Runners chase Olympic qualifying times at Centennial Stadium

The Victoria Track Classic tonight at Centennial Stadium can be described as a meet for the times. That’s both literal in terms of the quest to make qualifying standards for the Tokyo Olympics and also in a broader sense as a metaphor for this unusual period of time.

Only 27 runners, all based on the Island and including five pacers, will be racing due to the meet falling in the week before the expected lifting next Tuesday of the provincial between-regions travel restrictions.

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Keith Butler, the doyen of Island track meet organizing and the meet director for tonight, hasn’t seen anything like this but he’s happy the exclusive and elite local field will get an opportunity to qualify for Tokyo.

“We weren’t even able to have competitors from the Lower Mainland,” said Butler.

“But this meet is a step in the right direction and our competitors are grateful to get this chance. The meet is small but crucial.”

That’s because the pandemic has thrown the qualifying process for the Tokyo Olympics into disarray. It has resulted in just over half of the 60 expected Canadian track and field spots filled so far for Tokyo. Athletics Canada knew something needed to be done, so Victoria is part of a nine-meet national track and field series to help athletes achieve qualifying times for the Tokyo Games. The other B.C. events are the Harry Jerome Classic on Saturday with the track events at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby and jumps and javelin at UBC, and the Kamloops Throws Festival for the circle throws tonight. Those will also be local-only meets due to the current travel restrictions.

The series began May 21 in Ottawa followed by meets in Toronto, Windsor, Ont., Guelph, Ont., Montreal and Calgary through June 29.

“With more than half of our national team athletes based in Canada, and spots on Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic teams on the line, we felt it was our responsibility to offer a series of quality domestic competitions,” said Simon Nathan, Athletics Canada’s high performance director, when he announced the series.

“We are thankful that our provincial branches, clubs and some of Canada’s most experienced meet directors stepped up to offer a great series of meetings, to provide our athletes.”

Mariah Kelly was among those few Canadian athletes able to cross the border to train in Flagstaff, Arizona, over the spring. She has now quarantined after returning to the Island, following her nailing a personal best 4:09.05 at a meet last month in Irvine, California, in her pursuit of the women’s 1,500-metre Olympic qualifying standard of 4:04.20. Tonight’s meet at Centennial Stadium is key in the former NCAA Baylor Bear runner’s quest.

“I feel I am in the fitness of my life,” said Kelly, the native of Niagara Falls, Ont., based since 2015 at the Athletics Canada Western Hub training centre at PISE on the Camosun Interurban campus.

“In the past, nerves, mindset and pressure have perhaps kept me from being my best. I am so grateful to the community of Victoria for getting me to the point where I am now [third-ranked Canadian female 1,500-metre runner]. I don’t feel I’ve reached my potential, yet. I’ve worked really hard to be in this position. I feel I’ve earned this opportunity [tonight] and want to make the most of it.”

There were also three twilight track meets held at Centennial Stadium held over the spring and late winter. The Canadian Olympic trials are June 24 to 27 in Montreal.

The Victoria Track Classic today will provide opportunities for runners to reach Olympic qualifying standards for Tokyo over 400, 800 and 1,500 metres. No spectators are allowed but the meet will be live-streamed on beginning at 7 p.m.

Among those looking for Tokyo qualifying times at Centennial Stadium include Lindsey Butterworth, chasing the Olympic standard of 1:59.50 in the women’s 800 metres, and Kelly, Courtney Hufsmith, Gen Lalonde and Regan Yee all going for the women’s 1,500-metre qualifying standard.

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