Canada's best runners train quietly in Edmonton

John MacKinnon, CanWest News Service
Published: Wednesday, January 31, 2007

EDMONTON - The relays come at the end of international track meets, but Athletics Canada wants to use them as one engine to power Canadian athletes back toward the Summer Olympic podium.

And Edmonton has quietly become the training centre for the men’s 4X400-metre relay, a nine-man talent pool led by Tyler Christopher and 400-metre hurdler Adam Kunkel.

The program is driven by Kevin Tyler, the director of the Canadian Athletics Coaching Centre, housed at the University of Alberta.

The coaching centre, a legacy of Edmonton’s having hosted the 2001 World Championship in Athletics, is meant to be a place for coaching education; a grassroots outreach node through the run, jump, throw program for kids; a sport science think-tank; and an incubator for elite competitive athletes.

Since 400-metre man Christopher arrived in Edmonton from Chilliwack, B.C., in 2004, that competitive component has grown such that among the dozen or more athletes who regularly train in the Alberta capital, six are nationally carded athletes, including relay members Christopher, Kunkel, Keston Nelson and Brian Barnett, as well as female 400-metre star Carline Muir and 100-metre sprinter Neville Wright.

The relay pool also includes Neal Hurtubise, who trains in Edmonton, Calgary’s Andrew Dargie, Nathan Vadeboncoeur, who is based in Vancouver, as well as Gary Reid and Achraf Tadili, Canada’s top two male 800-metre runners.

‘‘The quality is there - it’s not just Tyler Christopher,’’ said Les Gramantik, head national team coach for Athletics Canada, adding that unifying the team in Edmonton has obvious training advantages, but is not compulsory.

‘‘I’m cautiously reminding people that we are not telling people to move to Edmonton,’’ Gramantik said. ‘‘But we provide an opportunity and those who choose to (relocate) will have some degree of advantage.’’

Athletics Canada also channels from $15,000-$20,000 to Tyler’s Edmonton relay group and Gramantik believes a podium finish at the Pan-Am Games in Brazil in July is realistic.

It has not hurt Tyler’s recruitment efforts at all to have Christopher, a bronze medallist in the 400 metres at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki, and Kunkel, who broke the Canadian 400-metre hurdles record four times last season, among the early converts to the cause.

‘‘I think that, on so many fronts, it’s right,’’ Tyler said of Athletics Canada’s relay emphasis. ''If it’s done properly from a developmental standpoint, it makes a ton of sense.

''The other thing is, nothing is more exciting than the relays. It always closes major events off. And I think you really send a message to the rest of the world if you’re consistently competitive at the relays.

‘‘Countries like Jamaica build programs around this.’’

Canada did, too, back in the 1970s. Under the guidance of head track coach Gerard Mach, Canada’s men’s and women’s 4x100 and 4x400-metre relay teams all made the Olympic final in Montreal, posting a pair of fourth-place finishes.

It’s a simple equation: podium finishes equal funding dollars, so with Canada having depth in the men’s 400 metres, why not go for it?

The pathway to the 2008 Beijing Olympics is fairly straightforward from here: first the Pan-American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in July; then the 2007 World Championships in Athletics in Osaka, Japan, in late August; then Beijing. That’s if Canada can qualify in the top 16 in the world.

The first major meet for the 4x400 relay team will be the Penn Relays in Philadelphia in late April.

Tyler is seeing training results already, both individually and collectively. Two weekends ago at the Golden Bear track meet, Christopher won a men’s open 60-metre race in an impressive time of 6.69 seconds. Barnett actually beat Christopher in the semifinal in a time of 6.71.

In the final, Wright ran a 6.74 in that final, then won a 60-metre race this past weekend in Ottawa in 6.71 at a camp for the 4x100-metre relay team. So, without leaving their home base, the athletes have world-class competition to measure themselves against.

Last weekend in Montreal, the 4x400 relay team set a Canadian record in a 4x200-metre relay at a McGill University meet, with Barnett, who won silver in the 200 metres at the 2006 IAAF World Junior Championships, sitting out owing to a tweaky Achilles tendon,

‘‘It was a really good indication that what we’ve done to this point is, in fact, working,’’ Tyler said of the record-setting performance. ''But also, we’ve seen examples of programs and athletes not working together maybe as best they could before in this country.

''That event just demonstrated that … look we take five guys there, one guy can’t run, another guy steps up and we still destroy a national record.

‘‘We’re going to have no issues at any level at the Pan-Am Games or a World Championships or an Olympics. We’re not going to have any debate about who’s running in what order because all these guys have bought into this program. They understand that they’re interchangeable and they understand what the mission is.’’

The mission is afoot right here in our backyard. It should be interesting to see how it develops.

Edmonton Journal
© CanWest News Service 2007