By Martin Cleary
When Thomas Sénéchal-Becker looks at the men’s high jump gold medal he won at the recent U Sports indoor track and field championships, two totally different and chilling stories come to mind.
For the first time in his steadily building career, the second-year University of Ottawa Gee-Gees health sciences student-athlete defeated arch-rival Aiden Grout of the University of Toronto Varsity Blues in his final indoor meet of the 2023 season.
That was the happy part of the story, but there was no jubilant celebration after he won nationals at 2.14 metres, which also was his second-best career performance and his first national university championship medal.
While he received his gold medal for posting the best jump of the meet, a large chunk of that medal is defined by his courage, determination and will power to deal with severe medical distress in the days leading up to the meet as well as the competition day.
The trip from Ottawa to Saskatoon, the championship site, was stressful enough last Tuesday. First, there was a flight to Calgary, followed by a flight to Regina and followed by a three-hour drive to Saskatoon.
Then came Wednesday.
“I got extremely sick three days before the competition. I still don’t know what it was. I’m still recovering. I think it was severe stomach flu,” said Sénéchal-Becker, who occasionally pardoned himself and coughed several times during the phone interview.
“I ate on Tuesday, but up until the meet, I didn’t eat anything. I was in bed. I couldn’t do anything I do to prepare for a meet. I couldn’t keep anything down.”
Sénéchal-Becker spoke with his dad through text messaging about his health and his second U Sports nationals. This championship was to be the highlight of his indoor season. He was fully motivated, especially after finishing in the dreaded fourth place last year with a height of 2.02 metres.
The result of the father-son conversation was Sénéchal-Becker decided to compete last Friday even though he was far from healthy.
“My meet expectations were low,” he added. “I did a 50-metre (warmup) sprint and I was exhausted. I wasn’t sure I could jump 1.80 metres.”
He used some ointment to deal with some body pain and referred to his preparation as “a blur.” His normal meticulous, 90-minute pre-event preparation routine basically didn’t exist.
“I’ll be dead before I pull out,” the multi-sport athlete from De La Salle high school insisted. “I had to do it. This season, I had separated myself from the competition. Last season, he (Grout) was always ahead of me. Now, it was me and him.”
While his body was ailing and weak, he entered the U Sports nationals with the goal of earning a victory.
“I threw all that (warmup routine) out the window. I stretched my muscles sitting on the ground. I didn’t run around. I did some jumping things,” he continued.
He didn’t feel completely warmed up until after he cleared 2.08 metres. He entered the competition at 1.89 metres, which he made, and also was good at 2.02 and 2.05 metres.
Needing only to take about 10 approach steps to the bar before his explosive take off, Sénéchal-Becker went on to clear 2.08 metres, 2.11 metres and 2.14 metres, which was his winning height. He cleared all his heights to that point on his first attempt. Grout finished second at 2.11 metres.
Since Sénéchal-Becker won the competition, he could pick the next height and he elected to raise the bar to 2.18 metres, which would be a personal-best jump. But after missing his first two jumps at the Imperial height of seven feet, 1.75 inches, he stopped as he had no adrenaline left, was still sick and didn’t want to injure himself.
“I felt weak at the start for my first few jumps,” added Sénéchal-Becker, who lost about 11 pounds because of his illness. “The fact I had lost weight was good as there would be less weight going over the bar, but my legs had less power.
“I would lie down between the jumps. I had spent all (Friday) morning vomiting. A teammate gave me some Gravol. Even in my run-up (to the high jump bar), I was scared of vomiting. “
In the end, Sénéchal-Becker emerged as the Canadian men’s university high jump champion, which was a crowning moment for him, despite his health.
“I can’t really believe it,” Sénéchal-Becker said about his triumph. “The second he (Grout) missed (his third try at 2.14 metres) I thought to myself: ‘There’s no way I just won.’
“I knew it was a possibility. But I didn’t expect it. Overall for me, it was a really good experience and a positive for me mentally and my future career.”
Two weeks before the U Sports nationals, Sénéchal-Becker placed second to Grout at the OUA championships, which was a repeat of their 2022 results at provincials.
Grout won the 2023 OUA title at 2.20 metres, while Sénéchal-Becker, who is coached by Lofti Khaida of C.A.N.I. Athletics and Leslie Estwick at the University of Ottawa, earned the silver medal with a personal-best 2.17 metres. At the 2022 OUA championships, Grout dominated at 2.15 metres, while Sénéchal-Becker was a distant second at 2.02 metres.
The 2022-23 OUA season was a positive one for Sénéchal-Becker as he won seven of his eight competitions and broke the Gee-Gees’ men’s high jump record three times. After winning the Saints Holiday Relays meet at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, he kept clearing higher heights and finished with 2.15 metres at the Ravens’ Last Chance meet, 2.17 metres at the OUA championships and 2.14 metres at the U Sports championships.
Besides Sénéchal-Becker, the National Capital Region also had three other athletes win a total of four medals (three gold, one bronze) and eight more top-five results:
· University of Guelph’s Jacqueline Madogo of Ottawa, gold in women’s 60 metres (7.29 seconds), gold as second runner on the women’s 4×200-metre relay team (1:37.53) and fourth place in women’s 300 metres (38.71).
· Université Laval’s Audrey Leduc of Gatineau, gold in women’s long jump (6.11 metres), fourth place in women’s 60 metres (7.43) and fifth place as lead runner in women’s 4×200-metre relay (1:41.80).
· McGill University’s Vanessa Lu Langley of Ottawa Lions, bronze as third runner in women’s 4×200-metre relay (1:41.47).
· University of Toronto’s David Adeleye of Ottawa Lions, fourth place in men’s 60-metre hurdles (8.18).
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 email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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