HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
Respecting the multitudes of people who have been afflicted by COVID-19 in so many ways, Zachary Sikka found the frightening and uncertain pandemic led him to a personal and contrasting, positive moment.
The Grade 12 St. Paul High School student-athlete discovered he was a runner, a quality runner and now a champion runner.
After numerous years of soccer, most recently with the Futuro Soccer Academy, Sikka decided to leave his familiar sport and take a more serious approach to running. He has been a cross-country and track runner since Grade 7, but only trained during those short seasons.
The health and safety restrictions of the pandemic, however, gave him more time to himself, which he applied to his training as a runner. In retrospect, Sikka’s decision was golden.
On a sunny, but cool Thursday, Sikka was the class of the boys’ senior race at the National Capital Secondary School Athletic Association cross-country running championships on the muddy and slippery courses around the Hornets Nest soccer fields in Gloucester.
Despite a mid-race fall, Sikka, who had an October to remember with two first-place finishes and one second in his three races, conquered the 6,000-metre race in 22 minutes, 51.47 seconds.
Glebe Collegiate Institute’s Elijah Barrett, running the best race of his short season, and Thomas Fairhead claimed second and third respectively in 23:00.80 and 23:01.45.
Sikka had a simple explanation for winning the National Capital and the earlier West Conference championships as well as placing second in the Capital XC varsity 5,000 metres at the start of the month.
“It’s the pandemic,” he offered straightforward, adding it’s hard to talk about a positive in the pandemic, which has affected so many people and families.
“I don’t want to say the pandemic has been really good for me… but it has been a positive. I’ve trained lots.
“I wasn’t a regular runner. I ran when the school had cross-country and track. But at the start of the pandemic, I left my soccer team and planned to run more seriously. I also joined the Ottawa Lions (Track and Field Club). That really helped take my running to the next level.”
Until this month, Sikka’s cross-country running had never produced a top-three race medal. Top-10 ribbons, yes, but no medals.
“I trained hard in the pandemic. I mixed it up with cycling and enjoyed that. I ran a lot and had a lot of good miles.”
Before his NCSSAA boys’ senior race, which was the sixth and final overland age-group test of the city championships, Sikka walked the course to get familiar with the tricky spots and to determine if he needed his spiked shoes.
“It was tough,” he explained. “I went in to go for the win, but I knew there was a lot of strong competition.”
He ran in the top four for most of the race, which included a fall at the base of the challenging toboggan hill. He recovered from the tumble and quickly returned to the pace of the leaders.
“I stayed up front with them until the last one-and-a-half kilometres,” he added. “I knew if I wanted to win, I had to go for it. I pushed the pace and held them off in the last kilometre.”
Sikka hadn’t raced at the Hornets Nest since 2019 as the NCSSAA cancelled its entire sports program because of the pandemic. But he remembers the Hornets Nest.
“It was one of my best races before this one,” he said. “I qualified for OFSAA (the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations’ championships). I definitely remember the course. How could you not? But I didn’t think it would be that muddy (this time).”
Sikka would have qualified for this year’s OFSAA championships Nov. 6 in Lakefield, ON., but the NCSSAA is not sending individuals or teams in any fall sport to the provincials. They are following the mandate from the two English and two French school boards that high school students shouldn’t travel to events and stay overnight.
Being a final-year senior, he was excited about the prospect of returning to OFSAA one more time. But he was disappointed to learn in late September about the NCSSAA’s no-go ruling.
“At the end of the day, it is what it is,” he added. “It’s frustrating. Cross-country running is a smaller, individual sport and it could have been done safe. I definitely felt safe out there (Thursday). We wore a mask at the start line. It was definitely safe enough.”
Missing the OFSAA cross-country running championships for the second straight year certainly took a lot of zip out of the conclusion to his fall athletic schedule.
“It (a final OFSSA meet) definitely would have been really exciting. That would have been the very best to end on. But what I’m looking forward to is the track season (May and June),” he said.
NCSSAA officials will make a decision about sending athletes to the winter and spring OFSAA championships later in the year.
Sikka also led St. Paul to an eighth-place finish out of 14 schools in the boys’ senior team competition. His victory gave the team the lowest placement scoring point of one and the other three scoring runners were Joel Sweet, 49th in 27:31.28, William Hollett, 81st in 30:04.56, and Anthony Sousa, 83rd in 30:12.39.
For the 10th time in the past 11 championships, Glebe won the boys’ senior team title, placing its four best runners in the top 12 – Barrett, Fairhead, Oliver Waddington, 10th in 23:40.79, and Jeremy Strachan, 12th in 24:14.80.
The Paul-Desmarais team placed second and were led by Julian Vivas-Moncada, 17th in 24:32.08, Eric Ledain, 24th in 25:06.42, Alec Brazeau, 25th in 25:06.87, and Jack Sloan, 56th in 27:57.05.
Third-place team honours went to the Nepean squad of Liam Mason, 15th in 24:28.61, Ben Pascali, 38th in 26:28.01, Saer Edwards, 45th in 27:09.82, and Duncan McKay, 55th in 27:56.57.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 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.
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