HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
If ever there was a movie made about Toronto’s Karla Del Grande – who certainly is worthy having recently been named the World Masters Athletics Female Athlete of the Decade – you’ll need to stay to the end and watch the credits.
As the credits roll, you’d likely see the name of one accomplished all-around track athlete from Ottawa, Diane Palmason, and with a little prodding of the producers and directors a second Ottawan, sprinter Wendy Alexis.
Palmason was a key pioneer in women’s masters running for decades before a cardiac pacemaker slowed her to a jog. Alexis has spent the past 10 years chasing, and occasionally defeating, the powerful Del Grande.
In a Question-and-Answer interview with Canadian Running magazine, Del Grande was asked: Who inspires you as an athlete? Del Grande, 68, looked to the past to formulate her answer.
“I am totally inspired and impressed by the older women ahead of me, who had even fewer opportunities than I had, but persevered and showed what women could do long into their 60s and above,” she said.
“Olga Kotelko and Diane Palmason are two Canadian women who competed in a range of events. Olga did throws, jumps and running into her 90s. Diane has held Canadian records from the 200m to the marathon over a lifetime of running.”
Since 2013, Del Grande has set and still owns nine sprinting world records in the women’s 60-64 and 65-69 age classes – five outdoors over 100, 200 and 400 metres, and four indoors over 60, 200 and 400 metres.
Alexis, who is two years and two days younger than Del Grande, has witnessed some of those world marks as she developed a warm friendship with her rival at the same time she was trying to better her global-best times.
“Karla always acknowledged those ones who led the way for others,” said Alexis, who added Christa Bourtignon and Carol Lafayette-Boyd to the list with Kotelko and Palmason.
Del Grande was a runner at university before taking a break. When she returned, she joined a running group and was told about masters running. She had never heard of it. A year later, she was sprinting internationally.
“It’s incredible,” Alexis said about Del Grande’s World Masters Athletics Female Athlete of the Decade award. “It’s a testament not just to her excellence, but also to her longevity. This sport is tough on the body. The older you get, the tougher it is.
“She’s an absolute powerhouse. There’s no quit. She’s incredibly strong. Her form is perfect. She trains like a demon. She is very deserving of the award.”
Alexis has had her share of races where she reached the finish line just ahead of Del Grande (they race each other three years in every five-year segment), but what she really wants is one of her world records.
During one of the Twilight meets organized by the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club last summer, Alexis thought she had equalled Del Grande’s outdoor women’s 65-69 100-metre world mark of 13.91 seconds on her home track. Del Grande set the world record in 2018, which was her first year in the 65-69 catefory.
After a brief period of joy, Alexis learned her time was correct, but it wouldn’t be entering the World Masters record book because the tailwind was too strong at 3.0 metres/second. The maximum allowable is 2.0.
“It’s her world record in the 100 that I’m chasing after,” Alexis added. “I equalled it last summer, but for an illegal wind… It’s a great way to train because we are really close friends.”
Alexis and Del Grande “are fierce competitors but best friends off the track,” the former said. When they travel to world championships or international competitions, they’re hotel roommates.
“People thought our friendship wasn’t real. It’s genuine. We really are close. If one of us is injured, the other doesn’t celebrate (after a race). There’s no point beating someone injured,” Alexis said.
“To be able to talk to and share with someone going through the same thing, that has been invaluable. We come back (each year) because of each other. We’ll still do it, even if we have to get to the start with walkers.”
Training has been tough on all athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Alexis has found her way to do five track and five weight training sessions a week. Regular weight training has made her feel stronger than ever.
“I always do weights, but not as consistently as last year,” Alexis said. “My coach Craig Taylor said if you can do this (a specific weights program), it will be a game changer. If I get stronger, it can offset aging.
“Last year, I let it get away from me. I usually don’t get tense, thinking ‘I have to do it (world-record run) tonight.’ Every time there was something – headwind, tailwind or rain. I had in my head, if I don’t do it tonight, I won’t do it.”
Rivals and friends, Alexis and Del Grande hope to go head-to-head this year, either competing in a return to regular competitions or racing apart in local meets with health and safety restrictions because of the pandemic.
“She’s a great ambassador for the sport and wants to welcome more women into the sport so they can prove what they can do. She always says world records are there to be broken,” said Alexis, who has her eye on one.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 48 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.