Athletics Canada hopeful its athletes will have competitive opportunities ahead of Tokyo Olympics

Lindsey Butterworth hadn’t raced in four months and was restless. The middle-distance runner could have stayed home and done time trials in Burnaby, B.C., but knew competing at a high-level event would better prepare her for the Tokyo Olympics.

Butterworth was also anxious about coronavirus and travelling as she considered race options in Arkansas and Texas before deciding to compete at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix last Saturday in Staten Island, New York.

“We struggled with this decision for quite a while as we know the consequences and challenging environment of living [in a global pandemic],” Butterworth’s coach, Brit Townsend, said over the phone.

“It can get a bit frustrating and stale if you’re not [racing]. She wanted this so bad and I felt she needed it since there are so few opportunities available at this level.”

Butterworth and Victoria resident Mariah Kelly, who raced the 1,500 metres in New York, are hoping Athletics Canada will soon follow through on a plan announced last week to help athletes across the country find ways to compete safely while minimizing travel.

Kelly, 29, said coaches and staff in Victoria and at Athletics Canada’s West Hub in the city are working with the University of Victoria to provide safe racing opportunities throughout March.

Through a spokesperson, the governing body of track and field says it has been working with provincial partners and meet directors to maximize local track and field opportunities in late spring and early summer.

“Our objective is to have events throughout the country to give athletes a chance to compete locally and earn valuable points in the world rankings,” Athletics Canada said in an emailed statement to CBC Sports. “Combined with [the Canadian Olympic] trials [in June] not being a requisite for [team] selection, this can provide a path where an athlete could meet the necessary standard/world ranking points without much travel involved.”

Athletics Canada added its overall plan, including the scheduling of meets, is a work in progress with the immediate focus on developing a COVID-19 protocol handbook for meet organizers to operate events safely.

“Of course, this is all subject to change,” it cautioned, “based on the evolution of the pandemic and local and provincial health guidelines.”

Townsend, who coaches track and field at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, said Butterworth probably wouldn’t compete against outside Canada for the balance of the indoor season and might enter a couple of “very small” outdoor competitions in or near Burnaby.

Double-masked on flight

“Athletics Canada will always advocate for athletes to compete safely,” said Butterworth, who considered attending a two-week training camp in Bermuda with AC in February before it was cancelled due to rising COVID-19 cases. “It’s not an easy solution but I think the best we can do as athletes is to be patient and know something will come up when it is safe.”

Kelly, who didn’t race in 2020 after the pandemic brought the world of sports to a standstill, drove to Seattle on Jan. 27 to prepare for the New Balance meet. She joined a couple of workouts with the University of Washington women’s track team before racing the 800 and mile at the UW Indoor Preview event on Jan 30.

On the five-hour flight to New York, Kelly was double-masked and wore medical lab goggles that cut off her circulation and made it hard to breathe.

“As uncomfortable as it was, I felt safe and confident I was taking as many precautions to protect myself,” said Kelly, who was tested four times in a three-week span before Saturday’s competition. “Being uncomfortable was another way to practise relaxation in suboptimal conditions which is what racing is all about.”

Besides not racing last year, Kelly couldn’t do a time trial due to an injury that forced her to halt training early in the summer.

“It is the longest I have sat out of racing since I began [running competitively] in 2007,” she said. “The goal of the 800 at UW was to bust the rust and I believed I accomplished that goal.”

Pandemic ‘difficult issue to manage’

Kelly, who clocked 4:10.84 on Saturday to place sixth in a field of eight, said the race likely would be the only indoor meet to count toward her world ranking. The Niagara Falls, Ont., native sits 43rd and likely would be selected for Tokyo based on that standing should she not achieve the 4:04.20 standard. Kelly’s fastest time in the qualifying window, which closes June 29, is 4:10.62.

“I am very happy to hear [Athletics Canada] is working hard to ensure there will be more opportunities available to Canadians on Canadian soil,” she said. “I think the pandemic is a difficult and complicated issue to manage.”

WATCH | Butterworth advances to 800m semis at 2019 worlds:

Burnaby, B.C.’s Lindsey Butterworth takes fourth place in the third heat of the women’s 800m event in Doha, Qatar. 4:13

Pre-pandemic, Butterworth typically would race a couple of times indoors before an event the calibre of New Balance GP, which featured four-time world championship medallist and U.S. indoor 800 record holder Ajee Wilson along with 2019 world finalists Natoya Goule and Ce’aira Brown.

But the Canadian did clock a hand-timed 4:31 personal best in the outdoor mile recently at SFU, where she works full-time as an NCAA academic adviser and starred on the track before graduating in 2015.

Butterworth was in “great shape” upon arriving in New York, where she was surprised by an 800 race that went out slow and became quite tactical. The 28-year-old placed fourth of seven finishers in 2:03.91, her slowest indoor 800 since 2018.

“We don’t have an indoor track back home [and] it takes time getting used to the tight turns of a 200-metre track and the tactics involved,” said Butterworth, who was isolated in her New York hotel before race day and given meal vouchers for room service. “With every race there is something to learn so I know tactically I can be better.”

While Butterworth has yet to hit the 1:59.50 Olympic standard — her outdoor personal best is 2:00.31 — she’s in great standing in the world rankings at 18th.