Athletics Elite Amateur Sport Para Sport

Ottawa track athletes among those left off Canada’s shrunken para-athletics Tokyo team

By Kieran Heffernan

It’s obvious to any athlete that qualifying for their country’s national team is tough, but this year, because of rules around team quotas and rankings, the challenge was even greater and some of Canada’s best para-athletes were left off the team that will compete at the Tokyo Games.

Based on the team’s performance at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships, Canada was awarded entries for seven women and nine men across all track-and-field competitions. Athletics Canada then used its own ranking system, based on world rankings, to determine which athletes from which disciplines would be named to the team. The total quota of 16 athletes is smaller than it’s been in the past; at the 2016 Games Canada’s para-athletics team had 24 members, and in 2012 there were 26.

Ottawa Lions athletes Keegan Gaunt, Josh Cassidy, Jason Dunkerley (above) and guide runner Alex Berhe were next in line to receive Canadian Paralympic athletics team nominations. File photo

One athlete who had hopes of qualifying for Tokyo was five-time Paralympian Jason Dunkerley. Dunkerley, who was born blind, races in the T11 1500m. Based on his 2021 results, Dunkerley is the 8th ranked runner in his discipline. In a different year, this likely would have been enough for Athletics Canada to award him a roster spot.

But, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Athletics Canada dated its qualifying period back to 2019.

Dunkerley didn’t race in 2019, after retiring in 2018. He ran a few races in 2020 before more seriously diving back into competition this spring with the goal of getting in enough races in the span of a few weeks to raise his world ranking.

Dunkerley and his guide Alex Berhe attended around seven races this summer, and even tried to squeeze in one last one before the qualifying window closed on July 20. Unfortunately, the window closed in the morning and their race was in the evening.

When Athletics Canada’s entire qualifying period was taken into consideration, Dunkerley was considered 12th best in the world — short of the top 8 he projected he’d need to be among to make his sixth Paralympic Games.

“I’ve been really fortunate to be part of quite a number of teams in the past. To miss out on this one is very hard in its own way,” Dunkerley said. “I’ve had a couple of people say to me ‘well you’ve been there, you’ve done it before. It’s not so bad…’ I know where people are coming from on that. But I have to say, every Games is unique and special in its own way and this one would have been incredibly meaningful for me to be part of.”

“At the same time, I recognize that that’s life and that’s sport.”

Missing making Team Canada doesn’t mean Dunkerley is heading back to retirement. After lowering his time from 4:27 to 4:16 after just a few races, he’s optimistic about what else he’s capable of, even now at age 44 and after racing for over 20 years.

Even in retirement, he was still running to keep fit, as well as coaching with the Ottawa Lions. It was there that he realized he was still feeling good and felt he had a chance of making the team. That the Games were taking place in Tokyo added to the appeal, as Japan is a country that he’s always been interested in.

As well, after his mother passed away from illness a couple years ago, Dunkerley has adopted a new perspective on opportunities he may never be presented again.

“Life is fleeting and I just had this feeling that I really wanted to sort of explore that and see where the road would lead,” he explained. He hopes to compete at the California International Marathon in December, and then the World Para Athletics Championships in Kobe, Japan next summer.

Keegan Gaunt (left). File photo

Fellow 1500m runner Keegan Gaunt is another highly ranked Ottawa athlete who came just shy of cracking Canada’s Paralympic team. The 21-year-old, who races in the T13 category for athletes with some vision loss, was coming off a stress fracture she sustained last March.

“Going into the competition season, I wasn’t sure what that was going to look like and if I was going to be able to race at all,” Gaunt said. “So, I was really grateful that I was able to get in a short, condensed season.” she said.

Despite the injury, Gaunt was her discipline’s 6th ranked runner during Athletics Canada’s qualifying period. However, like Dunkerley, that still wasn’t high enough. Gaunt was considered Canada’s 8th best female track-and-field athlete, making her the first one out of Canada’s seven women team.

Now, she’ll be turning her focus to the 2022 World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon. Gaunt is also a varsity athlete with University of Guelph, where her indoor season will soon be starting. She’s also looking ahead to three years from now, when she hopes to give the Paralympic team another run.

Both Gaunt and Dunkerley said they understand that difficult decisions had to be made this year, and are throwing their support behind the athletes headed to Tokyo.

“I’m really going to be paying close attention to the team and to the Games and absolutely rooting for all of our athletes who are there and definitely cheering loud and proud,” Dunkerley said.

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