Canadian distance runner Cam Levins enjoyed a superb U.S. collegiate career, culminating in a splendid 5,000-metre/10,000-metre double victory for Southern Utah University at the 2012 NCAA championships.
Those titles also earned him the 2012 Bowerman Award as the NCAA's top male track and field athlete.
But since then, apart from a few flashes of brilliance, his career has largely been plagued by misfortune.
The 28-year-old from Black Creek, B.C., who turned professional with the Nike Oregon Project under controversial coach Alberto Salazar, hopes that surgery to repair broken bones in his left foot last July has paved the way to a comeback.
"It was very difficult having to watch the Rio Olympics from my couch on crutches," says Levins, who finished 11th in the 10,000 at the 2012 London Olympics and 14th in the 5,000.
Levins points to his 2014 Commonwealth Games 10,000 bronze medal and the Canadian 10,000 record of 27:07.51 he set at the 2015 Prefontaine Classic Diamond League meet as personal career highlights, but admits he expected much more when he turned professional.
"[Before the surgery] I was in a lot more discomfort than I realized. It was something I adapted to. I think really positive about the future and there are definitely things in my training that are going better than they were before the surgery."
Now he's eyeing a return to competition next month.
"We're looking at various meets, maybe the BAA 10k in Boston [on June 25] and maybe doing one of the Portland [track] meets just before that," Levins says. "We're not quite sure the distance yet, just getting to the point where I think I can start racing. I think it would be good for me."
'It gives me hope'
Levins says the world championships in London this August are "something I would like to do" but he doesn't know how quickly he'll be able to get back in form.
"I honestly don't know how I'll do until I start racing again. I don't have a really clear idea of where I am," he says. "I'll let my body and foot guide me as to how much I can do and keep moving forward."
The qualifying standards for the 5,000 and 10,000 in London are 13:22.60 and 27:45.00, respectively. It would help if Levins can resume training with club mates such as four-time Olympic gold medallist Mo Farah and two-time Olympic silver medallist Galen Rupp in the coming weeks. Since the surgery, he has primarily trained alone.
Levins's struggles have coincided with the rise of Mo Ahmed of St Catharines, Ont., who has supplanted him as the top Canadian distance runner. Both are sponsored by Nike, though Ahmed runs for the rival Nike Bowerman Track Club. The two often bump into each other around Portland and are friends.
Levins says he was inspired by watching Ahmed finish an outstanding fourth in the Rio Olympic 5,000 final and also smash the Canadian 5,000 record (13:01.74) at the 2016 Pre Classic.
"I look at what he has done and it gives me hope for the future in my career," Levins says. "Things aren't over for me.
"I feel now that I have had the surgery, ultimately things will end up differently. I know if I can get things more consistent and put in the training I need to, I can get the results."
Although he lives in Portland, Levins remains acutely aware that Jerome Drayton's Canadian marathon record of 2:10:09 is now 42 years old, and that the country's top marathoners have tried and failed to beat it.
Watching Rupp and fellow NOP teammate Suguru Osako of Japan finish second and third, respectively, at the Boston Marathon in April further whetted Levins's appetite for the longer distance. And with Salazar, a former Boston and New York Marathon winner, coaching him, he's contemplating a marathon debut perhaps as early as this fall.
"It's something I've been thinking about a lot. It's a race I can do very well at," Levins says. "It makes sense that it's something to try this year."
As for taking a run at Drayton's record, Levins says he'll know more after that all-important comeback race gives him a chance to assess his fitness.
"I feel that when I'm in shape and prepared, yeah, I think it's a fair target and something I can do. I know the marathon has some unknowns to it as well. But I feel like I have a lot of tools as a distance runner than can make me a good marathoner."
Indeed, at his best, Levins is a world-class distance runner. Time will tell if he can meet the expectations he had the day he turned pro.