By Dan Plouffe
If you’ve ever watched a long distance race, then you’ve surely seen runners tear down the final stretch before the finish line with an extra little kick. Saving the best for last was definitely the theme of the day at the 2022 Canadian Cross-Country Running Championships – for the host club, as well as a pair of local gold medal winners who’d endured very challenging seasons up to that point.
Ottawa’s Amelia Van Brabant and Ivy Bialowas both didn’t know if they’d even be able to compete at the Nov. 26 nationals until a few days beforehand, but they each ended up savouring championship victories with their teams.
In the last race of eight, Van Brabant helped propel the host Ottawa Lions Track-and-Field Club to its lone team title at the meet. She finished 18th out of 211 entrants in the under-18 girls’ four-kilometre event, while Lions teammates Jocelyn Giannotti (22nd), Louise Stonham (46th) and Quinn Coughlin (50th) were the other scoring runners for the back-to-back national champs.
“I’m so proud of my team. I’m so happy for us,” underlined Van Brabant, who was also the Lions’ top runner last year when she placed 12th. “This race was all about the team. It wasn’t my best race (individually), honestly, but it’s better than what happened to me earlier this season, so I’m good with that.”
The Boston College-bound runner called her cross-country campaign “a season of setbacks.” Early this fall, a tendon problem in her knee kept her from going full steam, though she felt recovered come the high school provincials on Nov. 5 in Uxbridge.
“At OFSAA, I was actually having a great race, and then suddenly, I’m in the medical tent,” recounted Van Brabant, who blacked out for an hour after running 5.7 km of the challenging 6 km course on an unseasonably warm day. The back-to-back senior girls’ city champion from Earl of March Secondary School had never before fainted while running.
“It was surprising to me because we race in like 35°C on the track, so it’s bizarre that I passed out on a 25°C day,” said Van Brabant, who also had a toe sprain to contend with this fall.
“I had maybe been pushing my body a little too hard,” she added.
Van Brabant did bloodwork to see if she could find out what caused her crash at OFSAA, and found some liver-related readings were high. She cheered on her teammates but didn’t race at the Nov. 14 club provincials, then cautiously returned to running and completed blood tests again on the week of nationals to ensure her levels had returned to an acceptable zone.
“I was so scared to race because of what happened at OFSAA,” indicated Van Brabant, who eased back a little when the pain started to hit during her nationals race. “At OFSAA, I just pushed myself to the point where I had heatstroke and liver damage. Here, my whole goal was just to finish so that our team could do well.”
The Lions won last year’s U18 girls’ national title by a single point at Wesley Clover Parks, but this year earned a comfortable 40-point margin over second-place South Simcoe Dufferin.
The Lions’ top two runners from their silver medal-winning club provincials team – Olivia Baggley and Lauren Alexander – didn’t make it to the finish at nationals. To nonetheless win by a comfortable margin was a strong statement about the depth of the Lions’ giant 22-athlete U18 girls’ group.
“This team just works together so well. We have great team camaraderie and we’re so happy to have won. We definitely wanted to defend that title,” signalled Van Brabant, who also collected a national silver medal in the branch competition as one of Ontario’s top finishers.
“We’ve taken on a lot of really talented Lions girls who are younger. I’m proud to lead them and hopefully they can maintain that title next year when I’m not U18 any more,” she noted. “I wanted to end on a high note. I wanted to end on a positive thing to remember the season by. Being two-time national champs with this team, I’m really happy about that.”
UNB student brings new friends home for championship victory
An Ottawa Lions product also got to celebrate a team title in the U20 women’s division, though she now wears a different shade of red with the St. John Reds club. Like Van Brabant, Ivy Bialowas also wasn’t sure if she’d be able to race until a few days before the nationals.
After a promising start to her season, the second-year University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds student-athlete sprained her ankle badly in training a month ago and had to miss the university championship races.
“Two weeks ago, I was basically learning to walk again,” highlighted Bialowas, who did a few easy runs in the week before nationals but hadn’t attempted a workout. “Considering that, this was a good race. And honestly, my ankle felt great during the race; I just don’t quite have my fitness yet.”
Bialowas, who placed eighth in the same division last year, wound up finishing 17th in a field that was double the size with 99 entrants in 2022. Bialowas was the fourth and final scoring runner as she celebrated double gold with the St. John club and the New Brunswick branch. St. John’s Erin Vringer won the 6 km race by almost a full minute.
“It’s incredible,” smiled Bialowas, whose team was one runner short of registering a score in 2021. “We’ve really built a lot this last year, so it’s very exciting.”
Bialowas took on a bit of a recruiting role to bulk up the squad and now has “teammates and best friends” from the GTA, Atlantic Canada and B.C. at UNB.
“When (potential recruits) come on visits, we show them around the school and we host dinners, so I’ve made a lot of pizza and pasta dinners in the last year. We make sure that they know we actually care about them as people and not only runners,” explained the Glebe Collegiate Institute grad. “We’re just trying to build a team culture where we really care about each other and look out for everyone.”
Bialowas reprised that hosting role in Ottawa, welcoming her teammates and their parents for a big dinner at her dad’s place the night before the race. It was special to show off her hometown and the Terry Fox venue where she grew up running, she added.
“It’s awesome. I just have so many memories here,” detailed Bialowas, whose pre-race prep included working on her final business statistics assignment. “I remember racing in Grade 3 and coming like 45th in this one little section of Ottawa, so it’s just crazy to see how I’ve progressed over the years, as an athlete and a person.”
Big crowds & performances at Ottawa XC nationals
The top local performances came towards the end of the day, but there were many more highlights during the all-day event as Ottawa welcomed the cross-country nationals back to the national capital area for the second year in a row following a break of 44 years.
Led by Kiefer Melinz Dupuis in 30th spot, the Lions placed sixth of 25 teams in the U18 boys’ event won by the University of Toronto club. Erik Unger of Selwyn won the U18 boys’ race, while fellow Ontario runner Gabby Jones of Sarnia took the U18 girls’ title.
The U20 men’s event definitely had the most unique finish. Queen’s University teammates Roman Mironov and Jude Wheeler-Dee broke the tape simultaneously while holding hands in victory.
“When we saw it was just the two of us, we asked each other, ‘do you want to kick or do you want to finish together?” Wheeler-Dee told Athletics Canada.
“And then, we’re like ‘Why not?’” continued Mironov, who was judged the winner by chip timing. “We raced together all season, we’re roommates, we share the same toothpaste, same body wash – might as well win together.”
London Western took the U20 men’s team crown, while the Lions were fifth of seven, led by Zachary Sikka in 33rd of 96 competitors.
Ontario’s Connor Black of London and Tokyo Olympic 5,000-metre runner Julie-Anne Staehli of Lucknow were the open men’s and women’s 10 km race winners.
London Western also won the open men’s team event, while University of British Columbia students Kiana Gibson (11th) and Katie Newlove (49th) of Ottawa were part of the open women’s club-champion Vancouver Thunderbirds team. The Lions were eighth in the open men’s team competition, while Mile2Marathon was 10th.
Edmonton’s Brian Torrance and Victoria’s Jen Millar were the top male and female athletes in the 8 km masters’ race.
The championship races drew over 1,000 runners in total, while another 328 signed up for the community race to kick off the day. The sun shone and the mercury rose above 10°C in the afternoon on an optimal day for late-November weather in Ottawa.
The more central location and the classic cross-country course at Mooney’s Bay drew praise from participants who’d endured –15°C with the wind chill last year at Wesley Clover.
“I thought it was an excellent day – tops from start to finish,” said Ottawa Lions head coach Richard Johnston, who sported a mud-speckled jacket and ballcap after driving the lead ATV all day for the event’s webcast.
“Beautiful course, volunteers were amazing to make sure everything was tip-top, laying down hay when we needed to get things kind of a little bit more solid, course marshals directing traffic, and working with Run Ottawa was fantastic as well – I think the pair of us can continue hosting great events.”
There were rumblings circulating that the cross-country nationals could return to Ottawa for a third consecutive year in 2023, while the Canadian Track and Field Championships are confirmed for Terry Fox Athletic Facility in 2025 and 2026.
“This is the hub of athletics in Ottawa, and it’s becoming a central point across Canada too,” Johnston added.
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