By Martin Cleary
When freshman Josh Bifolchi headed to SUNY Potsdam in September to study exercise science and focus on hockey, the last thing he expected was to come home without playing a game and to be a track and field champion in javelin.
But that’s exactly what happened. The COVID-19 pandemic slowly-but-surely wiped out the Bears’ varsity hockey schedule in Potsdam, New York. And as he prepared to return to Ottawa, he accidentally discovered the school had a track and field program.
Bifolchi, 21, hadn’t thrown the javelin for four years, not since he was a graduating senior at Sir Robert Borden High School and finished ninth at his fourth consecutive OFSAA championship.
“I had no intention of doing track and field at Potsdam. I didn’t even know they had a team until one or two weeks before the first meet, when someone mentioned it to me,” said Bifolchi, a four-time, top-10 OFSAA finisher.
Since classes ended in mid-March, exams were finished and Ontario was in a pandemic lockdown, he figured another six weeks at Potsdam was the safest place to be and throwing the javelin might be good for his athletic psyche.
At the Saints Ice Broken Open, which was staged by St. Lawrence University, he won the men’s javelin with a best toss of 51.90 metres, which was 55 centimetres off his four-year-old personal best.
While his winning throw qualified him for the SUNY (State University of New York) Athletic Conference championship, he also threw out his elbow and partially tore his ulnar collateral ligament.
The tear, which covered almost half of the ligament, sidelined him for the next four meets. But he went to the SUNY championships in early May and, although his elbow “was not quite healed,” he launched the javelin 44.05 metres for a first-place finish.
“I had no idea how it would go. That’s why my throw was only 44 metres at the SUNY championships,” he added. “It was still a good throw, but all of my other throws are usually greater than 50 metres.
“It was a huge surprise. I’m thankful for it. I felt a fair amount of pressure. I didn’t want to talk about my injury because people were rooting for me. I was ecstatic. It’s the only reason I stuck around in Potsdam. The hockey team had gone home.”
By winning the SUNY conference championship, which also was Potsdam’s first athletics program title, Bifolchi was named the men’s track and field MVP during the spring sports season awards.
Oh, yes, the hockey team. When he arrived on campus, the head coach told the players they would have a 26-game schedule. Then that was reduced to eight games. Two weeks later, the conference cancelled all sports because of the pandemic.
But throughout the school year, Bifolchi and the Bears practised three days a week on the ice, worked out in the gym and played a scrimmage game every Friday, wearing regular team jerseys to simulate game conditions.
At the end of Wednesday practices, there would be games of 3-on-3 to keep the players motivated and preparing for the 2021-22 season.
“We had to stay competitive because the coach was always watching,” he said.
Bifolchi has a well-travelled hockey resume: Nepean Raiders bantam AA, Smiths Falls Bears midget AAA, Brockville Tikis and Arnprior Packers Jr. B, Hearst Lumberjacks Jr. A, Elliott Lake Wildcats Jr A and Mississauga Chargers Jr. A.
Bifolchi started throwing javelin in Grade 9. Bill Heikkila, who coached the throwing discipline for more than 40 years (the majority with the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club) and was a 1968 Olympian, noticed Bifolchi at high school meets and provided some coaching.
“He was so appreciative, so willing and interested in learning,” Heikkila said about Bifolchi, who stands 6-5 and weighs 220 pounds. “I like students who are like me. But ultimately, the athlete must figure it out.”
At one of the high school meets, Heikkila approached Bifolchi because he saw potential. Bifolchi needed to work on his form and flexibility. He worked hard and pushed his personal best to 52.45 metres in Grade 12.
Four years later, he’s a champion at an NCAA Division III university.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 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 High Achievers “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.
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