Derek Drouin had conflicting thoughts when he boarded a flight to Europe for his first major international meet in years.
“I was obviously quite nervous,” Drouin said. “I didn’t want to go there and essentially make myself look like a fool.”
Canada’s Olympic high jump champion, whose career has been mired by a long list of injuries, is hoping to clinch a spot on the team for the Tokyo Games. The recent Diamond League meet in Doha, Qatar, was his first appearance on the Diamond League circuit since 2017, and first major meet since 2019.
For all the trepidation he felt on that transatlantic flight, it was erased by the warm welcome he got from competitors he hadn’t seen in years. It felt like coming home.
“The number of athletes that came up to me with a big smile on their face and said, ‘I’m so happy to have you back. It’s so good to see you again. Welcome back,’ that’s been really heartwarming for me,” Drouin said in a phone interview from Finland. “So, I definitely feel like I’ve been welcomed back with open arms. That’s been the coolest part of being out there again.
“I feel like the competitive juices are still there, and they’re flowing for sure. But, the camaraderie amongst the other jumpers has been probably the most special thing to me.”
The 31-year-old from Corunna, Ont., competes Thursday at the Espoo Motonet Grand Prix in hopes of either gaining precious world ranking points to help him secure a Tokyo Olympic berth, or even better, clear the automatic Olympic qualifying height of 2.33 metres.
His career best is the Canadian record of 2.40 he set in 2014.
Drouin cleared 2.24 to finish fifth in Doha, a remarkable return that gave him important world ranking points toward Tokyo qualifying and confirmed his comeback decision.
“I felt like I was going to know right away,” Drouin said. “I was either going to get there and think well, ‘I’m really glad to be back. This is awesome. I’ve really missed doing this.’ Or I’m going to get there and think, ‘Uhhh, I don’t think this is for me anymore.’ I was just really nervous to get this first one out of the way.
“But I’m really loving it. I’m really happy to be back. I’m having a good time. I don’t know, you know what the end of this Olympic qualifying period is going to look like. But right now I can say that I’m really, really happy that I’m trying.”
There’d been a ton of self-doubt since his Olympic gold five years ago.
“I’ve spent more time in the last few years thinking there’s absolutely no way,” Drouin said. “I would love to obviously be in Tokyo, but at some point, I think you have to be realistic and think: look at everything you’ve been through, maybe this isn’t in the cards.
“If you had told me a year ago, or even six months ago, you’re going to jump 2.24 in your first meet, I would say, ‘Okay, that’s better than I thought, maybe I can do this.’ So, I’m really proud right now of how close we are.”
Impressively close, consider he’s endured a list of injuries so long it reads like an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. The 6-foot-4 Drouin won Olympic bronze in 2012 with two screws in a surgically repaired ankle.
He went on to win the 2015 world championships, then gold at the 2016 Rio Games, but revealed after Brazil that he’d competed there with a double stress fracture in his spine that had been diagnosed barely two months before the Olympics and had him struggling some days just to get out of bed.
The first of three Achilles tears sidelined him for the 2017 world championships. A herniated disc in his neck which required surgery shelved his 2018 season. Achilles injury No. 2 all but wiped out 2019.
Then came the global pandemic, which coincided with his first injury-free year in a long time.
“I’d like to think that if 2020 had been a normal season, we would have seen me back out there last year, but I’m not going to lie, the extra year leading into the [postponed] Olympics I think is definitely benefiting me,” Drouin said. “I still kind of feel like I’m racing against the clock.”
A clock that’s been ticking louder since he suffered his third Achilles injury this past January, and was in a walking cast for several weeks.
He’s injury-free now. But pain-free?
“When I look back at my career, there’s very few times where I could say that I was 100 per cent pain-free,” he said. “But I definitely feel like my body is in a condition that I can jump. It’s just right now trying to work around the fact that I didn’t get, obviously, the preparation that I would have loved to have had. So that confidence from a full season of training isn’t there.
“But I like to look back on a whole career and think, you’ve got this sort of experience to rely on. Maybe you’re really not in the exact level of fitness that you would like, but there’s always some place to draw a little bit of confidence from.”
Drouin, who was only allowed to start jumping into actual high jump pits in April due to COVID-19 restrictions in Ontario, also draws confidence from the strong performance of Canadian teammates. Damian Warner recently shattered his decathlon Canadian record with one of the best scores in history – despite spending the winter training in an unheated hockey arena.
“When I see that, I’m like, gosh, I don’t know how these athletes are doing this,” he said. “But at the same time, if they could do it, I can do it.”
After Thursday’s meet in Espoo, Drouin will compete at the Canadian championships, June 24-27 in Montreal. He’s excited to jump against Michael Mason, who’s currently ranked No. 6 in the world and Django Lovett (No. 25) in what he said has always been one of his favourite meets.
The one big drawback is the federal government’s 14-day quarantine requirement immediately upon landing in Toronto – far from ideal preparation for an Olympic athlete.
“I’ve set myself up for when I come back to give myself the best chance of coming out of 14 days ready to compete. So, is it ideal? Absolutely not. We’re kind of going to look at it as sort of a mini-taper, an unintentional taper,” said Drouin, who is fully vaccinated.