By Martin Cleary
Twenty-five years ago today, hurdler Lesley Tashlin of Ottawa had her first moment in the Olympic spotlight. This Anniversary story isn’t preceded by the word Happy, but it does have a happy ending.
On July 29, 1996, Tashlin needed to wake up way too early for her liking to compete in her opening, morning heat of the women’s 100-metre hurdles inside the Centennial Olympic Stadium during the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
“While we were at our training camp in Anderson, South Carolina, there had been a discussion about needing to be awake at least three hours before competition for your body to fully awake and responsive,” Tashlin wrote in an email.
“I am not a morning person, so getting up at six in the morning was not ideal. We (coach Craig Taylor and I) had done it a few days prior to race day, but it didn’t make it any easier.”
After a light breakfast because of nerves and the early hour, the former Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club member headed for the bus, which would take her to a side stadium track, where she could do her 45-minute warm-up routine.
As she waited to board the bus, “I was totally shocked to see the hurdlers from France smoking cigarettes just outside the facility.”
Tashlin was slotted to run in the second of six heats. As she stood behind her starting blocks in lane seven, the public address announcer introduced the hurdlers. She would be racing alongside two elite hurdlers.
The top 32 hurdlers in the field of 44 competitors from 30 nations would advance to the semifinals. Jamaica’s Michelle Freeman and France’s Patricia Girard-Leno were the frontrunners in her heat, but Tashlin had the speed to succeed.
“I knew it would take everything to make it through to the next round, so I was focused, not wanting to let anything distract me, so much so that I didn’t hear my twin sister cheer me on,” Tashlin added.
In a mere 12.76 seconds, Freeman, the 1994 Commonwealth Games champion, won the heat, as she also did in the semifinals, and Girard-Leno, the race’s eventual bronze medallist, took second in 12.84.
But that heat was neither fast nor smooth for Tashlin, who owned a personal-best time of 12.96 and rarely had a problem clearing the 88.3-centimetre-high hurdles. Here’s how Tashlin remembers her race.
“After the gun went off, my goal was to accelerate through the whole race and to not get caught in the rhythm of the hurdlers on either side of me,” said the 5-6 hurdler, who was born in Toronto, but raised in Haliburton, ON.
“It was a micro second that my focus and form lapsed as I took the 10th hurdle. The foot of my trail leg caught the hurdle, causing me to come off the hurdle sideways, knowing even before I landed that I was going down.
“I was mad at myself for making such a stupid mistake. ‘The race isn’t over until you cross the finish line,’ my training partners and I had always said. And I acknowledged that 10th hurdle was my error.
“After walking across the finish line, I declined to speak to the media and I looked at our head coach Andy McInnis, who matter of factly uttered ‘First blood.’ I went to the stands where Craig had been watching the race.
“He did not say much. I was upset with myself for not doing my best. I had never fallen in a race before and it certainly wasn’t the performance I wanted for the Olympics. I was upset for letting my family down.
“They had all sacrificed to come and support me. I should have done better. It took me awhile to get past the disappointment, but I had help from a book that I had read prior to going to the Olympics.”
In their book Thinking Body, Dancing Mind: Taosports for Extraordinary Performance in Athletics, Business and Life, authors Chungliang Al Huang and Jerry Lynch wrote about enjoying the journey, just in case the goal isn’t reached.
“So by appreciating each step of the way, then the time and effort you put in is worth it regardless of the outcome,” continued Tashlin, who placed 37th. “This approach to life is what I carried with me into the future.”
While Tashlin didn’t reach the Olympic medal podium a quarter century ago, the whole process taught her a life lesson that she has carried in her heart and mind every day.
By competing at the Atlanta Summer Games, Tashlin, who also helped Canada place 13th in the women’s 4×100-metre relay, became the first athlete in her hometown of Haliburton to participate in an Olympics.
In early June this year, Tashlin, 52, was named as one of 17 athletes and builders to be inducted as the inaugural class into the Haliburton Highlands Sports Hall of Fame. There is scheduled to be an official ceremony in October.
“I was surprised to be selected for induction,” added Tashlin, who will enter the hall with her brother Taly Williams, a former CFL defensive back with the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1994 and 1995.
“I never sought notoriety for my sport achievements so I am honoured to be acknowledged by the community and hope to help inspire other young athletes.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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