TORONTO — Angela Whyte and Lanni Marchant hoped to write victorious final chapters of their long track and field careers at the Tokyo Games this summer.
Whyte, a three-time Olympian in hurdles, planned to compete in the heptathlon. Marchant, the former Canadian record-holder in the women’s marathon, was finally healthy and looking forward to being back on the starting line after three significant surgeries.
But COVID-19 forced the Olympics to be postponed to 2021, and Whyte and Marchant were left wondering if they had another year left in them.
“I had that pause moment of: I had grinded it out so hard. It was a big ask to get my body back ready to even consider trying to qualify this spring. I accomplished (getting healthy). ‘Oh my gosh, can I keep this grind going for another year?’” Marchant said. ”That was my initial concern, you’ve poured every moment of your time, every dollar that you’ve had into fixing your body with the hope of the glory pay-off at the end. And now you have to postpone it a year. Can you do that?”
Whyte likes to tell people she’ll compete until the “wheels fall off.” But she turned 40 this week, and while women are competing into their 40s in endurance events — Malindi Elmore broke the Canadian marathon record at age 40 — it’s rare in speed and power events.
Whyte, who was sixth at the 2004 Athens Olympics, is proud of that; it’s a big part of what drives her.
“I want to be the voice for athletes who want to pursue the power/speed events when they’re older,” Whyte said.
Still, she “100 per cent” planned to retire after this summer.
This weekend she would have competed in the Canadian championships and Olympic trials for the heptathlon and decathlon.
“It is what it is, and I guess I’m just gonna hang on for one more year,” the Edmonton native said.
Whyte, who competed briefly in multi-events while at the University of New Mexico, decided to switch to the heptathlon (100-metre hurdles, shot put, 200, long jump, javelin, 800), because she gets bored just doing the hurdles, and felt that in her final season, she had nothing to lose.
“I get frustrated just doing one event because growing up I’ve always dabbled in basketball and volleyball and just loved trying new sports,” said Whyte, who trains in Toronto with coach Jeff Huntoon. ”Some athletes just do better when we’ve got a little bit more on the plate… I get too caught up in the intricacies (in one event) and that hurts me. So I think the multi is, not a distraction, but a great way to pull focus away from just the hurdles.”
Marchant cruised through a solid Olympic quadrennial from 2012 to ‘16, but she’s battled several mysterious and stubborn injuries and ailments ever since.
The 36-year-old from London, Ont., had surgery to repair a torn labrum, a bone spur and nerve impingement in her left hip, and also underwent kidney surgery.
She was finally healthy and hoped to earn a spot on the Tokyo team.
“And like every athlete, I had my ‘Woe is me,’” Marchant said of the Olympic postponement. “It didn’t help we got hit with a blizzard in late-March (in Colorado where she lives and trains) right when everything was happening. I had a week where I think I ran twice. I was like, do you want to do this? Regardless of the Olympics, your goal was to be back to healthy running, you’ve achieved that.
“There’s no shame in the fact that you put your body through hell the last three years and something out of your control has changed the circumstances. There’s no shame in walking away, you fought the good fight. And then I had my pity party week.”
Marchant and Whyte are participating Friday in Team Canada Champion Chats, the Canadian Olympic Committee’s program that partners athletes with school-aged kids, empowering them to prioritize mental health, achieve goals, and face challenges.
The second in a series, Friday’s free virtual session will be presented in both languages and hosted by figure skater Tessa Virtue and Paralympic swimmer Benoit Huot.
Marchant will speak about mindfulness, while Whyte’s topic is gratitude.
There’s fear that with no vaccine the Games can’t happen next year either. But whatever the next 12 months holds, Marchant and Whyte say they’ll both leave their Olympic careers feeling satisfied. Tokyo, though, would be the perfect ending.
“A lot of athletes don’t have the opportunity to be on one team,” Whyte said. “So, there’s no complaints there. And I think I can walk away and I will be satisfied. I’ll be hurt. I don’t want to say that I won’t. But yeah, I think I will be satisfied and be able to move on and be happy with what I did over the many, many, many years.”
Marchant will continue to run road races regardless, but she pays out of pocket for her sports career, with the help of an Under Armour sponsorship. She’s also a criminal lawyer, although the coronavirus has brought her practice to a standstill.
“I’d love to say I can put another four years in, my body’s finally healthy enough to put another four years in, but financially it’s not easy,” she said.
She’d love her perseverance to be a message to others, and hopefully show people it’s “certainly not easy, but if you want to make something happen, you can make it happen. You just have to really, really want it.
“So yeah, it will be a really cool story when I make the 2021 team.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2020.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press