By Charlotte van Walraven
July 8 must have been a sleepy night in Eganville, or rather, even sleepier than usual. That was the evening the Melissa Bishop bandwagon from the Ottawa Valley took over the stands at the Terry Fox Athletic Facility with red-and-white “Melissa” T-shirts, cheering loud and proud as the hometown superstar of the 2017 Canadian Track-and-Field Championships waltzed to victory in the women’s 800 m.
By her standards, the 2:00.26 clocking was a walk in the park (though still over 3.5 seconds better than anyone else), but it was still time to celebrate the capital’s unquestioned queen for the day – the only athlete asked to do a victory lap during the July 3-9 Championships.
“It’s nice to run at home,” underlines Bishop, the IAAF 2015 World Championships silver medallist and 4th-place finisher at the Rio 2016 Olympics. “I haven’t been home in a long time to run, and to have my family and my friends here – they’ve been beside me through this entire career, even before I was an Olympian, so it means a lot.”
The 27-year-old member of the host Ottawa Lions Track-and-Field Club was back blazing come a July 21 Diamond League meet in Monaco, where she improved her Canadian record to 1:57.01.
After struggling a bit to find motivation this past fall because she’d performed her absolute best in Rio but didn’t get her desired medal, Bishop says she feels stronger than ever and is eager to return to the podium come the Aug. 4-13 World Championships in London, UK.
“It’s addicting,” the 2015 Ottawa Sports Awards female athlete of the year says of success on the international scene. “You want it all the time once you start doing well.”
Bishop is one of roughly 2 dozen local athletes to represent Canada internationally this summer, at competitions such as the Jeux de la Francophonie (July 21-30 in Ivory Coast), the FISU world student Games (Aug. 19-30 in Taiwan), the World Para Athletics Championships (July 14-23 in London, UK), the World Junior Para Athletics Championships (Aug. 3-6 in Switzerland) and the Pan American Junior Track-and-Field Championships (July 21-23 in Peru).
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Joining Bishop on the grandest stage of the bunch for the worlds in London, England will be fellow Ottawa Lion Tim Nedow, who placed 16th in the men’s shotput at the Rio Olympics.
The 26-year-old from Brockville would like to qualify for the final round at worlds, and hopefully break the 21 m barrier.
“I’ve been really close a bunch of times, but not quite there,” notes Nedow, who’s spent much more time in Ontario than usual this season, teaching his younger brother Tom what it takes to pursue throwing at a high-performance level.
Tom won bronze medals in the U20 men’s discus and shotput nationals, hitting the Jr. Pan Am entry standard shortly after the qualification window closed.
The Lions’ third and final World Championships representative is Glenroy Gilbert, recently minted as Athletics Canada’s new head coach.
“It’s a huge role,” acknowledges the 1996 Olympic champion who was also inducted into the Athletics Canada Hall of Fame alongside Lions head coach Andy McInnis before the nationals. “I was humbled by it. I didn’t see it coming, but of course when they told me, I was happy to show up.”
There will be a strong Ottawa flavour to the Canadian Francophone Games team. Perhaps no one will savour that opportunity more than Yves Sikubwabo. A distance runner for his native Rwanda at the 2010 World Junior Championships distance competitor in Moncton, Sikubwabo landed in Ottawa with essentially nothing besides his running shoes after deciding to take a bus to Canada’s capital and declare himself a refugee.
“It’s something I’ve been looking forward to since the day I got here: to become a citizen and to represent this country,” recounts the 24-year-old who was eventually adopted by a local family and became a popular student at Glebe Collegiate Institute.
“Every time you see a coach or an athlete with a Canada shirt on, it looks so beautiful,” he adds. “So my dream was to someday have one myself.”
Though Sikubwabo is thoroughly happy as a Canadian citizen, he has not forgotten the country and communities he left behind almost 10 years ago. The 7th-place finisher in the men’s 5,000 m recently started the Running Changed My Life Foundation to provide children from less fortunate countries with school uniforms and supplies and to help fund track-and-field training opportunities.
“Running has always helped me,” underlines Sikubwabo, whose foundation can be found online at runningchangedmylife.ca. “I hope it can do the same for other low-income kids.”
Four years ago, it was Guyana-born Sekou Kaba in Sikubwabo’s place, making his international debut for Canada shortly after receiving his citizenship.
This time, the 2013 Francophone Games men’s 110 m hurdles champion will be carrying the maple leaf into the Abidjan stadium as Canada’s opening ceremonies flag bearer.
Though Kaba didn’t collect the Canadian title he sought due to a race that was “messy, sloppy, and any other words you can think of,” the national silver medallist did get to cross one item off his bucket: beat Olympic medal-winning decathlete Damian Warner.
“He doesn’t even know it, but he’s an idol to me,” explains Kaba, who made his Olympic debut in Rio. “He always brings his best to the competition.”
Yet to become a Canadian citizen is Omer-Deslauriers high school grad Charifa Labarang, who set a new personal-best time of 23.86 seconds en route to an 8th-place finish in the women’s 200 m.
But the 22-year-old will still be making the trip to Ivory Coast, set to represent her birth country of Cameroon at the Francophone Games.
Kaba, meanwhile, will complete his summertime tour of the globe with a trip to Taiwan for the FISU Games. He’d rather have been in England, however – his silver medal-winning time .17 seconds short of the worlds entry standard.
“I know I am capable of more,” indicates Kaba, nonetheless pleased to post a season-best time at nationals after early-season injuries. “I’m just getting in the groove.”
In a similar boat to Kaba is 2010/2014 Commonwealth Games women’s hammer throw champion Sultana Frizell, who missed the worlds standard but got a national gold medal as her silver lining.
“I didn’t make my best distance of the year, but you know what? I got the job done and got another title and that’s OK,” says the Perth native who’s now returned to Ottawa as her primary home. “It’s good to be close to mom and dad and family ’cause I’ve been basically a hermit out in B.C. for about 9 years.”
Bryson Patterson didn’t get the best of Damian Warner in the senior men’s long jump, but the 22-year-old wasn’t about to complain about a national silver medal one bit.
“I’m still happy that I got to jump against him. Now I know what I have to do,” says Patterson, who leaped 7.45 m on his second attempt to shatter any remaining doubts about his ability to compete at the elite level.
“I feel if it wasn’t for this season, I would probably be done with the sport or close to being done,” adds the Francophone Games-bound CANI Athletics jumper. “My coaches and my teammates, they said, “Bryson, you have the raw talent. You have to keep pulling through with this.” And if it wasn’t for them, I don’t where I’d be right now. I’m just very grateful I have the team that I have.”
Devyani & Divya Biswal
There may not be any athletes who appreciate a teammate’s support more than Lions twin sisters Devyani and Divya Biswal.
Reeling in the senior women’s triple jump competition, Divya looked over to the track between jumps and saw her sister blazing to a new personal-best time of 13.51 seconds to advance to the final of the senior women’s 100 m hurdles.
“She’s struggled with a lot of injuries these past couple of years, so to see her make that final really inspired me to pick up my jumping,” recounts Divya. “I saw her run the race and I was like, ‘Holy sh–, Dev just made the final!’ I was like, ‘I gotta use this.’
“So I gave her a big hug, then I went to do my thing.”
Divya then launched herself into podium position with a leap of 13.02 m, earning the bronze medal that eluded her the previous day in the long jump.
Swapping stockings may have also provided some magic for the Biswals.
“We took one sock from each other so that we’re wearing the same pair of socks – that’s a little twin thing we did,” smiles Devyani, a past Canadian university champion for the Ottawa Gee-Gees, mirroring her sister’s NCAA Div. 3 crown for St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. “We‘ve never done that before because we don’t get to compete together very often now since she lives in the U.S.”
Despite starting a full-time job in New York City as a financial analyst, Divya has enjoyed a breakthrough season, earning a spot on Team Canada for the first time in her career.
“I’m working really hard. Apparently I have a lot of energy I didn’t know I had,” laughs Divya, thankful to have a supportive employer that’s even sponsored some of her travel for competitions. “I couldn’t be happier.”
It’ll be a joy for the sisters to compete at the Francophone Games together, she adds.
“It’s our first international competition, and I’m so proud to share that with her,” underlines the Sir Robert Borden High School grad. “Hopefully it’s the first of many.”
Devyani will have another Lions sister at her side in the Francophone Games sprint hurdles competition, Ashlea Maddex.
The pair have known each other for several years, but they didn’t end up in the same training group until this year.
“She keeps workouts really focused,” Maddex says of Devyani. “It’s definitely something I really appreciate. We just get it done, and we have a good time.”
The 24-year-old was “really excited” to celebrate her breakthrough bronze medal in the senior women’s 100 m hurdles in front of the family and coaches who have supported her throughout her career, including trips in to train with the Lions as a teenager from nearly an hour away in St. Pascal-Baylon, Ont.
2-time Olympian Segun Makinde part of local FISU crew
A third Ottawa sprint hurdler finished halfway between Maddex and Devyani to place 5th in the final. Karelle Edwards earned her second consecutive Team Canada FISU Games berth with the performance, to be joined in Taiwan by CANI Athletics’ Nyoka Maxwell, who is also set to compete at the 2017 Canada Summer Games.
Another member of the FISU Games team is Orleans native Rachel Aubry, whose story as the picture of persistence was perhaps overshadowed by the Bishop glow in the women’s 800 m. The 27-year-old Guelph-based 5th-place finisher competed for Canada at the 2009 world juniors but then missed out on international teams for a number of years.
A fellow Orleans athlete with a similar story of persistence will join Aubry at FISU – 2-time Olympic alternate Segun Makinde, who was disappointed with his showing at nationals where he missed the final in both the 100 m and 200 m.
“Nothing worth doing is easy. So work hard,” counsels Makinde, hobbled by a lingering groin injury early this season. “That’s track and field. You’ve got to have a very short memory, move on from it very quickly, and go on to the next meet.”
Despite the subpar results, Makinde says getting to compete at home for nationals is something he’ll never forget.
“The crowd has been great. The support has been amazing,” underlines the Colonel By Secondary School and University of Ottawa grad. “The meet organizers and everybody came together, and they put on an amazing show.
“I mean, I’m biased, of course, I’m from Ottawa, but I think we put on the best track meet in Canada. It’s amazing. It’s like a World Championship meet, or an Olympic meet. They did a great job.”
Farah Jacques experienced the opposite of Makinde in Rio – she’d been slated as a women’s 4×100 m alternate, but an injury to a teammate opened the door for her to run, and Jacques burst right through, scoring an unexpected place in the final and a 7th-place finish.
“I adored taking part in the Olympics,” signals the 27-year-old who is the oldest of three sisters with five older brothers. “It made me want to do it again and again.”
Competing only in her signature 200 m – the result of a hamstring injury that knocked her out for 6 weeks just 2 months outside the Championships – Jacques placed 4th and fell short of making the Canadian worlds team.
“I ran and it didn’t hurt, so that’s a good sign,” indicates the Gatineau resident who trains out of Terry Fox under Gilbert (though she represents her old Perfmax-Racing club from Montreal).
Asked about her future goals, Jacques responds without hesitation: “Oh, next Olympics, for sure.”
Another member of a Canadian underdog-turned-top-dog relay team in Rio was Ottawa native Alicia Brown, whose 13th-seeded Canadian women’s 4×400 m relay team wound up finishing within .55 seconds of reaching the podium in 4th place. Qualifying for the final was an enormous eyeopener for the group.
“We had this realization that we were competitive enough to take on these girls and that we could be on the podium. That was really exciting for us because it’s not something we hoped for or envisioned going in. When we realized that, it was like, ‘Oh man!’” recalls the 27-year-old Merivale High School grad. “Running that final was probably the most exciting/terrifying/heartbreaking experience of our lives. It’s hard to not feel proud, but at the same time, there was this disappointment as well because we were just so close.”
Brown was again satisfied just to make a final in her 400 m at nationals. The University of Toronto-based athlete endured a “challenging year” with a hamstring injury that threatened to completely wipe out her season.
Though she missed out on a trip to worlds, Brown is glad to know that Canada will still be a contender in the 4×400 m relay.
“I think we proved that Canadian women are capable of competing,” underlines the Ottawa Lions product. “It’s great because it inspires the younger generation of 400 m girls to be able to work towards something we’ve set the foundation for.
“It’s cool to see that, because I remember being in their shoes too.”
Brown felt like her career had come “full circle” after reaching the grandest stage in sport and then coming back to her hometown to race at the nationals.
“This is the track I grew up running on,” underlines Brown, who remembers it being blue once upon a time. “It’s fun to be able to share what I do with family and friends. A lot of people know what I do, but here they got to see it and feel it. It’s really special to be home and run at home.”
—with files from Dan Plouffe