Canada's Justyn Knight seeks elusive 5,000m gold in final NCAA race
Syracuse distance runner won cross-country, indoor 5,000 titles earlier this season
When Justyn Knight arrived at Syracuse University more than four years ago, the Toronto native knew little about pacing in a race and the intricacies of track running, though he was an avid learner interested in becoming a better athlete.
At his first race — the Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown — on Sept. 26, 2014, the plan was to sit on the back of favoured Oregon sophomore Edward Cheserek and unleash a powerful finishing kick for the win. But things didn't exactly play out that way.
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"It wasn't me being cocky but I had faith in myself being able to pull it off because I was getting stronger with my training," Knight, who finished 33 seconds behind the victorious "King Ches" and 20th of 184 runners overall, recalled while preparing for this week's NCAA Division I track and field championships in Eugene, Ore.
He was nearly reduced to tears that day when talking with Chris Fox, Syracuse's head coach of cross-country and track and field. "I didn't have a horrible race," Knight remembered, "but I expected to be better. He just told me to be patient. I've never taken a loss as failure but [rather] a learned lesson. All of my experience losing in the NCAA has helped me get to where I am."
Thank You Syracuse 🍊❤️ <a href="https://t.co/zwVwZr8fth">pic.twitter.com/zwVwZr8fth</a>—@justyn_knight
Earlier that year, Knight had competed at the Penn Relays high school event in Philadelphia, where he befriended Cheserek, who went on to win 17 NCAA titles in cross-country and indoor and outdoor track.
On Friday, Knight will try to capture an elusive men's 5,000-metre outdoor title in his final collegiate race at 10:25 p.m. ET. He won his first NCAA championship race indoors in the 5,000 on March 10, four months after the 21-year-old senior opened the season with his first NCAA cross-country title.
Knight is ranked first nationally in the 5,000 and his personal-best time of 13 minutes 17.51 seconds is ninth on the NCAA's all-time list. He also boasts the top seed time in the United States this season at 13:18.74.
As a freshman, Knight placed sixth (13:50.96) in the 5,000 at NCAAs in 2015, 10th (13:40.40) the following year and was third (14:36.23) last spring.
Catching 'King Ches'
"Once I got to university, I said I wanted to be NCAA champion," said Knight, whose first love in high school was basketball before he turned to running in hopes of improving a low mark in his Grade 11 gym class at St. Michael's College School. "At the time, I didn't know it was likely because everybody was so talented and my times weren't [of championship calibre]."
In two years, Knight closed the gap considerably on Cheserek, beating him for the first time in November 2016 at the NCAA cross-country championships. Knight went on to win races, beat course records and a year ago made headlines by setting a world standard, breaking a Syracuse record and defeating Cheserek with his 13:17.51 PB from the Payton Jordan Invitational in California.
Justyn Knight rules Payton Jordan. <a href="https://t.co/D3azmNHgnU">https://t.co/D3azmNHgnU</a> <a href="https://t.co/qaw5OSEnAA">pic.twitter.com/qaw5OSEnAA</a>—@FloTrack
From there, the Canadian captured the 5,000 at the Atlantic Coast Conference championships in 13:52.38 and has won a combined 16 ACC titles (11 individual, five team).
At last year's NCAAs, Knight crossed the Cobb Track finish line third at historic Hayward Field in Eugene, less than one second behind winner and Calgary-born Grant Fisher, citing contact with the Stanford senior with 400 metres left in the race that threw off his stride.
"Grant's a great kid and nice guy," Knight, who finished ninth in the 5,000 at his world championship debut last August in 13:39.15, said this week. "I love him, his parents are awesome and he wouldn't [get physical on the track] on purpose. That stuff just happens."
In his build for Friday, Knight altered days working on his stamina and speed and recently increased his water intake from one bottle per day to a minimum of three to four bottles daily on the advice of Syracuse trainers. The change has led to significant improvement in his muscles, which "hadn't been feeling right" in recent weeks due to a busy running schedule.
'I'm definitely a lot faster than a year ago'
Besides Fisher, some might say Knight also has unfinished business with Northern Arizona's Andy Trouard, who beat him in the 3,000 at the NCAA indoor championships in College Station, Tex.
"I'm friends with those guys, so I don't take it personally," he said. "I don't forget about those moments, but I see it as I have to win the race rather than I have to beat those people who ruined my chances of winning a specific race.
"I'm definitely a lot stronger than a year ago and I'm a lot faster, even though in the 5K I didn't improve my personal best. I'm in a lot better shape than [the times showed] and very confident in how I've developed [further] overall."
Here's a list of other Canadians competing this week:
Leya Buchanan, senior, Oklahoma (Toronto)
Karson Kowalchuk, sophomore, Mississippi State (Markham, Ont.)
- Kyra Constantine, sophomore, USC (Toronto)
- Ashley Taylor, senior, Northern Arizona (Burlington, Ont.)
- Marco Arop, freshman, Mississippi State (Edmonton)
- Robert Heppenstall, junior, Wake Forest (Hamilton)
- Nicole Hutchinson, junior, Villanova (West Vancouver, B.C.)
Rory Linkletter, junior, Brigham Young (Born in Calgary)
- Mike Tate, senior, Southern Utah (Antigonish, N.S.)
- Ben Flanagan, senior, Michigan (Kitchener, Ont.)
- Stephanie Cho, junior, Washington State (Vancouver)
- Charlotte Prouse, sophomore, New Mexico (London, Ont.)
- Sade McCreath-Tardiel, junior, Bethune-Cookman (Toronto)
- Duan Asemota, senior, Ohio State (Ajax, Ont.)
- Drelan Bramwell, senior, Ohio State (Sarnia, Ont.)
- Taylor Sharpe, senior, Florida (Pickering, Ont.)
- Dallyssa Huggins, sophomore, Maryland (Markham, Ont.)
- Agnes Esser, senior, Minnesota (McBride, B.C.)
- Ashley Pryke, junior, Memphis (Peterborough, Ont.)
- Keira McCarrell, freshman, Oregon (Prince George, B.C.)
- Brittni Wolczyk, junior, Nebraska (Port Coquitlam, B.C.)
- Georgia Ellenwood, senior, Wisconsin (Langley, B.C.)
- Nina Schultz, sophomore, Kansas State (New Westminster, B.C.)
- Nathan Mechler, sophomore, Houston (Kitchener, Ont.)
Source: Athletics Canada