Sage Watson poised to hurdle into Canadian history
Commonwealth Games competitor looks to surpass 22-year-old national record
Running along a gravel road in Medicine Hat, Alta., is how Sage Watson got her start in track and field.
Growing up on a ranch in a community where the sport was not something many people pursued, Watson and her family struggled to find facilities, coaches and trainers.
Now a 2017 NCAA champion with a personal-best time of 54.52 in the 400-metre hurdles — just 0.13 seconds off the Canadian record — the 23-year-old has come a long way from those humble days in the prairies.
With the support of her devoted parents, the gritty University of Arizona alumna made her way through the ranks from provincials to nationals to competing at world youth and world junior championships, all the way to the 2016 Olympic Games and 2017 worlds.
Clocking 400-metre hurdle times Canada has not seen in over two decades, since national record holder Rosey Edeh was on the scene, Watson continues to chase her dream of becoming the country's best ever.
"It's been on my radar for a few years now and I've been getting closer and closer to it," says Watson of Edeh's record. "This year I'm definitely for sure going to get it."
Watson is part of a crop of young Canadian women beginning to turn heads in track and field internationally, which includes shot putter Brittney Crew, pole vaulter Alysha Newman and 200-metre specialist Crystal Emmanuel. They have all broken national records over the past year.
In February at the Millrose Games in New York, Watson smashed the 30-year-old Canadian 300-metre indoor record, clocking a blistering 37.08 seconds to overtake the previous mark of 37.17 held by national sprint legend Jillian Richardson.
"I knew in that race I was in the form to do it and I had the competitors to push me so I just went for it," says Watson. "When I looked up and saw that I had the record, I was quite pleased. It was just so exciting to finally have an indoor Canadian record under my belt."
Breaking the hurdles record
Good friends with Edeh's daughter Micha Powell, who is also an up-and-coming sprinter, Watson will challenge the national hurdles record again as she competes for gold at the Commonwealth Games in Australia.
As someone who says she herself stood on the shoulders of successful Canadian athletes that came before her, Edeh insists the prospect of seeing Watson rise even higher and exceed her accomplishment is all sweet and no bitter.
"When you realize your record is being threatened, it actually makes you stop and realize for a second what you've accomplished," says Edeh. "I last set the record in 1996 but I've had it since way back before Sage was even born. I tied the record in 1988 and broke it again in 1989 so having it has just been my normal.
"I remember breaking it in 1996 with my daughter in the stands. Now she's this grown woman who is friends with Sage. It actually brought me back and I'm so proud. It's about time that record is broken. I want Sage to go out there and get on that podium [at Commonwealth] and I know if anyone can do it, she can."
'I want to be the best'
Watson continues to train at her alma mater in Arizona under the tutelage of coach Fred Harvey, who she calls one of her closest friends.
"He's not afraid to tell me what I need to work on in order to improve because he knows we're on the same page," says Watson. "I want to be the best that I can possibly be and he wants that also. Instead of sugar coating my races we see where the errors are and what we need to do to improve."
More than making Canadian history, Harvey's objective above all else is for Watson to put down an internationally competitive performance and to have a lasting career on the international stage.
"The record is not the goal, [it's] the longterm prep and making sure she's able to compete with the world's best," says Harvey. "Great athletes have to have a selfishness to achieve, but that can't become greater than the respect you have in your community and Sage is one of the most caring and driven individuals you'll ever meet."
Coming from a rural town to competing with the best in the world, the unassuming national champion's objective is to dominate her event and along the way show others that they can do the same.
"I think my story shows a lot of younger athletes an important lesson," says Watson. "You don't always need to have the best to become the best."