Road To The Olympic Games

Track and Field

Canadian cross-country runner Knight motivated by missing Olympics

Canada's Justyn Knight defeated three-time defending champion Edward Cheserek to finish second at last weekend's NCAA Division I Cross-Country Championships. After placing 143rd as a freshman and fourth last year, he says there is still room to improve.

Near-flawless season takes sting out of failing to make Rio

Canada's Justyn Knight sprints to a second-place finish at the NCAA Division I men's Cross Country Championships on Nov. 19 in Terre Haute, Ind. The 20-year-old Knight, who has only been running competitively since Grade 11, defeated three-time defending champion Edward Cheserek. (Courtesy Syracuse Athletics)

​Running the race of his life, Canada's Justyn Knight faces a critical decision three kilometres from the finish line.

Villanova's Patrick Tiernan is pushing the pace at the NCAA Division 1 men's Cross-Country Championships, and has a narrow lead on three-time defending champion Edward Cheserek from the University of Oregon.

Knight, who hasn't lost a race since July, sits third on the 10-km LaVern Gibson Championship Course in Terre Haute, Ind., where the Syracuse junior finished 143rd in his freshman year and fourth a year ago.

Tiernan makes another move to stretch out the small pack.

I just tried to stay calm and then all my emotions came out once I crossed the [finish] line.- Canada's Justyn Knight on finishing 2nd at NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships

"I had a flashback from last cross-country season when Tiernan made that move, Ed went and I stayed back hoping I would catch them later, and I never did," Knight, 20, said on the phone. "I was like, 'I gotta make this move and hang on for as long as possible.' I stayed on Tiernan's back and Ches fell off a bit."

With 1.6 km left, Tiernan made a couple of surges, Knight said, in an attempt to "sting" the Canadian's legs. Knight caught Tiernan on the latter's first two surges but the seven-time All-American from Australia took it home on the third, posting a winning time of 29 minutes 22 seconds.

Knight was five seconds back in 29:27.3 and the Kenyan-born Cheserek, seeking his 16th NCAA crown, finished third in 29:48, just the third time he has lost an individual NCAA title since arriving in Oregon in 2013.

"I just tried to stay calm and then all my emotions came out once I crossed the line," said Knight, who usually smiles at the end of the race but this time clapped his hands in a tribute to Tiernan, his friend, who represented Australia in the 5,000 metres at the Rio Olympics in August.

Gap closed

"He's a hard worker and that was his last NCAA race. He ran well and deserved to win," said Knight, who flew home after the race for a week's rest at his parents' home in Vaughn, Ont. "I was really happy with second but not satisfied. I've gotta improve next time."

In two years, Knight closed the gap considerably on Cheserek since his first collegiate cross-country race at the Battle in Beantown in Boston, where Knight placed 20th.

This season, he took his racing to another level, achieving the following:

  • Winning the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational in Madison on Oct. 14.
  • Running a course-record 23:13.9 in late October to win the 8-km Panorama Falls Invitational in Earlysville, Va., by 15.8 seconds.
  • Cruising to victory at the Atlantic Coast Conference championships in Cary, N.C., recording personal bests in the indoor 3,000 metre (7:48.71) and outdoor 5,000 (13:26.36).

Perhaps the most impressive showing was in Wisconsin, where Knight showed a powerful finishing sprint to overtake Northern Arizona's Futsum Zienasellassie in the final six feet (see video below).

The Canadian junior record holder in the mile, Knight attributes his kick to God-given talent, workouts with Orange teammates that focus on uphill running to build strength and good genes. His mother Jennifer was born and raised in Jamaica, a country well known for producing elite sprinting talents like Usain Bolt, Elaine Thompson and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.

Part of Knight's story parallels that of Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse, who won three medals this past summer at the Rio Olympics. Like De Grasse, Knight's 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 in Toronto.

Knight wore basketball shoes and baggy shorts to break the school record, running in the 15:20s on the 5K course. 

He has evolved into tactically sound runner that makes a point of learning different strategies after a win or loss to apply in his next race. Majoring in social work, Knight is also a believer in setting unrealistic goals.

Missed Olympic standard

"The fact I stayed true to the goal of wanting to be NCAA champion, and wanting to beat Ed [Cheserek back in 2014] helped me develop into the athlete I am today," said Knight, who won the NCAA Northeast Region title in November.

Missing the Olympic qualifying standard by 1.36 seconds in the 5,000 this past June was another motivating factor for Knight.

"That hurt a lot. Coming from high school and even [in] my freshman and sophomore year of college … a lot of things tended to come easy to me. It was the first time in track and field and cross country that I let down others and myself a little bit," said Knight, who plans to get stronger physically over the winter and up his mileage from 60 miles per week.

"When I went back to school, I told myself to remember the feeling of hurt and make sure not to feel like that again."

Broadcast Partners

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.