Marco Arop was a star-struck 17-year-old watching the men’s 800-metre final at the Canadian track and field championships in 2016.
“I remember a friend of mine saying ‘That’s Brandon McBride, he just placed second at NCAAs,’ and I thought ‘It’s going to be awhile until I can be at his level,“’ Arop said. “And here I am. It’s crazy.”
Sunday, McBride and the rest of the men’s 800 field watched Arop from behind as the 19-year-old from Edmonton fearlessly led wire-to-wire to win the Canadian title in his senior debut.
And in a Canadian championship missing some of its top stars, Arop became one.
“Everything is going right for me right now,” Arop said through a wide smile. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
The six-foot-four Arop had dabbled in track in elementary school and junior high, but had hitched his college dreams to a basketball scholarship until the track coach at Blessed Oscar Romero High School convinced him – finally – to run track in his Grade 12 year.
He then delayed college for a year to work with coach Ron Thompson at Edmonton’s Voleo Athletic Club. And last month, in his freshman season for Mississippi State, he raced to a surprise silver medal at the NCAA championships, crossing in a fast one minute 45.25 seconds.
Canada had been short on 800-metre men since Gary Reed – still the Canadian record-holder at 1:43.68 – retired in 2010. Then along came McBride, who boasts a best time of 1:43.95, and was eighth at last summer’s world championships.
But it was Arop who dominated Sunday’s race at a sun-drenched Terry Fox Stadium, powering out to the lead in the first 100 metres, and running with nothing but open track in front of him the rest of his way. He won in 1:46.15, ahead of a closing McBride, who was second in 1:46.42.
“It’s a feeling that I can’t even explain,” Arop said of running in the lead. “I was so afraid of Brandon, I thought he was going to out-kick me with 200 to go, and that just encouraged me to kick even harder.
“I could just feel him there, he’s so much stronger than I am, he has that kick, but today just wasn’t the day for him.”
Arop was born in Khartoum, Sudan. The civil war had forced his parents to flee to Khartoum from their home in Abyei. The family then emigrated to Egypt when Arop was two, and eventually to Saskatoon. The family of eight – Arop has five brothers – finally settled in Edmonton.
Arop’s victory Sunday clinched his spot in next month’s NACAC championships – for athletes from North American, Central America and the Caribbean. He and McBride could combine for a forceful 1-2 punch for Canada in next year’s world championships and the 2020 Olympics.
“It really motivates me,” the 24-year-old McBride said of Arop. “I’m just happy that there’s a few of us out there now that are running around (Olympic and world qualifying) standard . . . hopefully we can have a full roster of 800 runners going to the Olympics and the world championships.”
McBride hinted at some recent upheaval in his life, on both the personal and track side.
“No excuses though, my legs just didn’t have it in the last 100 metres like they usually do,” McBride said. “No excuse, I just didn’t have it.”
Lindsey Butterworth of North Vancouver, B.C., continues to flirt with the elusive two-minute mark, winning the 800 metres in a personal best 2:00.87. Only five women in Canadian history have dipped below two minutes.
“I think just continuing to go out a little bit faster each time, and closing in the same way, I think I’ll just be able to gradually get that time down,” Butterworth said. “My training partner Jessica Smith was the fourth woman to go under two minutes, so that’s always been inspiring for me. It’s definitely hard to do, it’s not easy, but I think it’s possible.”
Canada’s record-holder in the event Melissa Bishop was one of the stars missing from this week’s event. Bishop gave birth to her first child, daughter Corinne, on Monday. Also missing due to injury were Olympic and world champion high jumper Derek Drouin, and Alysha Newman, the Commonwealth Games gold medallist in pole vault.
Sprint star Andre De Grasse pulled up with a hamstring injury in Saturday’s semifinals of the 200 metres.
The NACAC championships are Aug. 10-12 at the University of Toronto’s Varsity Stadium.