When life was too much, Phylicia George found solace on the track, in the simple motion of putting one foot in front of the other.
The sport that has brought her to the London Olympics was also her means of escape two summers ago when she lost her mom Glenna to cancer.
The 24-year-old from Markham, Ont., will make her Olympic debut Monday in the 100-metre heats — and George knows it will be a bittersweet moment. Her best friend and No. 1 supporter won’t be there to see it.
“I’ll just be thinking of the things she would say to me,” George said. “I just like to think of the fact she’s watching over me and guides me around the track.”
George was in her junior year at the University of Connecticut in 2009 when her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She spent much of that summer accompanying her mom to chemotherapy sessions and it seemed her mom had turned a corner.
But the cancer returned in her daughter’s senior year, and she died at the age of 50, just an hour after George arrived home from a frantic 12-hour drive from Storrs, Conn. It was four days before her university graduation.
George returned to Connecticut, to the routine she knew best — school and track.
“I really used track after the fact to help with the grieving process,” she said. “I think maybe it was unrealistic of me to think I was going to run fast, but I really needed to be on the track just for that sense of normalcy, just to have my mind off of what happened.”
Clinching her spot on Canada’s Olympic team at the trials last month in Calgary brought overwhelming joy, and some sadness. She tweeted about how much she wished her mom was there to see it.
She posted on Twitter recently: “Just took a nap and had an amazing dream about my mom. Now I wish I hadn’t set my alarm. Until next time...”
George’s mom was her No. 1 supporter and her best friend. She burned through calling cards while away at Connecticut calling her mom daily.
“I would leave a class and just call her, ‘Hey, this is what happened in class.’ I spoke to her before every track meet, after every track meet,” George said.
“My first year my I was so nervous in my first meet and my boyfriend said something and I was like ‘Oh yeah, whatever.’ And then I spoke to my mom and they probably said the exactly same thing. . .but for whatever reason when she said it, it calmed my nerves.”
George nearly walked away from the sport a month after her mom’s death when she finished dead last at the Canadian championships in 13.71 seconds — her personal best is 12.72, set at the Olympic trials.
“I was just so emotional after that race, you get to the point where you’re tired of losing, I’m tired of working hard and not really getting anywhere,” she said. “A lot of that emotion was in the raw moment.
“Also I went through a lot of stuff within that year, I knew it wasn’t me at my best. I just felt I wasn’t giving myself a fair chance if I stopped, because I felt I could have done way more.”
George’s career has been on a swift ascent ever since. She made the final at the world championships last summer in Daegu, South Korea, but cramped up in the race.
When she does finally does call it a career, she has another waiting on the back-burner. George graduated with a 3.9 (out of 4.0) grade point average in neurobiology and plans to attend medical school. She shadowed doctors during university, has already written her MCAT, and has letters of recommendation.
For now, medical school will have to wait.
“When I left school, I initially said I was only going to do 2012 (Olympics) and then go to med school right after,” she said. “But I’m running way better than I actually anticipated, so I think now I might go to 2016.”
George briefly considered competing for Grenada. Both her mom and dad Paul were born there, and there was certainly no guarantee of making a Canadian squad that has a wealth of world-class women’s hurdlers.
“But when it came down to it, I knew I wanted to represent Canada, this is where I grew up, I don’t even really know the Grenadian national anthem,” she said. “And I really believed I was going to run fast, so I knew if I do what I’m supposed to do, I’ll be on the team. I didn’t want to go to the Olympics running slow or not being a competitor anyway, so if I was running fast I would make the Canadian team — that was my logic breaking it down.”
George joins Canadian teammates Jessica Zelinka of London, Ont., and Nikkita Holder of Pickering, Ont., in the women’s hurdles. The field is missing Canada’s Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, who won bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics — Canada’s only track and field medal of those Games. Lopes-Schliep hit a hurdle at the Olympic trials and failed to qualify.