Jessica Zelinka may be Canada’s busiest track and field athlete in London.
The Canadian record-holder in the heptathlon has posted a couple of world-class times in the 100-metre hurdles this season as well, and her coach Les Gramantik says Zelinka hasn’t ruled out racing in both events at the London Games.
The 30-year-old from London, Ont., sprinted to a speedy 12.76 seconds in the hurdles on Day 1 of the heptathlon at the Canadian Olympic track and field trials Wednesday, matching the time she ran last month in winning the Harry Jerome Classic in Burnaby, B.C.
“Right now honestly it has to be a very interesting decision to do a hurdles race in London as well as heptathlon,” Gramantik said.
The only Canadian quicker this season is Olympic bronze medallist Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, whose 12.64 is currently fifth-fastest in the world.
Zelinka scored 3982 points to lead the heptathlon after Day 1 — topping her first-day score at the Beijing Olympics, where she finished fifth in a national-record performance.
Mohammed Ahmed of St. Catharines, Ont., officially punched his ticket to London, winning the 10,000 metres to wrap up the opening day of racing.
“It’s pretty much the Super Bowl of track and field, the Olympics, so to go to that is a big deal and I’m very excited,” Ahmed said.
Zelinka, a six-time Canadian heptathlon champion, and fifth-place finisher at the 2008 Beijing Games, credits her performance with a different mental approach this season — a focus on fun rather than strictly fierce competition.
“I did want to come out and have that joy and fun in my competition ... to get that lightness back in me again and to apply it today at a competition, it showed, my marks were the best, for sure I’m ahead of my Beijing Day 1 right now,” she said. “I was happy with all my events, they were all bang-on, and it was exactly what I wanted coming out of the first day.”
Brianne Theisen of Humboldt, Sask., who captured her third consecutive NCAA outdoor title earlier this month, is second with 3838 points, while Jen Cotten of London, Ont., is third with 3361.
Jamie Adjetey-Nelson of Windsor, Ont., is the leader after Day 1 of the decathlon with 4182 points, just six points ahead of Damian Warner of London, Ont.
Zelinka, mother to three-year-old daughter Anika, is competing in both the heptathlon and hurdles this week, and is one of six women in a jam-packed hurdles field who have achieved the Olympic qualifying standard in that event.
The opening round of the Olympic hurdles is two days after the heptathlon ends.
“It’s not impossible but they are hard runs and many races,” Gramantik said. “Here she could probably qualify (for London) with a 13.0-seconds run, but you’re not going to get out of the semifinals or quarter-finals in London with 13 seconds.
“But the other thing, the rest of the world isn’t running very fast. The U.S. trials was won in 12.77, slower than her time here.”
Gramantik said he and Zelinka will decide after Saturday’s open hurdles final whether to double in London. Athletics Canada will name its London team on Sunday morning.
“I’m not trying to build any suspense, ‘Oh, what’s it going to be?’ Really, we don’t know,” said the veteran multi-events coach. “If things go well and she does really well here, I’ll be happy to have the two (hurdles) races, and close the book on hurdles for this year.”
Canada enjoys an embarrassment of riches in women’s hurdles, but only three can compete in London. The other women who have achieved the qualifying standard are 10-time Canadian champion Perdita Felicien, Angela Whyte, who was sixth at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and Nikkita Holder and Phylicia George, sixth and seventh respectively at last summer’s world championships.
Felicien, who trains with Zelinka in Calgary, joked about her training partner’s recent rise up the hurdles ranks at the opening news conference Tuesday.
“The field is the deepest its ever been,” Felicien said. “And thanks Jessica for joining the fray.”
Ahmed, meanwhile, ran 30 minutes 49.13 seconds to cruise to an easy victory in a 10,000-metre field missing NCAA champion Cam Levins. The 21-year-old Ahmed achieved the Olympic qualifying standard when he ran 27:34.64 earlier this season in California, and needed just a top-three finish at the trials.
“I felt good, I was clicking off (the laps), I got in a nice rhythm,” Ahmed said. “But just the last two laps the altitude started getting to me. It wasn’t easy at all, it was very windy, I hadn’t been at altitude in my life, so this was very hard.”
Levins, from Black Creek, B.C., ran 27:27.96 to win that same race in California— his first 10,000 ever. Athletics Canada granted Levins an exemption for the 10,000. Fresh off a victory in both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres at the NCAA championships, he’ll run just the 5,000 in Calgary, but both distance events in London.
Theisen is also coming off a gruelling U.S. university season, and said it’s key to perform well but conserve energy in these Olympic trials, which are sandwiched between her busy college season with the University of Oregon and the London Games.
“First day was kind of hard to do this, but we had the goal of coming in here and doing one of everything, pretty much the bare minimum to conserve energy for the Olympics,” said Theisen, who took just one throw in the shot put and five attempts in the high jump.
She plans to take one jump in long jump and one throw in javelin on Thursday.
As for Zelinka, Gramantik hasn’t been surprised by the athlete’s fast hurdles times this season.
“She’s always had superb abilities as a hurdler,” Gramantik said. “She could have been a world-class hurdler if she chose to, if that event wasn’t so boring ... one event is boring in her mind, she likes to do a lot of different things (the heptathlon is seven events), otherwise she could have been very successful in hurdles too.”
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