By Martin Cleary
The past five athletics seasons for visually-impaired, middle-distance runner Keegan Gaunt of Ottawa have been like going to the amusement park and riding the rollercoaster.
There have been highs, there have been lows and there have been stoppages, times when her season race schedule was totally empty, not once but twice.
Currently, Gaunt, 23, is riding a high as she has been selected to her first national team for the Parapan American Games, which officially start Friday and run through Nov. 26 in Santiago, Chile. She is scheduled to run the women’s T13 1,500-metre final Wednesday, Nov. 22.
Gaunt, who moved this summer to train in Victoria, is one of 140 Canadian athletes and competition partners and one of seven from Ottawa and region participating in 14 sports along with 70 coaches and support staff.
A former member of the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club, Gaunt has Stargardt Disease, which attacked her central vision seven years ago and left her with blind spots in her vision. Her mother Robbi Weldon, one of Canada’s top Paralympic athletes in cross-country skiing and cycling, also has Stargardt Disease. Weldon competed for Canada in four Paralympics, winning a gold medal in cycling at the 2012 Summer Games with former Olympic athlete Lyne Bessette.
In 2019, Gaunt finished her season with encouraging signs of progress and impressive stats – two personal-best times for the indoor 600 metres and 1,000 metres as well as two best-ever times outdoors in the 800 metres and 1,500 metres.
But everything came to a standstill in 2020 as the incoming COVID-19 pandemic shut down her competitive racing season.
She maintained her training as best she could during the pandemic, but suffered an upper tibia stress fracture of her left leg in March, 2021. The stress fracture was the result of too much running and not enough nutritional calories to support the workload.
Once she healed and returned to the track, Gaunt injected some positivity into her running, lowering her 1,500-metre personal-best time to four minutes, 41.62 seconds during the Ontario championships in Toronto. Her time also broke the Canadian para women’s 1,500-metre record in the T13 class, which still stands today.
But towards the end of that season, there were “some lingering issues that weren’t resolved,” Gaunt mentioned.
Knowing the Parapan Am Games were on the distant horizon, she decided to continue to train, but not race during the 2022 season.
“At the time, it was the right choice, when you looked at my long-term goals,” Gaunt said in a phone interview before flying to Santiago earlier this week. “We did a slow build up (to the 2023 season).
“It was definitely difficult to watch the others do what you do. But I’ve had track seasons since I was 15 years old and at the same time it was also nice to have a break. I used it as motivation to run in my subsequent season.”
Having a second non-competitive season in four years seemed to work for Gaunt as the 2023 campaign earned her a ticket to her first Parapan Am Games.
But this season wasn’t all positives, either, as it started with two disappointing European races, which didn’t meet Gaunt’s expectations as her times were in the 4:57 range. Her Canadian championship 1,500 metres in June was marginally better at 4:48, but still not fully satisfying.
At the Ontario outdoor open championships, she ran an uplifting 4:42.17, which would eventually earn her Parapan-Am-Games status. Her time ranked Gaunt second in the Americas to Liza Corso of the United States (4:19.54) and fifth in the world.
“I went into this season unknown,” Gaunt explained. “2023 was my first season back and it went OK. Things started to progress. I’m healthy and injury free and definitely looking to compete. It’s interesting to compete this late (in the calendar year).”
Gaunt finished her outdoor season in mid July, took a short break and started to rebuild with base training, knowing she was a potential candidate to be selected for the Parapan Am Games.
“I’m definitely very grateful to make my first national team. It’s really exciting. I’m excited to be part of a multi-sport games and to cheer on (athletes) in other sports,” she said.
Although her qualifying time for the Games has her ranked second entering her only Games race, she’s focused on a broader objective and not a medal.
“I’m very excited to be present in the moment and feel the atmosphere. I have a long-time friend who went there (Santiago) for the (recent) Pan-Am Games. She said the atmosphere in Chile was awesome,” explained Gaunt, who was referring to Ottawa’s Kiana Gibson, who placed fifth in the women’s 3,000-metre steeplechase in 9:52.75.
Gaunt and Gibson are both graduates of Merivale High School.
Here is the list of the other six local and regional athletes, their sports and competition dates for the Parapan Am Games:
· Sam Charron, Ottawa, CP soccer, Saturday through Nov. 25;
· Whitney Bogart, Marathon, ON., Amy Burk, Charlottetown, P.E.I., Emma Reinke, St. Thomas, ON and Aaron Prévost, Cornwall, ON, goalball, Saturday through Nov. 24;
· Kyle Tremblay, Deep River, ON., para archery, Sunday through Wednesday;
· Patrice Dagenais, Embrun, ON., wheelchair rugby, Saturday through Nov. 23;
· Annie-Marie Dolinar, Deep River, ON., wheelchair tennis, Sunday through Nov. 25.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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