The track and field world championships were full of surprises
Unexpected Canadian medals made for a fascinating meet
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Heading into this year's World Athletics Championships at historic Hayward Field in Oregon, Canada's medal hopes seemed to rest on a set of familiar faces. Andre De Grasse, Damian Warner, Moh Ahmed and Evan Dunfee had accounted for all five of Canada's podium appearances at the last worlds, in 2019, and were the country's only individual track and field medallists at last summer's Tokyo Olympics.
Instead, for a variety of reasons, none of those four men made an individual podium in Oregon. And yet, Canada still finished the meet last night with a solid four medals, thanks to these pleasant surprises:
The men's 4x100m relay team's shocking gold
To borrow from the late, great Don Wittman, Canadian sprinters just love Saturday nights in the United States. Twenty-six years after Donovan Bailey won Olympic 100m and 4x100m gold on back-to-back weekends in Georgia, De Grasse anchored Canada to a stunning upset in the men's relay final in Oregon. The improbable victory gave the country its first major championship in the 4x100 since Bailey, Bruny Surin, Glenroy Gilbert and Robert Esmie sandwiched their Olympic gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games between back-to-back world titles in '95 and '97.
This one really came out of nowhere. Slowed by a recent bout with COVID-19, De Grasse looked awful in the previous weekend's 100m event. His sluggish 10.21-second run in the semifinals eliminated him from the competition and ended his career-long streak of seven medals in seven individual events at major championships. When the Olympic 200m champ decided to skip that event to rest up for the 4x100, it felt like De Grasse had run out of gas and just wanted to do right by his teammates by sticking around. Besides, after American sprinters swept the men's podiums in both the 100 and 200, a U.S. victory on home soil seemed almost inevitable.
WATCH | Canada goes gold in men's 4x100-metre relay:
But (and how many times do we need to be taught this lesson?) anything can happen in the relay — and usually does. With 100m champ Fred Kerley out due to injury, another rough final exchange of the baton by the Americans (what is it with these guys?) paved the way for De Grasse to outsprint individual silver medallist Marvin Bracy down the stretch and win gold along with Aaron Brown, Jerome Blake and Brendon Rodney — the same foursome that got silver at the Tokyo Olympics. It was sweet redemption for De Grasse, who'd suffered more heartache earlier in the day when his wife, American Nia Ali, the defending women's 100m hurdles world champion, crashed out in her heat.
Pierce LePage's soothing silver in the decathlon
Speaking of heartache, an absolutely gutting turn of events befell Canada less than an hour before the 4x100 victory. Through four legs of his event, Olympic champion Damian Warner had the lead and looked poised to capture his first decathlon world title. But disaster struck in the final leg of the night, the 400m, when Warner went down with a hamstring injury that knocked him out of the competition.
Into that massive void, though, stepped fellow Canadian Pierce LePage, whose impressive fifth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics was largely forgotten in the wake of Warner's historic gold. LePage placed second overall in the 400m to jump into the silver-medal position entering the final day, then held onto that spot through the last five events to capture the first major-championship medal of his career. LePage is only 26, and Warner appears to still be in his prime at 32, so Canada could one day put two men on the decathlon podium.
Camryn Rogers' historic silver in the women's hammer throw
This medal wasn't exactly a shock, as Rogers finished fifth at the Olympics last summer and this year won her third U.S. collegiate title. But her silver on the opening weekend of the meet was a landmark achievement: it made Rogers, 23, the first Canadian woman ever to reach the podium in a field event at the world championships. She's also the first Canadian woman to win a medal in a major track and field championship since heptathlete Brianne Theisen-Eaton took bronze at the 2016 Olympics.
Marco Arop's breakthrough bronze in the men's 800m
No one questioned the 23-year-old's talent after he captured his third Diamond League victory in two seasons earlier this year. But some wondered whether the powerfully built and relatively inexperienced Arop was ready to contend in the more demanding three-round format of a major championship after he sputtered out in the Olympic semifinals last year.
Consider that question answered after Arop took bronze on Saturday night. Arop is just the third Canadian to reach the podium in this event at the world championships, after Gary Reed (2007) and Melissa Bishop (2015), and it's hard to think this will be his last.
Some final thoughts: Judging by this meet, Canada's track and field program seems to be in a sweet spot right now. There's a nice mix of major-championship veterans and talented youngsters, with proven medallists now in both groups. Due to pandemic-related scheduling changes, we won't have to wait the customary two years to see what's next: the world championships are happening again next summer in Hungary, followed by the Paris Olympics in 2024. Canada is on track for plenty more success in both.