Feature15 Jul 2020

Canadian Olympians taking Covid-19 restrictions in stride


Canada's Mohammed Ahmed after taking 5000m bronze at the 2019 World Championships (© Getty Images)

As the world combats the effects of Covid-19 what passed for normal has been scrapped, putting undue pressure on Canadian Olympians preparing for an uncertain future. They have met with mixed fortunes.

Moh Ahmed has epitomised what is possible, stunning the athletics world with a new North American 5000m record of 12:47.20 which makes him the tenth fastest man in history. That sublime performance was achieved in a Bowerman Track Club intra squad meeting on 10 July.

The fact that the race was run on Portland’s Jesuit High School track, adhering to the local county rules capping the number of people gathering at 25, is even more remarkable. But Ahmed’s strongest quality is perhaps his incredible focus.

“I just tried to control what I can control like my emotions and how to deal with the uncertainties,” he explains. “With 16 months until the Olympics we had to balance things, taking one day at a time.

“We were split into groups of three. I was training with Lopez Lomong and Grant Fisher and we worked really well together.”

Whereas the team normally met as a large group at the tree-lined oval on Nike’s main campus Ahmed reveals they were often searching for a place to meet for track sessions once their home base was ‘out of commission.’

“We ran into facility issues like everybody else. Slowly we were able to get back into more rhythm,” he recalls. “Fortunately we found some tracks all over the area. We were going 30 minutes this way and thirty minutes that way.”

Workouts on the track were sometimes in the morning and sometimes in late afternoon, depending on the availability of the track. They tried to avoid the busiest times when members of the public were usually present. That was necessary to avoid violating restrictions on the number of people using the facility at the same time. The group also managed an eight-week high altitude training camp in Park City, Utah when restrictions were eased in that state. That required a 12-hour drive each way.

Ahmed who has been healthy with nothing but minor physical complaints this past decade has missed regular physiotherapy treatments. He relied on Zoom meetings with his Vancouver, Canada based therapist and gave himself massages using a lacrosse ball.

Having achieved a 5000m personal best, which is more congruent with the 2019 World Championships bronze medal he earned in Doha, he would love to test himself against the world’s best but isn’t holding out much hope.

“Honestly, it would be nice to get an international competition, for sure. That’s who you really compare yourself to and how much progress you have made,” he declares. “So I really do wish for that. I just don’t think it's really going to happen because of all the obstacles you have to overcome. You have the travel you have to do these tests. You are taking risks flying across the pond and taking a chance at potentially contracting the virus overseas. There all those types of risks.”

Levins’s search for Tokyo qualifier

Across the city of Portland Canadian marathon record holder Cam Levins has not been as fortunate with his Olympic preparations. His debut race in the 2018 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon yielded the record of 2:09:25 but that was before the 2020 Olympic qualifying period began. He had planned to race in the 2020 Rotterdam marathon on 5 April to get the standard.

“Rotterdam was one of the last marathons at that time to actually cancel,” he recalls. “So I was kind of holding out hope. And, I was over in Kenya at the time training and I was mostly trying to get out of Kenya. Then I was thinking ‘what do I do now?’

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I have been training in Kenya for the last 3 weeks and had planned to stay until the Rotterdam marathon (now postponed). COVID-19 is an unprecedented situation with constantly evolving information. Events are being cancelled or rescheduled daily and what is currently still scheduled in ~4 weeks may still require cancellation that we cannot anticipate. I am in great shape and would love to run any available race, as I still do need Olympic qualifying standard. However, at the suggestion of my coach, my agent and my governing body the recommendation is to return home to await future instruction. My individual health risk is low, but social distancing is an act of generosity and solidarity for the benefit of others. I support the efforts of all government and athletic leaders who have made the difficult decisions to disrupt the lives of so many to help control the escalation of this disease and protect our most vulnerable populations. If the Tokyo Olympics do indeed take place this summer, I urge the International Olympic Committee, World Athletics and Athletics Canada to take this global crisis into consideration when naming all competing athletes. 📸/tunes: @lukakiptangkandi . . . #running #runnersofinstagram #runningmotivation #runner #runningcommunity #marathontraining #kenya🇰🇪 #canadians #camada #mountainrange #tokyo2020 #training #instafit #runnerslife #trainingdays

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“Countries were starting to close borders and Kenya specifically was really worried about it. They didn’t have any Covid cases so they were really concerned about flights coming in and going out. I think it took me double the amount of time to get home. Part of that was having flights cancelled.”

Once he arrived home he connected with his coach Jim Finlayson and the pair agreed to go into a period of maintaining fitness without taking risks.

“After Rotterdam was cancelled we just went into this stage of restarting the build and not going too, too hard. Part of it was that I was not able to get therapy and massage,” he explains.

“It has been a balance of staying healthy more so than what race I am going to do. Once we know what that is - I will probably know a couple of months out - and I should be able to build up from where I am. I have been keeping things stable, maintaining, and not going crazy.”

Levins’s wife Elizabeth is a pharmacist at a local Portland hospital and with all the documented fear amongst frontline healthcare workers he is putting on a brave face.

“Even though she is technically in an environment where she could, potentially, have more exposure than most, the hospital takes precautions,” he admits. “There’s probably not really that high a risk. I am not going to worry about it. I still try to avoid interactions with others - just in case.”

Levins fully expects to be on the starting line of the Olympics presuming they are held in 2021. First he must find a race in which to qualify. 

“I have certainly looked into Fukuoka on December 6th,” he reveals. “I am not 100% sure but I have got to imagine that is potentially happening.”

Balancing childcare with training

While Levins and his wife don’t have children at this point the issue of childcare is foremost in the mind of Canadian 800m record holder Melissa Bishop-Nriagu. The 2015 World Championships silver medallist gave birth to her daughter, Corinne, in 2018 and had relied on professional childcare to get her training in.

“I think the biggest adjustment we have had to make is childcare,” says the 32 year old. “My husband worked full time through all of Covid and still is, so it wasn’t as easy as it was to drop off Corinne and go and do what I had to do in a day for workouts. We had to plan workouts around it. It is still the toughest thing to deal with right now.


Melissa Bishop wins the PanAm 800m title


"Two other things that have been challenging: we have had no facilities and no therapy. I can get massage right now at least as Windsor moved into phase two and facility wise we are jumping fences to get on tracks because we don’t have anywhere else to train.”

Bishop is a self-professed goal oriented athlete so when the Olympics were cancelled she took a week and a half off training to deal with the emotional side of things. She wondered, “What am I training for?”

“Since then, the training has been the same,” Bishop admits. “My husband and I put a gym in our basement just before Covid happened so I had access to all the weight facilities I needed, It was still March so it was still kind of cold out and we wouldn’t be on the track anyway. So I was able to do a lot of my runs on the streets and on the trails. Once it started warming up we started jumping fences to get on tracks and, so far other than therapy and obviously no races, things have been fairly consistent.”

Bishop intends to test herself periodically with time trials to put herself through race scenarios. As a two-time Olympian (she was fourth in at the 2016 Olympics) she knows what she must do to compete with the world’s best when permitted.

“Actually I think this is a blessing in disguise for me and my team,” says Bishop, who will be 33 in Tokyo. “I had Corinne in 2018 and coming back from pregnancy has been a whole different ball game. I really feel in my heart I would have been ready to perform in 2020 but 2021 gives me one extra year to get everything back in order.”

Warner puts his ability to improvise to the test

Bishop lives in Windsor, Ontario, just across the US border with Detroit. It is one of the regions hardest hit by Covid-19 cases, along with Greater Toronto, and is therefore subject to longer periods of restrictions by the Ontario Provincial government. Just two hours east in London restrictions are being lifted more quickly and that is just fine with Damian Warner the 2016 Olympic decathlon bronze medallist. The past four months has tested his and his coaches’ ability to improvise.


Damian Warner in the decathlon at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019


“In London, all the tracks that we have are university owned,” he laments, “With the university being closed that messed some things up. Then we have some other tracks that are high school owned but they slowly got closed. We were running out of places to go. We found one place we are using but we still don’t have a place where we can do jumps.

“It is true that some of my competitors are able to pole vault and jump and we are not able to do that now but we have taken this time to work on some other things. Luckily enough we just got a pole yesterday so we have been able to do some pole vault runs. We have been trying to be creative and do whatever we can to stay on top of things so that once things do open up we are starting in a better place.”

Unable to practice jumps he and his coaches have been using the time to improve on his weakest events - the shot put, discus and javelin.

Brown: ‘We know we can’t take a half year off and be ready for Tokyo’

While Canada has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic as well as any other country, the epicentre of the outbreak, at the moment, is in the US state of Florida where Canadian sprinter Aaron Brown is living and training.

The Olympic 4x100m relay bronze medallist has taken all the precautions necessary with the help of his wife Preeya, who is a hospital nurse. He wears a mask, uses hand sanitizer and limits his social interactions.


Aaron Brown at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019


“With the nature of both of our jobs we are around a lot of people,” Brown says. “Hers is a bit more risky because she is at hospital where there are confirmed cases. Most of the time, I don’t know if it’s by luck or chance but she is not in the same rooms as the people who have tested positive. But they do make you wear all this protective gear.

“So far it has worked. We have had to trust the system. Being married to someone on the front lines that comes with the territory.”

Brown, who finished sixth in the 200m and eighth in the 100m at last year’s World Championships, found it difficult initially to continue training when news of the Olympics being postponed spread.

“It is hard to have the same hunger knowing that there is no Olympics at the end of the road which is a big motivator for a lot of people but we still had to grind it out,” he explains. “It’s how we make a living and if there is any kind of season we have to prepare and set up for next year. We know we can’t take a half year off and be ready for Tokyo.” 

But he was one of several sprinters to compete in a social distance meeting in Montverde, Florida on 4 July. He finished thirrd in the 100m final (10.20) behind Kenneth Bednarek (10.14) and Andre De Grasse (10.17).

“Everybody had to wear their masks up until their race,” he reports. “When we raced we were one lane apart to keep our distance. We would race and then go back to our group. We didn’t interact between races. We are still competing against each other but we are not interacting with each other. And everybody had their temperature taken when we came in.”

Brown would of course like to compete internationally but knows that it is unlikely in the foreseeable future. Travelers from the US are not welcome in European Union countries and if he were to return to Canada he would be required to submit to a 14-day quarantine period.

Despite the challenges these Canadians face there is no doubt that through creativity and with incredible fortitude they will make their presence known once a sense of normalcy is established.

Paul Gains for World Athletics