Track and Field

Friendship forged, Olympic track hopefuls inspiring each other on Tokyo journey

Andrea Seccafien and Kate Van Buskirk have spent three months together, on and off the track, working toward a spot on the Canadian Olympic team. "That Olympic flame burns really, really strong," Van Buskirk says. "From a training perspective, we've pushed each other a lot."

Van Buskirk a positive, calming presence in Seccafien's life during stressful season

Kate Van Buskirk, left, will be the pacesetter Thursday when her friend and fellow Canadian Andrea Seccafien, right, competes in the women's 5,000 metres at the Bislett Games Diamond League track and field meet in Oslo, Norway. They are hoping to run again in the Olympic final later this month in Tokyo. (Instagram/k8vbeast)

Nearly two months have passed since Andrea Seccafien made a final attempt at running under the Tokyo Olympic qualifying standard in the women's 10,000 metres.

Fellow Canadian Kate Van Buskirk, who was pacing the mid-May race, knew of Seccafien's goals entering the Sound Running Track Meet in Irvine, Calif., having joined her the previous month for an altitude training camp in Flagstaff, Ariz.

After finishing her pacing duties and dropping out of the race, Van Buskirk stood at the start/finish line to tell Seccafien her split time for each lap in hopes she would maintain Olympic and Canadian record pace.

Seccafien, whose coach and support team didn't make the trip from Australia, would win by more than seven seconds, dipping well under the 31-minute 25-second standard in a personal-best 31:13.94 to break Natasha Wodak's national mark from 2015.

"When she crossed the line," Van Buskirk told CBC Sports this week, "I broke COVID protocols and ran on the track. We hugged each other and there's this video of us holding each other and [Seccafien] saying to me, 'Is this real life?'

"That evening encapsulates our relationship right now and it certainly got me amped up for my race [in the 5,000] the next day." Seccafien was equally supportive of Van Buskirk, who ran a 14:59.80 PB to hit the 15:10 standard and qualify for the Summer Games later this month.

Athletics Canada officially named Van Buskirk to the Olympic team on Saturday, joining Seccafien, who had already been nominated.

Seccafien also ran 15:10 for a ninth-place finish in Thursday's 5,000 at the Bislett Games in Oslo, Norway, her first competition since a 14:57.07 PB on May 29 in Oregon at the Portland Track Festival.

Van Buskirk was also pacesetter in Thursday's Diamond League race won by reigning world champion Hellen Obiri of Kenya in a season-best 14:26.38.

Seccafien, who was eyeing a PB, might have felt the effects of a 33-hour trek with Van Buskirk from St. Moritz, Switzerland, where they had been training recently at 6,000 feet above sea level with three of Seccafien's teammates from Melbourne Track Club.

Their travels began Monday at 2 p.m. with a drive to Italy that ended three hours later with them arriving at the wrong airport. After a two-hour drive to the correct airport the next morning, Seccafien and Van Buskirk boarded a two-hour flight for Copenhagen that was followed by a two-hour layover in the Danish capital. Once they landed in Oslo, they stood five hours at the airport to get through passport control and have a COVID-19 test.

Her professionalism is almost unparalleled in what I've seen in the sport. She's incredibly committed and very disciplined.— Kate Van Buskirk on fellow Canadian distance runner Andrea Seccafien

Seccafien and Van Buskirk have spent nearly every waking hour together over the past three months — during long runs, recovery runs, [weight] lifting sessions, hard workouts, meals and physio and massage treatment..

"It is so, so helpful, especially through these stressful days [in a pandemic]," Van Buskirk said, "to have other people who are going through it with you. You can commiserate and laugh about it a little bit to find some levity. I feel quite lucky to have had her [with me] to go through it."

Several years ago, they were training partners for a brief period after Seccafien left Speed River Track and Field Club in her native Guelph, Ont., but they have grown closer the past two years, seeing each other at major competitions and connecting online.

Seccafien moved to Australia with fiancé Jamie Whitfield in 2017 while Van Buskirk resides with her partner in Toronto, where she hosts a weekly conversation about the running world called The Shakeout Podcast.

"From a training perspective, we've pushed each other a lot," Van Buskirk said over the phone from Oslo. "Her professionalism is almost unparalleled in what I've seen in the sport. She's incredibly committed and very disciplined.

"We have similar values and that is helpful, allowing us to speak easily about a lot of different things. We both have a strong interest in world events and, obviously, our sport."

Positive and calming presence

Flagstaff is where Van Buskirk became a big fan of Seccafien's culinary skills.

"Andrea's an amazing cook. Everything she makes is delicious," she said. "She did a salmon that was really good. She's Italian so she makes amazing pasta, and excellent coffee as well, showing up with her AeroPress coffeemaker, hand grinder and scale to weigh the beans.

"Andrea would be the first to say she doesn't do a lot of fun things at training camps because she's focused. But with the pandemic there hasn't been a lot to do outside of running. The fun pieces have come from spending those moments when we could laugh, talk and be on the same page with a lot of things."

Van Buskirk pointed out she has benefited from Seccafien's perspective on what it takes to be one of the best runners in the world.

"There has been some adversity for both of us … and in the face of that adversity we've done an incredible job of supporting each other," Van Buskirk said. "I believe she would agree we have made this process easier and more enjoyable for each other just being incredibly supportive."

For Seccafien, who is hopeful of competing in the 5,000 and 10,000 in Tokyo, Van Buskirk has brought a positive and calming presence into her life during a stressful outdoor running season.

Seccafien's mental health suffered greatly through much of 2020 after enduring two lockdowns in Australia during the coronavirus pandemic. She took a break from training before the second lockdown of 111 days and didn't compete from March through October.

"She has helped me a lot through the mental side of the sport and dealing with some of the stressors we have to deal with as athletes," said Seccafien of Van Buskirk, who has overcome several injuries and personal struggles during her 20-plus year career. "It's been very nice having someone throughout the season with me as it can be a very lonely sport."

Seccafien and Van Buskirk will return to Flagstaff on Friday to train for 18 days before joining the Canadian team at a holding camp in Gifu, Japan, before the Olympics.

The goal in Tokyo, Van Buskirk noted, would be to race together in the 5,000 final. The 30-year-old Seccafien was 11th in the heats and placed 20th overall at her 2016 Olympic debut in Rio. At 34, Van Buskirk would be a first-time Olympian after failing to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics and Rio.

"That Olympic flame, man, it burns really, really strong. I'm elated and very grateful. I'm hopefully going to be in a position to say I will be an Olympian this year," said Van Buskirk, who has been running 130 kilometres per week during training this year. "It's going to be a dream I and my entire support system have invested a lot in."


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 Follow the award-winning journalist @harrisoncbc

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