll on you if you’re not mentally strong.”
July’s Pan Am Games, which are a month before the world championships in Beijing, has made the early race season unusually important and that’s a problem for runners living in Canada.
The weather that looked as if it would be good for sprinting — that means hot — has turned. It’s overcast, far cooler than sprinters like and the wind is swirling, so some heats have a headwind, which no one wants, and others have an illegally strong tailwind — useless for posting qualifying times.
Weather is just one more part of the struggle of being a Canadian sprinter. Not only do these men and women have to be at their best and hope no one else is better on race day, they also need the conditions that make fast times possible.
“You can get a little paranoid,” Smellie says. “Is it going to be nice, is it going to be cold?
“I thought this weekend was supposed to be perfect and then I came here and I was like ‘Oh my god, seriously?’ ”
Smellie has bested his fastest times in the 100-metres three times this season — including a 10.05 — but each time there was too much wind. So it’s his time here of 10.17 that will count toward making the Pan Am team.
His hamstring is bothering him. Smellie should probably should rest it, but he’s not willing to sit out these races, because if the conditions do get better, several men here — including Dontae Richards-Kwok — could overtake him.
“I just wanted to make sure I secured my spot for Pan Ams,” Smellie says.
But only in the 100. He’s not even going to try for the 200-metre spot.
“I don’t want to risk going any further with the 200,” he says, “especially going on the curve.”
That a curve on a track can be so dangerous emphasizes the fine line between health and injury that these fast men and women constantly sprint along. Conditions matter to them. And so hot weather doesn’t just make for faster tracks: it makes their bodies feel better.
Khamica Bingham, who already has Canada’s fastest 100-metre and 200-metre times this year, is racing in Morocco right now. Plenty of her teammates wish they were there instead of here, because nobody wants their Pan Am Games chance to come down to the variables of Ontario weather in June.
But every time they compete, it costs them money.
So Richards-Kwok graduated from York University at noon, changed in his car and drove to Windsor to compete instead of flying to a better, warmer meet in the U.S.
“I have to pay to go to meets,” he says, noting that his last trip to Florida cost him $600 for a plane ticket, plus hotels. “That’s not something I can do every weekend.”
Richards-Kwok lucks into one of the few heats with decent conditions, and runs the third fastest 100 time in Canada — not enough to unseat Smellie or the new sprint king Andre De Grasse, the first Canadian to run sub 10-seconds since 2000 — but enough to be named to the 4x100 relay squad.
For Holder, it turned into a roller coaster weekend that had nothing to do with how she performed. She arrived at the meet ranked second in the 100-metre hurdles, behind her training partner George.
Then, on Saturday night at a meet in Oregon, Chanice Taylor — a hurdler from Ajax who trains at Louisiana State University — finished the sprint hurdles five 100ths of a second faster, than Holder’s 13-second time, knocking her to third place.
Coach McCleary called her to break the news.
“Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” he asked. “The good, you have more time to train for worlds; the bad, Pan Ams is off the table.”
That nine months of training could mean nothing for one athlete and everything for another because of 0.05 seconds is the heartbreak and exhilaration of track.
But thanks to a bureaucratic twist, it turns out that Holder is the exhilarated one. Taylor didn’t register to be selected for the Pan Am Games team, so Holder was named to the team, after all.
Effah, though, is a full decimal point from where he needs to be.
Five years ago, before all his injuries, he ran 10.06. Here, in the semifinals, he ran a 10.60.
He’s not happy. He was a little sore after his first run but OK after his second so, now, he’s looking for advice from his sprint coach on whether he should run the final.
“It’s up to you,” Williams says.
“I don’t like seeing 10.60,” Effah says.
“It was a negative wind,” Williams reminds him.
“It doesn’t matter,” he replies. “I’m going to warm up like I’m going to do it. If I feel like garbage, I won’t, but if I feel good, like I do now, I’ll run it.”
He’s desperate to run. That much is obvious. But he’s already racing sooner than surgeons expected and he’s working a risk-reward calculation through his mind.
When the gun goes off, lane three — Effah’s lane — is empty.
“It would be more of a disappointment to be back on crutches than not make Pan Ams,” he says, about why he pulled out 10 minutes before the race.
“Rio is still in my mindset and I still have nationals, if I can do something at nationals …”
This is how the game goes.
Some make it. The rest believe they will make it right up until the moment they don’t. Then, without skipping a beat, they look ahead to the next big race.
“I train too hard,” Effah says, “not to believe I can do it.”