In the span of a couple of months, Cam Levins has gone from just hoping to sneak onto his first Canadian Olympic track and field team to being one of the biggest stories on it.
In between, the 23-year-old from the tiny Vancouver Island town of Black Creek, B.C., has laid down a few eye-popping performances, collected two NCAA titles, and signed a sponsorship deal with Nike — the latter being big news for a runner who kills off a pair of shoes every two to three weeks.
“Most importantly I don’t have to buy my shoes anymore!!!!” Levins wrote in a recent blog.
Levins, who will run the 5,000 metres Friday at the Canadian Olympic track and field trials to solidify his spot on the London squad, has also garnered a huge fan following that includes the likes of Olympic triathlon champion Simon Whitfield, along with countless runners of all abilities.
“I guess I really have a feeling of how many people follow me now. It’s certainly grown the whole season. I never expected to have so many people care about what I do,” Levins said.
But he admits his sudden rise up through the ranks is still sinking in.
“It’s surreal. I think you just have to take it one race at a time, you can’t look too far ahead or dwell too much on accomplishments, just be in the moment.”
Levins ran the second-fastest 10,000 metres in Canadian history — 27 minutes 27.96 seconds — to win the Payton Jordan Invitational this past spring, in his first attempt at running the distance. His blistering 55-second bell lap had people abuzz on Twitter, including Whitfield who tweeted: “I believe that is called #beastmode.”
That victory came a week after he outkicked the field to win the 5,000 at the Mt. SAC Relays. He achieved the A-plus Olympic standard in both races.
He capped his university career at University of Southern Utah by winning both distances at the NCAA championships earlier this month, a gruelling feat for any runner, even Levins, who’s achieved a sort of running folk-hero status for the incredible amount of mileage — about 240 kilometres a week — he logs.
“I went in (to NCAAs) with the No. 1 seed in both events, so it was a hard opportunity to pass up. ‘I can’t just leave one event alone,’ which is how I felt,” Levins said. “I was fairly tired, they pushed the 10,000 (pace) pretty quick too, so going into the 5K I felt a little bit lethargic too, whether it was due to the heat, I don’t know. I didn’t feel my best.”
The emotional rush of winning the 10,000 helped carry him through the 5,000 metres two nights later.
“You’re coming off a high, I felt like a lot of pressure went off me. I thought ‘I have an NCAA title, it doesn’t really matter what I do in this 5K,“’ he said.
Levins — who’s battling a bit of an injury involving his back, hamstring and left knee — was granted an exemption in Wednesday’s 10,000 at the Olympic trials, but he’ll race both distances in London.
Mohammed Ahmed of St. Catharines, Ont., won the 10,000 at the trials, booking his ticket to the Games.
The two are part of one of Canada’s strongest — and youngest — Olympic-bound distance groups in recent memory. Canada is also sending three marathoners for the first time since 1996 in Dylan Wykes, Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis.
“It’s pretty cool, I hear a lot, Athletics Canada talking about how we’re a nation of sprinters and throwers, and so it’s really cool to see all the distance runners going this year,” Levins said.
The 21-year-old Ahmed has lined up against Levins numerous times in NCAA events and is looking forward to having his Canadian teammate in the track with him in London.
“He’s an inspiration, a very, very good guy,” Ahmed said. “He’s going to push me and I’m going to push him. He’s very young too, only two years older than me, I’m very excited.”
Simon Bairu of Regina, the Canadian record-holder in the 10,000, isn’t competing in Calgary after attempting to qualify, unsuccessfully, for the Olympic marathon.
While Levins’ recent success might have caught the rest of the sports world by surprise, Thelma Wright said it’s the perfect example of a natural progression and long-term plan of “an athlete with a lot of talent, huge desire and strong focus.”
“He’s willing to put in the work, and willing to be patient as well,” said Wright, an endurance coach for Athletics Canada. “Right from the get-go, he’s never been in too much of a rush.”
Wright said competing in the U.S., away from the glare of the Canadian spotlight might have helped Levins, the two-time defending Canadian cross-country champion, in his leadup to London.
“He’s not been overwhelmed with press and media and hype. I think that’s a benefit,” Wright said. “But he’s very much connected with the world out there. There are young athletes who send him notes and aspire to be like him and he feels the necessity to reply to them and connect with them and not leave them without a note back.
“He’s a great guy, a great guy.”