By Mark Colley
The women’s 400-metre final is set for Friday, followed by the 4×400 m relay heats and final on the weekend, but Ottawa’s Alicia Brown will be missing from the start line as the 2022 World Athletics Championships hum along in Eugene, Oregon.
Brown has been a mainstay for Team Canada the past decade since her debut at the FISU World Student Games and IAAF World Championships in 2013, but the two-time Olympian called it a career following last summer’s Tokyo Games, where Brown and the Canadian women’s 4×400 m relay team placed fourth, matching their result from the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“I still love track, but I knew that it was going to be time,” Brown said of her decision to retire after Tokyo. “It was truthfully just getting to a place where I was starting to feel very burnt out. If I had different types of financial support in sport, maybe we’d be having a different conversation today.”
The taxing balancing act of training at an elite level and building a life outside of sport — including making enough money to live — had become draining. Brown always maintained a full-time job at the University of Toronto while competing for Canada at a world-class level.
The 32-year-old from Nepean endured her share of hardships over her career, including two years of training on her own without any funding while she served the harshest penalty ever imposed for an inadvertent doping infraction of its kind, injuries, and mental health/training facility access struggles during the Tokyo Olympic delay caused by COVID.
“I wouldn’t wish some of the experiences that I’ve gone through on other athletes, but I do feel really proud of myself having navigated and overcome a lot of those challenges,” reflected Brown, who only took up track late in high school after switching from soccer.
“It would have been really easy to just say, ‘Screw it. I don’t want this to be too hard. This is too painful,’ and just quit. But I knew that that’s not what I wanted. I knew that I wanted to accomplish this goal, and I think that lit an additional fire,” she added. “Now that it’s done, I can say that I am thankful for those experiences.”
Staying true to her goals and doing what’s required to achieve them are big lessons Brown took away from her involvement in sport, and they continue to help her in everyday life.
“If it makes sense to you, that’s all that matters, because you will be the one to execute and put in the work,” underlined the Merivale High School grad. “You can build your life the way that you want to. It’s your journey and it doesn’t matter if others can see it or not.”
3 local Tokyo Olympians replaced by 3 rising youngsters
Brown was one of three local athletes who competed at the Tokyo Olympics, and the other two also won’t be in the World Championships field. Women’s 800 m runner Melissa Bishop-Nriagu is soon expecting her second child, while fellow Ottawa Lions Track-and-Field Club representative Tim Nedow also retired from men’s shot put and became the Lions’ youth program manager.
But another trio from the area has stepped in to their place – Maddy Kelly (a 26-year-old Bishop-Nriagu reincarnation who also hails from the Ottawa Valley and runs the 800 m), women’s 4×100 m relay team member Jacqueline Madogo (who made an even later soccer-to-track transition than Brown while at the University of Guelph), and the Lions’ Lauren Gale (who went to the Tokyo Olympics as an alternate for the women’s 4x400m team, though she didn’t race).
Gale is making her outdoor World Athletics Championships debut this year at Eugene. She said it would be “kind of sad” to race without Brown.
“She was like a second mom in Tokyo and just such a great competitor and always had a positive mindset,” Gale signalled.
Brown expects watching the worlds from the sidelines will “a little bit tough, to be honest,” since it will make her reflect on her own journey, but missing out on the big events is part of “the healing process” she needs to go through after retiring.
“I will also say that I’m very excited for my friends and my teammates to be competing and I look forward to watching them flourish,” she highlighted.
Brown won’t be missing the stress that comes with delivering high-level performance, and she enjoys living “a little bit more free.”
Striving to be among the world’s best is all-encompassing, Brown explained – every action is centred around preparing for the next workout or event. When they’re not pushing themselves to extremes in training, questions linger about whether they are recovering properly or sleeping well enough.
“That’s when you will sit with your feelings of doubt or anxiety or fear,” Brown noted. “These are always kind of an undertow as you navigate your day and as you make decisions about your day. I don’t have that anymore … It does feel like a certain sense of relief.”
Brown said she feels proud of the career she’s had as a two-time Olympian, highlighting the success of Team Canada in shaving nearly five seconds off of its 4x400m relay time between Rio and Tokyo, and earning very strong fourth-place results on both occasions.
With a time of 3:21.84 at Tokyo, Brown’s relay team also just missed breaking the Canadian record, which has stood since 1984, by 0.63 seconds.
“You’re at a place where you can almost touch [the podium] … but I did feel very proud of how we performed. We showed up on the day and you can’t ask for much more,” highlighted Brown, who says the relationships she’s formed through sport is ultimately what she’s enjoyed most in her athletic career.
Next steps after racing career still in the works
For the time being, there’s lots to keep Brown busy. She’s planning a wedding with her fiancé after getting engaged last fall, and she continues to work for the University of Toronto’s Hart House in communications and marketing.
While she helped support the sprint and relay program at U of T this past varsity season, Brown said she is “still undecided” about whether coaching is a path she may like to pursue long-term. It might be something she considers a few years down the line, but right now, after emptying the tank in her athletic career, it’s not in the cards.
“I’m still in a place of recovery, just from my own track career and from retiring and from competing all the years,” said Brown, who was coached by Ottawa Sports Awards Mayor’s Cup winner Raz El-Asmar during her soccer days with FC Capital United. “If I was coaching full-time, I would truthfully still be competing.”
Brown has enjoyed taking a step back to appreciate the heights she hit in her career, instead of always striving to get better or get ready for the next goal.
“A few weeks ago, I went out and I did a workout in Queen’s Park, and what I learned from that experience – which was really humbling, and also kind of fun for me – was it helped me put into perspective the things that I had accomplished,” she recounted. “I was grinding hard – really, really hard. It’s been like eight months, and I was like, ‘This is not as easy as I remember it feeling in training.’ So it really did help me acknowledge the fact that I am a two-time Olympian, and that’s not an easy thing to accomplish.
“And it just reminded me that if you’re willing to commit to the process, and believe in yourself, that anything is possible. Now when I’m struggling with other things in life, having that reflection is what helps me keep moving forward through it. When you’re feeling a lot of doubt, just know that anything’s possible.”
– with files from Dan Plouffe
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