By Martin Cleary
As a 15-year-old forward in the Cumberland Jr. Grads ‘AA’ hockey system, Ottawa’s Stephen Evans was looking for a way to increase his speed on the ice to improve his overall performance.
Track and field caught his eye and he used the discipline of sprinting with the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club as a means of cross-training.
The St. Peter Catholic High School graduate got more benefits than he expected from that key decision.
While his skating speed showed improvement as he focused on training and racing the 100, 200 and 400 metres, his athletic career was gradually turning a huge corner as his love of sprinting developed into a true passion for middle-distance running.
Today, at the age of 27, Evans can finally call himself a first-time Athletics Canada national team member. And his first assignment will be the Pan-American Games in Santiago, Chile, which begin Friday and run through Nov. 5.
“It’s super exciting, surreal,” Evans said about running the men’s senior qualifying time standard for the 800 metres at the Canadian track and field championships in July and waiting several weeks before learning he would be nominated to the Canadian Olympic Committee for Team Canada.
“Making the team is a dream come true. It’s not just making the team. That’s not enough. I believe I’m capable of winning a medal.”
In an up-and-down season this year, Evans’ goal was to excel in July. He waited until the last possible moment and had a race to remember at the national championships in Langley, B.C.
Evans not only placed third in the 800-metre final for his first Canadian championship individual medal, but also his time of one minute, 47.02 seconds was a personal-best clocking and allowed him to better the Pan-Am Games standard of 1:47.09.
Locked in sixth place for the majority of the final, Evans was breathing heavily entering the final 200 metres. But using “positive affirmation,” he stayed with the lead runners, pumped his arms hard down the stretch and claimed the bronze medal, narrowly missing the silver medal by 0.09 seconds.
“I always wished I could win a medal,” added Evans, who has a part-time job in sales with iPolitics News. “I was super emotional. I did the mental math when I crossed the finish. I was third and I started to scream. I was so, so excited. I have been close to making other teams in the past.
“Then I looked at the time and I yelled again. Boom. Boom. Boom. All of these feelings hit me at once. I’m the type to celebrate rather than feel relief.”
Evans was in the running for Canada’s team to the 2019 World University Games, when he was a student-athlete at the University of Ottawa. He had met the 800-metre time standard and understood the top two in each track and field event would make the team. In the end, U Sports chose the top 30 track and field athletes all around.
He also met the 800-metre national criteria for the 2022 North American, Central American Championships, but his name didn’t make the final team list.
The 2023 Jeux de la Francophonie in Kinshasa also was a possibility, but Team Canada didn’t include track athletes.
“Most athletes are on a trajectory, making teams earlier in their careers. I’m a little late to the party,” smiled Evans, who broke a pair of Ottawa Lions’ open club records this year – 800 metres outdoors at 1:47.02 and the 1,000 metres indoors at 2:21.39.
“Belief in myself and having good people around me” were key to finding his way onto Team Canada eventually, he added.
Evans is scheduled to compete on the final two days of the Pan-Am Games and he’s upbeat about good things happening. The heats are Nov. 4 and the top runners will advance to the final, which is slated for Nov. 5.
“It’s rare to race (outdoors) in November, but I’ll be ready to race,” he added. “I’m confident.”
Evans’ success at this year’s Canadian championships was partially motivated by his disappointment at the 2022 nationals on the same Langley track.
In his men’s preliminary race, Evans placed third, but when all the times were tabulated from the three heats, his 1:49.03 left him in ninth place, which was two-tenths of a second and one place shy of the final.
“It was tough and emotional,” Evans said about his only race at the 2022 nationals. “Part of it was a judgment call. I wasn’t being as proactive, but rather reactive. I needed to work on my speed. I did bounce back.
“I carried it forward to training. But when I came to (2023) nationals, it was out of my mind. I had to focus on a new season.”
Evans immediately started rebuilding after his 2022 national championship disappointment by running the Stars and Stripes Classic meet in Atlanta the next week. He ran an encouraging and uplifting 1:47.3 personal best.
“It showed me I was fit,” explained Evans, who felt he wasn’t defeated by his nationals’ effort.
He would revisit that time this year during his up-and-down season.
At the Victoria Track Classic, which was his fourth and final stop on the National Track Tour, Evans ran a best-ever time of 1:47.16 to finish seventh overall.
“What made it unique was how easy it felt,” Evans said about his unprecedented time, which came less than two weeks before the 2023 nationals. “It made me feel so good. I showed up when it mattered the most.”
It was a sign of good things to come as he would lower his best time by another 0.14 seconds at nationals and bring him to a new level as a high-performance, middle-distance runner.
It has been nine years since Evans experienced his first 800-metre race during an Ottawa Lions’ Twilight all-comers meet in early August, 2014. At 18, he ran a so-so, two-lap race in 2:15.19.
But as each year passed, he was attracted more and more to the 800 metres to the point he ran his first Canadian senior championships in 2017 and finished 15th in 1:51.74. He didn’t advance past the preliminary round.
“It took me a while to get a handle on the event (800 metres), to figure how it works,” he said about his beginning.
“Two things made it difficult. The physical aspect; I wasn’t fit for it. It was really challenging. The mental aspect was big because I went to OFSAA (high school championships) for the 400 metres and I was at an age where I was still forming my identity. I associated more with sprinters. I thought that’s where I was destined. What I believed was the case, was not the reality.”
Reality would eventually bring him to the 800 metres and that took plenty of perseverance.
As he said, he may have been late coming to the party, but now that he’s there, he wants to make a statement and celebrate.
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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