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Cameron Levins ends century-long cold streak with spot in 5,000-metre final

Canada's Cameron Levins runs a personal best in his men's 5000m round 1 heat during the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium August 8, 2012.


Canada has been shut out of a few Olympic events over the years, but how about a 100-year drought?

That's how long it has been since a Canadian took part in the final of the men's 5,000 metres. The dry spell ended Wednesday, when Cameron Levins qualified for Saturday's final with relative ease, running a personal-best 13 minutes 18.29 seconds (the eighth-best qualifying time for the 15-man race).

The last Canadian to make the 5,000 final was Alex Decoteau of Edmonton, who finished sixth at the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm.

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It's probably fitting Levins is about as familiar to Canadians as Decoteau.

The unassuming native of Black Creek, B.C., went largely unnoticed even to track fans until April, when he ran 13:18.47 in the 5,000 and 27:27.96 in the 10,000 metres. In the span of a couple of weeks, he slashed more than 20 seconds off his best 5,000 time and came close to breaking the Canadian record for the 10,000 in his first attempt at that distance.

"It has sort of turned into more than I might have expected," Levins said Wednesday. "It has been a lot of fun."

By any measure, his improvement has been dramatic. Four years ago, as a freshman at Southern Utah University, Levins barely broke 15 minutes in the 5,000 - a time more akin to the high-school level than U.S. NCAA Division 1.

He stuck with it, and his times began to fall. He has cut nine seconds off his 800-metres time and 20 seconds off his 1,500-metres time.

Levins has been running since Grade 2, when teachers dragged the kids out for a cross-country run. He tried basketball for a while, but concentrated on track in high school. Never hockey.

"Dad is a football coach and I think he really likes those contact sports, but I never even tried it," Levins said.

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Even still, his times coming out of high school were so ordinary he had to promote himself on a website to try and get a scholarship. He landed one at Southern Utah, a small school nestled in the mountains.

Through his years of college, Levins distinguished himself in cross country and, by 2010, he had become a top collegiate runner. In the summers, he would return home to Black Creek on Vancouver Island and work for his father's lawn-care business.

"I would run the morning, work eight hours with my dad in lawn care, run again afterwards, have dinner and run again," Levins recalled.

After his breakthrough races in April, Levins didn't look back. In June, he won the NCAA 5,000 and 10,000 titles, then took the 5,000 at the Canadian championships before heading to London.

He ran his first Olympic race last Saturday, in the 10,000 metres, while his parents, Gus and Barb, and brother, Jordan, watched from the stands. He stuck with the leaders until the last lap and finished 11th in 27:40.68.

The race taught him a lot. While the time wasn't as fast as he had run before, the effort was much harder because of the surging tactics used by the Africans.

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"I was definitely more confident this time than going through the [10,000]," he said Wednesday. "In the [10,000], I was just concerned about trying to stay with the front pack and this time I was like, 'You can run with these guys.'"

Levins isn't intimidated by the big names in the final field, although he said running in a heat Wednesday with his hero, Bernard Lagat, was a dream come true. And he doesn't buy arguments runners from Ethiopia or Kenya are naturally better than North Americans.

"I don't care what their skin colour is, where they are from, everyone is human. I feel like I can train just as hard as anybody else to get that good," Levins said. "Are Canadians genetically good at hockey? No they are not. Same thing."

For now, he is concentrating on the 5,000 final, a few more races in Europe, and maybe the Canadian record of 13:13.96 (set by Jeff Schiebler in 1998).

Levins is now a full-time runner, thanks to a sponsorship from apparel maker Nike Inc., and he's ready to take on anyone.

"The world isn't unbeatable," he said.

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