Any other year, Canadians would likely be overjoyed to see three women post terrific times and advance to the semi-finals in a marquee track and field event.
But this isn’t exactly any other year.
The women’s 100-metres hurdles will be front and centre at Olympic Stadium on Tuesday, with a Canadian in all three semis – and just as much focus on who isn’t there.
The nation’s big-name hurdles queens, Perdita Felicien and Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, are nowhere to be found. Instead, it falls to the trio of Jessica Zelinka, Phylicia George and Nikkita Holder – who all came in at 12.93 seconds or less and not far off their personal bests in Monday’s heats – to try and prove all is not lost.
This goes back to the national trials this summer. Because of the depth of the field, with six women having already met the Olympic-qualifying standard, it became a do-or-die event, even for the likes of a former world champ (Felicien) or Olympic medalist (Lopes-Schliep).
So, they all ran. The two former champs lost. And they reluctantly passed the torch.
The decision to put it all on that one race – a method commonplace in the United States, where the trials can be as tough to get out of in some events as Olympic semi-finals – has been widely criticized, but it speaks to the quality of Canadian women in the event.
This chaotic race of rhythmic runs and jumps has become a specialty in Canada, with even Lopes-Schliep’s 12.64 medal-winning time at the 2008 Beijing Olympics well within reach for all three women at these Games.
Zelinka’s sparkling 12.65 mark in the heptathlon last weekend proved that, even before Monday’s heats.
“I was confident in any of those women getting through to a final,” Athletics Canada head coach Alex Gardiner said, including the absent Felicien, Lopes-Schliep and Angela Whyte in that group. “They’ve all been to a final at a major championship. We knew they could be there.”
While Canadians may not quite realize what they have in the half-dozen world-class hurdlers that battled for the nation’s three berths, the athletes hardly seem daunted. They all simply see their times and how close they are to the best in the world.
“Hopefully, all three of us can medal,” Holder said, raising the possibility of a Canadian sweep. “You never know – anything can happen on the track.”
What happened in this event in Beijing was that anything less than 12.86 was good enough to make the final, and all three Canadians here are wholly capable of that mark.
Putting more than one woman into the final eight would, obviously, dramatically increase the chance of one winning a medal – especially with how quickly a missed hurdle can take a contender out of the race.
“The belief is we can get more than one into the final,” Gardiner said. “Can we get three? Not impossible.”
It is the kind of depth Canada lacks in every other track and field event, and what really ultimately kept Felicien and Lopes-Schliep at home. Now, it’s a plus in London. And the kind of advantage a country such as the United States often enjoys in these events.
All of the hopes aren’t on one athlete, and all it may take is one outstanding race for a new face to hit the podium.
“We definitely have enough women to run a women’s 4x100,” George said of the as-yet-nonexistent hurdles relay. “That’d be great for future years.”
For Canada, it certainly would. And a team like that may even win over a few of the skeptics.