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Where are they now: U SPORTS success translating to Team Canada for track and field athletes at NACAC Championships

Jonathan Yue

U SPORTS student-athletes have continually performed at the national level for decades. For track and field, it’s no different.

The North American, Central American and Caribbean (NACAC) Championships were held in Toronto from Aug. 10-12 at the University of Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, with current U SPORTS athletes and alumni making their mark amongst a world-class lineup of athletes.

Team Canada consisted of a mix of experienced athletes with a lot of new faces - some representing Canada for the first time - and throughout the NACAC Championships, U SPORTS athletes made their presence known.

York sprinting standout Bismark Boateng was added to a historic group of athletes to compete for Canada after graduating from the university, joining the likes of Desai Williams, Dontae-Richard Kwok, and Khamica Bingham. Boateng is now dedicated full-time to his training since graduating from York and it shows in his results.

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Photo: Claus Andersen

“For the York Lions, I would train for three to five months, but now I train for the whole year, so it’s more commitment and more dedication,” Boateng says. “I’m striving to be the best in Canada and one day be on the podium for 2020 (at the Tokyo Olympics). That’s what I’m working for so I like the big stage, I like moments like this, this is when true character shows.”

Qualifying for the 100-metre final, Boateng would run a near personal-best time of 10.16 seconds, just missing out on the bronze medal by 0.04 seconds. But the 2016 U SPORTS silver medalist would bounce back for the 4x100-metre relay, helping the men’s team capture the gold medal and qualify for the 2019 Pan American Games - a feat that he believes has given him more experience at the national level. 

The historic Varsity Stadium also happened to be the home track for two Canadian athletes from the Toronto Varsity Blues, coming out of their races with medals to show for it. Rio 2016 Olympian and U SPORTS 1000-metre record holder Gabriela Stafford ran a gutsy 1500 metres for a bronze medal in front of friends and family, cheering her on from every corner of the track. Alicia Brown would later anchor the women’s 4x400-metre team to a bronze medal podium finish.

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Alberta Golden Bear and reigning U SPORTS 300-metre record-holder Austin Cole made his Team Canada debut in the men’s 400-metre semifinals, clocking in with a time of 47.13 seconds, just missing out on qualifying for the finals. But Cole is taking in the experience and knows that it’s not all about the results at this point in his career.

“Such a great opportunity to represent your country at home,” Cole said after his race. “It wasn’t the race I wanted, but you can’t be sad when you’re running against the top guys in the world.

Over the years, U SPORTS has been able to graduate athletes to the national Canadian team, who have gone on to play prominent roles at the international competitions. Athletes such as Stafford, Bingham, Brittany Crew (York), Melissa Bishop (Windsor), Taryn Suttie (Saskatchewan), Sekou Kaba (Ottawa), Genevieve Lalonde (Guelph), Noelle Montcalm (Windsor), Andrea Seccafien (Guelph), and Charles Philibert-Thiboutot (Laval) have all become mainstay names at the national level since competing at the 2016 Olympics.

For Philibert-Thiboutot, he’s continued his U SPORTS success on the international stage since graduating from Laval two years ago. He admits there is still a gap between U SPORTS and international races, but is now used to the international style of racing.

“When you get to the world stage, you realize that nobody is willing to let you slip in or let you move up in the pack. Tactical racing becomes more difficult,” says Philibert-Thiboutot, who won a bronze in the men’s 1500m. “At first there was a lack of experience on that domain when I transitioned, but after two years competing at the international level, I’m getting the hang of this and I’m getting better.”

Other notable Canadian athletes with U SPORTS ties at the NACAC Championships include Caroline Ehrhardt (Western) who finished fourth in the triple jump, Patrick Hanna (Montreal) finished seventh in the men’s triple jump, while Montcalm ran the women’s 400-metre hurdles, finishing in seventh as well.

A pair of UBC alumni also captured medals for Canada, with Evan Dunfee winning the gold in the men’s 20 km race walk, with Michael Mason adding the silver medal in the men’s high jump.

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Photo : Claus Andersen

One athlete in particular who seemed to enjoy the event at another level was McMaster’s Sergio Raez Villanueva, who couldn’t wipe the smile off his face from Day 1 of the championships. Leading for parts of the men’s 10,000-metre race, Villanueva knew that it would be a great experience competing here, but when he got to the track it was nothing like he had expected. From the hotel, to the start line, until the finish line he says the NACAC Championships have given him lessons that he’s hoping to take that back to McMaster.

“I’ve learned a lot. They differ a bit, even just mentally, I’m racing with professionals now,” says Villanueva, the Canadian national champion in the 10km and U SPORTS silver medalist in the 3000 metres. “It became a little tactical in this race - in that sense is the same at the university level. The environment is definitely different, just the way you tackle the experience. I’m so happy to be able to bring what I’m able to do to the home crowd and there’s more things to come.”