LANGLEY, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Just steps from the finish line, Evan Dunfee raised his fist twice and smiled, a moment of pure joy in what has been a frustrating year since his thrilling bronze medal triumph at the Olympics. from Tokyo.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Dunfee said. “Coming here today was just to test… I’m very pleasantly surprised and happy with how it went today, and now he continues to recover and hopefully take this pace from today and extend it another 15k over 35 (kilometers, the world) distance from the championship)”.
The 31-year-old from Richmond, BC, captured his ninth Canadian race walking title on Wednesday, pulling away from world bronze medalist Ben Thorne by some 18 kilometers in the 20K event at Mission Raceway, normally the home of motorsports, crossing in an hour 23 minutes 28.30 seconds.
Dunfee had been dealing with a nagging hamstring injury for months, but his mental health has taken the biggest hit. She suffered from the post-Olympic depression that many athletes describe, and for which an Olympic medal is clearly not a guaranteed cure. She was also knocked out of her best event, the Olympic 50K, after she lobbied so hard on the International Olympic Committee to keep her in the Games.
“There were a lot of factors there with the hamstring injury, and then not dealing properly with losing the 50K. And just trying to get through it without mourning the fact that it was gone,” Dunfee said.
Athletes find solace in physical activity.
“But in those moments when training wasn’t pain-free, it turned into something else that was taking away my motivation,” Dunfee said.
He eventually contacted Canadian team doctor Paddy McCluskey and his sports psychologist Kirsten Barnes.
“So, it’s been a struggle for a lot of that time, I definitely feel like I’m getting a little better now. And life in general feels pretty good,” Dunfee said.
Play recreational hockey for fun. He likes to talk to kids and just finished signing 1,700 autograph cards to send to the schools he has spoken at this year. And of course, there is the choice. Dunfee, who is passionate about issues like affordable housing, is running for Richmond city council in the fall.
“Things have certainly been better in the last month and a half, two months or so,” Dunfee said.
Dunfee has already secured his spot for the world championships next month in Eugene, Oregon, while Thorne, who is making a comeback after stepping away from the sport in 2018, is hoping to secure a spot.
Thorne and Dunfee took turns sharing the lead before Thorne, a 29-year-old from Kitimat, BC, faded away to finish second in 1:24.02.64.
“Can’t complain, that’s my fastest time since 2018, which isn’t saying much,” said Thorne, who was battling foot pain and an upset stomach in the final 5km. “Once Evan passed me, it was like: bonk! Out the back.”
Joean Lu won the senior women’s 20km walk race in 1:53.00.75.
While Dunfee has been pondering the end of his career, he’s not sure when that will be. As the season began, he thought this might be his last.
“But I don’t want to finish it in a year where I haven’t been able to give it my all,” he said. “So, that motivated me to keep going for next year.”
Staying in Budapest is a big draw. While world championships normally take place every two years, this summer’s ones have been pushed back from 2021 due to the pandemic, so the next worlds are just a year away in Hungary.
Dunfee is one of the headliners at the Canadian Championships, which are being held in front of a crowd for the first time in three years.
And while fans won’t get a chance to cheer on Olympic stars Damian Warner and Andre De Grasse, there are numerous places on the world championship squad that will be hotly contested this week.
“It’s great to get the best Canadians back together, to compete against each other, even if the (Tokyo) Olympics were a bit strange (no crowd), and a bit scattered with the marathon runners in a different city and all kinds of weird stuff,” said Simon Nathan, director of high performance for Athletics Canada.
“So it’s really good to be back here. Nice, cool track (McLeod Athletic Park), I’m hoping for a good crowd and some hype and a lot of ratings on the line right now – it’s exciting, it gives it a bit of oomph.”
De Grasse, a six-time Olympic medalist, recently contracted COVID-19, while Warner will miss the competition due to knee pain that has been bothering him all season. Both received injury/illness waivers.
“Andre and Damian are short-term problems that shouldn’t affect the world championships,” Nathan said.
De Grasse’s positive test was “a really unfortunate moment,” he added. Recovering from a foot injury earlier in the season, he posted a season best 10.05 to win the 100m at the Oslo Diamond League last week.
“He hadn’t had the best season, but he changed things… But I understand it’s not too serious,” Nathan said.
Moh Ahmed, the Olympic silver medalist in the 5,000m, is also ruled out of the events with an injury, but it is not expected to affect his world championships.
“There’s definitely a lot more (injuries) than I’d like,” Nathan said. “There’s a bit of a post-Olympic effect, which happens every cycle. And then that, combined with such a short season until the next Olympics (2024 in Paris), I think people have been pushing hard.”
“On the other hand, if you’re going to get hurt, now is the time to do it,” he added.
COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the Canadian championships in 2020, and then last year’s Olympic trials were held with small groups of competitors in each event in an empty stadium in Montreal.
Some of the weekend’s highlights include Marco Arop and Brandon McBride in the 800m. The two world class riders are separated by just 0.06 seconds in their personal best times.
Nate Riech, who holds three Paralympic world records, will run the 1,500m able-bodied. Camryn Rogers just captured a third NCAA title in the hammer throw. Ella’s Canadian record release last week is her ninth all-time in the world. And high jumper Django Lovett has gold and bronze on the Diamond League circuit this season.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 22, 2022.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press