Road To The Olympic Games

Track and Field·Preview

Justyn Knight aims for competitive run against elite field in potential Olympic preview

Toronto native Justyn Knight says he's a more confident and stronger runner than at 2019 world championships as he prepares to face a similarly elite field in his 5,000-metre season debut at Thursday's Diamond League Golden Gala meet (CBCSports.ca, 2 p.m. ET).

Toronto native more confident, stronger entering Golden Gala than 2019 world final

Canada's Justyn Knight opens his outdoor 5,000-metre season on Thursday at the Diamond League Golden Gala meet in Florence, Italy. It's his first race in the event since placing 10th in the men's final at the world championships on Sept. 30, 2019. (Submitted by Ben Weingart)

Justyn Knight remembers feeling tired entering the semifinals and final of the men's 5,000 metres at the track and field world championships nearly two years ago. His pursuit of the qualifying standard had taken a lot out of the Canadian runner, both physically and mentally, in the summer of 2019.

He advanced to the 15-man final by a half-second but when the runners ahead of him made a move to the front pack, an exhausted Knight didn't respond and sealed his fate on Sept. 30 at Khalifa International Stadium, where he placed 10th of 14 finishers in 13 minutes 26.63 seconds.

"The important takeaway was never falling off the lead pack," the Toronto native told CBC Sports this week from his Virginia apartment before flying to Italy to compete at Thursday's Golden Gala Diamond League meet. "I was out of shape and knew I could do better. You can't be comfortable with being mediocre.

"I'm a lot stronger heading into this race and the [Tokyo Olympics], [I] have matured a lot mentally and I'm in a good spot. My confidence is a lot higher than two years ago."

Moh Ahmed of St. Catharines, Ont., is also in Thursday's field while Gabriela DeBues-Stafford in the women's 1,500 and Jean-Simon Desgagnés in the men's 3,000 steeplechase — making his Diamond League debut — round out the Canadian contingent. The event will be live streamed at CBCSports.ca at 2 p.m. ET.

Thursday's race at 3:23 p.m. will be the first 5,000 since worlds for Knight, who didn't race in 2020 after the coronavirus pandemic shut down the sports world. He posted an 8:13.92 PB in a two-mile race indoors earlier this year and ran under the Olympic standard in 3:33.41 in his most recent outdoor 1,500 on May 9.

At the 2019 Golden Gala, Knight dipped under the 13:13.50 Olympic standard in the 5,000 with a 10th-place time of 13:09.76 in Rome. With Stadio Olimpico hosting European championship soccer games this week, Thursday's athletics competition was relocated to Florence.

The former Syracuse University cross-country and track star admitted to feeling a bit nervous and excited to run against most of the field from the world final and nine of the top 10 runners in the current world rankings, including world record holder Joshua Cheptegei (No. 3), Olympic bronze medallist Hagos Gebrhiwet (No. 8) and world No. 2 Telahun Haile Bekele, the 2019 Golden Gala winner in 12:52.98.

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"He can push [the pace] from the start and hold it," said Knight of Cheptegei, who ran 12:35.36 at Diamond League Monaco last August to break the world mark set in 2004. "Everybody's going to be sharp heading into this race, and I know I have to be as sharp to respond or make a move."

Cheptegei told reporters Wednesday he is looking to break Eliud Kipchoge's 12:46.53 Golden Gala record from 2004.

"I think the meeting record is in danger … I hope I can target 12:40 or faster," he said.

Ahmed ranks ninth after running the 10th fastest 5,000 in history last July, bettering his own Canadian record by 10 seconds in 12:47.20. Only Cheptegei has run faster than the 2019 world bronze medallist since the start of 2020. Last month, Ahmed topped the field in 13:18.49 at the Sound Running Track Meet in Irvine, Calif.

Last fall, Ahmed admitted to feeling more confident in his abilities and more experienced in handling the nerves, anxiousness and pressures of racing.

"He's a very unassuming guy and humble," Jerry Schumacher, Ahmed's coach at Bowerman Track Club in Portland, told CBC Sports last fall. "He's got this quiet confidence but when he comes out [on the track] he packs a big punch."

WATCH | Ahmed: From humble beginnings … to Olympic podium?:

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Knight, who lives and trains in Charlottesville as a member of Reebok Boston Track Club, noted his recent workouts have focused on building enough strength to hold pace and stay with the lead pack.

"I can't dodge these guys all year," he said, "so I think this will be a great way to warm up to what things might look like in Japan. I'm not treating this as a rust-buster. I'm going to give my best effort to win. I want to be competitive."

DeBues-Stafford boasts 4:00.69 season best

DeBues-Stafford, who races at 3:05 p.m., is coming off a 1:58.70 winning effort in the 800 on May 29 at the Portland Track Festival in Oregon. The 25-year-old Toronto native is the first Canadian woman to ever break two minutes in the event, four minutes in the 1,500 and 15 minutes in the 5,000.

Ranked fourth in the world, the Bowerman athlete stopped the clock in 3:56.12 at worlds two years ago and boasts a 4:00.69 season-best from the May 9 USTAF Golden Games in Walnut, Calif.

Like Knight and Ahmed, DeBues-Stafford is part of a loaded field, led by reigning Olympic 1,500 champion Faith Kipyegon. Ethiopian-born Dutch distance runner Sifan Hassan is also one to watch. She holds the Golden Gala record of 3:56.22 from 2017 and ran 29:06.82 Sunday in the 10,000 that stood as a world mark until Ethiopia's Letesenbe Gidey lowered the time to 29:01.03 on Tuesday.

WATCH | DeBues-Stafford runs 1,500-metre PB at 2019 worlds:

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DeBues-Stafford will also try to steal bragging rights from Great Britain's Laura Muir, her former training partner in Scotland, who placed one spot ahead of the Canadian in fifth at 2019 worlds. Three weeks ago, Muir crossed in 4:03.73 to win the 1,500 at the Diamond League opener in Gateshead, England.

Desgagnés, who studies medicine at Laval University in Quebec City, prepared for his first race on the Diamond League professional circuit with an 8:24.40 PB at the recent Portland Track Festival — nearly five seconds off his previous best from 2019 — that should vault the 22-year-old to around 50th spot in the world rankings, according to coach Félix-Antoine Lapointe.

Should Desgagnés fail to hit the 8:22 Olympic standard by June 29, he would need to rank inside the top 45 and finish top-three at the June 24-27 national championships in Montreal to clinch a spot on the Canadian squad. He's currently battling Calgary's Ryan Smeeton for the final steeplechase berth behind Matt Hughes and John Gay.

Thursday's steeplechase race is at 2:20 p.m.

WATCH | Why Diamond League is important as the clock winds down to Tokyo 2020:

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With just under 9 weeks until the Tokyo games kick off, Diamond League is a final opportunity for athletes to meet qualifying times, and make their mark on the Track and Field world before The Olympics. Anastasia Bucsis is joined by Perdita Felicien to talk about the upcoming events. 2:34

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Doug Harrison has covered the professional and amateur scene as a senior writer for CBC Sports since 2003. Previously, the Burlington, Ont., native covered the NHL and other leagues for Faceoff.com. Follow the award-winning journalist @harrisoncbc

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