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Owen Lockyer, with training partner Santiago Gaitan, is part of a cohort of young Canadian athletes struggling to get attention from varsity coaches.

handout/Handout

All that stood between Owen Lockyer and a roster spot on the cross-country team of his dream school, Columbia University, was 15 minutes of fast running.

The 17-year-old distance runner from St. Catharines, Ont., wanted to prove to potential recruiters that he was cut out to be a varsity athlete, but track and field races across Canada throughout his senior year of high school kept getting cancelled because of the pandemic. By October, 2020, Lockyer ran out of patience, and walked to the local track. He asked his father to time him and his mother and brother to get video footage, as he covered 5,000 metres in 14 minutes 53 seconds. The time, unofficially, was one of the top high-school results in the country.

“I was living in a world for months where one race would change the trajectory of my entire life,” said Lockyer, who was accepted into Columbia’s financial-economics program four months after sending his race video to his future coaches. “There was a lot of pressure on it.”

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Lockyer, who plans to move to New York in August, is part of a cohort of Canadian high school senior student-athletes who are struggling to elicit attention from varsity coaches, because they boast few-to-none official results since early 2020. In prepandemic times, fewer than 10 per cent of U.S. high school athletes went on to compete at the varsity level. While that data are not collected in Canada, some high school coaches believe this year’s national retention rate will be even lower than that, as the fall varsity season is fast approaching and sporting events continue to get cancelled.

“Getting recruited has been very stressful for the kids,” said Jill Cameron, Lockyer’s coach at Toronto West Athletics Running Club. “We were shut down here, while athletes in the States kept having opportunities to have official times.”

Cameron, who oversees more than a dozen high school distance runners who hope to make varsity teams next year, said her club has organized a series of videotaped, physically distanced time trials so that the athletes have something to send to university coaches. She said those videos, while unofficial, are the best current way to draw attention on fast-improving athletes. Laura Kuszaj, who is coached by Cameron, has shaved nearly four minutes off her 5,000-metre time since the start of the pandemic, and her latest result of 17:43 makes her a coveted recruit for coaches across the country. Yet, Kuszaj is finding it difficult to secure a scholarship because she did not run that time in a race.

“It’s still not the same as an official result,” said the 17-year-old from Milton, Ont. “I think coaches want more proof and across different distances to negotiate an offer.”

While some coaches may be hesitant to accept time trials as legitimate, others feel it necessary to do so. Mike Peterson, head cross-country coach at the University of Prince Edward Island, said he is especially empathetic this year when evaluating potential recruits.

“The beauty of track is that times don’t lie,” he said. “But more than usual, you have to trust a kid when they say they’ve run something.”

Peterson said recruiting is just as stressful for coaches as for athletes. A continuing moratorium on in-person recruiting visits implemented by U Sports in March of 2020 has made it challenging for him to convince runners from afar to join his relatively new team, which has only been competing in the national circuit since 2015.

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“Usually, Charlottetown is a big selling point for runners, and now they can’t see that.”

To facilitate recruiting, Peterson started using Streamlineathletes.com, a new Canadian platform that helps high school track and field athletes connect with university coaches. On the website, athletes can make a free profile that includes their latest results, and use it to contact coaches across North America. Streamline Athletes co-founders Alexandre Paré and Brett Montrose said they’ve seen a marked increase in their website from coaches since the start of the pandemic, and hope their platform’s growing popularity helps athletes get noticed in a trying time.

“Now more than ever,” he said, “athletes can get missed, and we want to make sure everyone has a chance at getting recruited.”

The pandemic has also wreaked havoc on the recruiting process of Canadian high school swimmers, as most races and high school championships across the country, with the exception of Atlantic Canada, continue to get cancelled. Tina Hoeben, head coach at KISU Swim Club in Penticton, B.C., has 11 seniors in the club’s high-performance stream who have not raced officially since the start of the pandemic. Small time trials were permitted in B.C. for a few weeks in 2020, but races were banned again before the club could organize an event. Since then, the province’s spring swim meets, often an athlete’s last chances at impressing college coaches, were also cancelled.

Hoeben’s swimmers have to content themselves with occasionally wearing their race suits at practice to simulate competition, and virtual racing options are becoming increasingly common. But, just as in track and field, time trials are not seen as the real thing. Recruiters, said Hoeben, sometimes prefer to consult year-old statistics.

“A lot of 2021 grads are recruited on their 2019 results,” Hoeben said. “That may be fine for the fastest athletes … but others on the edge of making teams, without results this year, have decided not to pursue it.”

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Greta Zapparoli, an exchange student from Italy, joined KISU Swim Club in early 2020, with the hope of staying in Canada after high school to compete at the varsity level. So far, she has been accepted to two Canadian universities, but her prepandemic results are only fast enough to guarantee her a spot on one of the school’s swim teams. Regardless, she must make her decision by May 1.

“I’m working hard, and I know the work will show one day,” said Zapparoli, who feels confident she has progressed well beyond her latest results, which date from 2019.

“I just can’t show it to [recruiters] right now … it’s been a challenge.”

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