Canada’s track & field team looks to erase blip from 2017 worlds championships

Glenroy Gilbert’s first world track and field championships as Canada’s head coach was one to forget.

The Canadian squad arrived in London in 2017 shouldering huge expectations, but was slammed by illness and injuries and went home with zero medals.

Team stars Andre De Grasse and Derek Drouin withdrew with last-minute injuries. A nasty Norwalk virus swept through the team hotel, leaving decathlete Damian Warner, among others, too ill to compete at anywhere near their best.

“It’s incredible how quickly things turned in London with all the various ailments and misfortune that we had with our athletes,” said Gilbert. “It was like nothing I’d ever seen or experienced, as a coach or an athlete.”

Those worlds were a blip in what’s been an otherwise solid few years for Canada’s track and field team, which won an historic eight medals at the global championships in 2015 and six medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Canada has 52 athletes competing at the world championships that open Friday in Doha, Qatar, and while Gilbert joked that he’d “certainly like to get more medal than we did in London,” he leads a strong and diverse team that arrives on the heels of an exciting summer season.

“We could see a number of athletes on the podium or within striking distance,” said Gilbert, who ran on the 4×100 relay team that won Olympic gold in 1996 in Atlanta.

Canada has 11 athletes who are ranked in the top-10 in the world. Among those to watch: Warner, who’s ranked first in the decathlon; De Grasse, who’s finally healthy after two seasons of injury (third in the 200 and ninth in the 100); Aaron Brown (fourth in the 200); Brandon McBride (fourth in the 800); Gabriela DeBues-Stafford, who has rewritten the Canadian record book this season (fourth in the 1,500); Alysha Newman (third in women’s pole vault); and Brittany Crew (sixth in women’s shot put).

“You’re really seeing that (diversity),” Gilbert said from Canada’s pre-worlds camp in Barcelona. ”I like the fact we’ve got athletes spread out in so many different disciplines, and even the (young) age of the athletes who are in the system right now, I think that’s a big piece, it shows depth.”

Two notable absences this season are Drouin and 800-metre world silver medallist Melissa Bishop, who are both injured.

Brown was a medal threat in the 200 metres two years ago in London, but was disqualified in his heat for a lane violation. Brown vs. De Grasse is sure to be one of the meet’s highlights.

“The energy is different at a world championships because you know this is the cream of the crop,” Brown said. “You’re literally going up against the best the world has to offer with no country or age restrictions. We all recognize the magnitude of competition at this level, and want to use this platform to prove ourselves.”

Less than a year from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the world championships are also a great measuring stick, Gilbert said.

“I think it’s very important (to perform well in Doha), to set the tone for Tokyo next year, so the … world championships (going) into an Olympic Games is always a critical one, it’s always a telling one in terms of what you can expect to see in Tokyo,” he said. “It doesn’t always translate but nonetheless a lot of times what you see happening at the world championships the year before kind of crystalizes by the time you’re at the Olympics the following year. So it’s a critical world champs for everybody.”

These world championships present some unique challenges due to soaring temperatures in the Persian Gulf city. To avoid the sizzling heat of the summer when the temperatures climb into the high 40s C, the championships are being held much later in the season. In a normal year, athletes would either be enjoying down time right now or beginning their training for next season.

“It’s a late (championship) and early turnaround for Tokyo, but it’s a challenge that everyone else has to face as well, so we’re not unique from that standpoint,” Gilbert said.

It’s a late-night schedule. And athletes competing outside the stadium — marathoners, and race walkers — will be competing in the middle of the night, yet still battling temperatures that could top 30 C.

“Doha is an unknown environment for a lot of people, so it won’t just be a challenge for us, but it will be a challenge for everyone who’s there,” he said.

Athletes competing inside Khalifa International Stadium, which is usually home to Qatar’s national soccer team, will be kept cool by a high-tech air conditioning system.

“We did a walkthrough of the stadium (last year), you go from 50 degrees (outside) to 24 degrees in the stadium,” Gilbert said. ”So it’s quite drastic but I think obviously it should help the athletes deliver the performance on demand that we’re expecting.”

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