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Amateur sportsHigh Stakes... High Hurdles... A Canadian Race

Posted: Thursday, June 28, 2012 | 11:07 AM

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Perdita Felicien, left, Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, Nikkita Holder, and Phylicia George ham it up in front of a bus mural prior to the start of the Timex Track and Field Trials at Foothills Athletic Park in Calgary on Tuesday. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press) Perdita Felicien, left, Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, Nikkita Holder, and Phylicia George ham it up in front of a bus mural prior to the start of the Timex Track and Field Trials at Foothills Athletic Park in Calgary on Tuesday. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

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The women's 100-metres hurdles final at the Canadian Track and Field Trials in Calgary will be run Saturday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 4 p.m. ET) and act as an Olympic qualifier for London.

The alluring thing about sport is that, at the best of times, it transcends the ordinary and goes beyond statistical analysis. At its best, sport becomes a spectacle. But you need certain ingredients for that to happen. 

Bonafide stars are required so that fans of the sport, or those who just observe, have identifiable characters to follow. One also needs to have something at stake. There needs to a line drawn in the sand which, when crossed at the end of the day, leaves the victors on one side and the vanquished on the other.

These three ingredients -- spectacle, stars and a heavy investment in the outcome -- makes for great drama and therefore a reason to truly care what happens -- a compelling reason to watch. 

Enter the spectacle.

The women's 100-metres hurdles final at the Canadian track and field championships in Calgary is such an event. This race, to be run Saturday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 4 p.m. ET) will act as the qualifier for the Olympic Games in London, which are now less than a month away. More importantly, the race features competition at the highest level possible and has a very Canadian complexion.

There are six hurdlers in this country who are amongst the best in the World. All have achieved the top standard required for Olympic inclusion. The great drama will unfold because only three of these deserving athletes can be included on the Canadian Olympic team. There are only that many spots on the roster.

Heptathlon is the specialty of Jessica Zelinka. She's one of the world's elite athletes over seven events, but she has achieved the "A" standard in the hurdles. She'll push the rest of the field and will try to make the final in Calgary. But if she wins one of the top three places, it's unlikely she'll elect to compete in the hurdles in London. She' a medal threat in her chosen event, the heptathlon, and wouldn't want to put her chances in jeopardy nor would she stand in the way of a highly ranked teammate with medal aspirations in the hurdles at the Olympics.

There are two younger players involved. One is Phylicia George, a 24-year-old from Markham, Ont, who made the final at the last world championships in South Korea. She is also the top-ranked 100m sprinter in Canada. There's a distinct chance she could appear in two high-profile events in London.

"I think, for a track athlete, the Olympics is the big show," George told me at the Donovan Bailey Invitational track meet in Edmonton. 

"It's been a dream of mine since I was very small to go to the Olympics so this is huge. I'm so excited about the possibility of going and competing. 

"There is no other way to say it. This would be a dream come true."

George's training mate is Nikkita Holder, a 25-year-old from East York, Ont., who was Canada's top finisher at the worlds in Daegu in September. She's the fiancée of Canada's 100-metre man, Justyn Warner, and a bit of a free spirit. Eminently likeable, Holder is also a ferocious competitor and she's not treating this chance as a dress rehearsal for the next time around.

"It'll definitely build character, no matter what happens on the field," Holder said of Saturday's big race. "Anything goes in those eight lanes and I'm just kind of excited to see what happens."

Then, there are the senior athletes gyrating towards defining moments in their careers. The first is the oldest, Angela Whyte of Edmonton. The consistent star, who appeared in the 100m final at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. As Perdita Felicien crashed, Whyte soldiered on and, eight years later, remains a contender.

"Anybody who's followed my career knows that I had knee surgery before the 2008 Olympics and it's just been a struggle since then because the knee surgery didn't work," Whyte said as she resolutely looked forward to the culmination of her comeback. 

"There can't be any regrets because, if you don't lay it all on the line and have that expectation to not have any regrets, then you don't get the job done."

'A statement for Canada'

Priscilla Lopes-Schliep of Whitby, Ont., won a bronze medal at the Olympics in Beijing in this event and followed that up with world championship silver in Berlin in 2009. After finishing second to Felicien at the 2010 Canadian championships, Lopes-Schliep took some time off to give birth to her first child, a daughter. That was a mere nine months ago and now she's rounding into top form as London approaches.

"It would be an amazing accomplishment for me after having the baby only months ago," she enthused. "It's just going out there, training hard and doing what I love doing and giving it my best shot on the day.

"Everyone has the standard, everyone is gunning for the finish and I'm looking forward to the crowd and the atmosphere and the intensity. We're all working hard, pushing each other to strive and be better and to make a statement for Canada."

Finally, there is Felicien.

Her tale has turned into Canadian sporting folklore.  Felicien, from Pickering, Ont., is a former world champion who was heavily favoured to win a gold medal in the 2004 Athens Games. She crashed into the first hurdle and her race was done. After missing the Beijing Games with a foot injury, she is in the twilight of her career with one last shot to get to her ultimate athletic destination.

"I'm really curious to know what my legacy can be," said the Calgary resident, a ten-time national champion. "I'm really curious to know how good I can be.

"At the end of the day, no matter what happens -- good, bad, ugly -- and whether I win or lose, it's just a sport."

It's true this is just a race coming up in Calgary. But it's a race that becomes a spectacle because it has a cast of stars who will give it their all with so much at stake. Three will celebrate, three will commiserate. There are no second chances with the Olympics at the other end of the track.

The bottom line being ... this is a great story.

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