Two years from now, the spotlight of the world will shine on Tokyo, home to the 2020 Summer Olympics.
And after this weekend’s incredible feat at the Canadian Track and Field Championships, it is looking more and more likely that Orillia's Katelyn Ayers could be there, proudly representing her hometown and her country.
Ayers, seeded 10th, surprised herself and stunned a world-class field of athletes to race to a bronze medal in the 1,500-metre competition at the sun-drenched national championship at Terry Fox Stadium in Ottawa.
She pulled off another shocking feat, finishing fifth in the 3,000-metre steeplechase even though it was just the second time she had ever competed in the grueling race that includes hurdles and water pits.
“I would definitely not have predicted those results,” admitted the Orillia District Collegiate and Vocational Institute graduate. “I am really, really happy with the way it turned out.”
It is especially gratifying for the hard-working, determined athlete who has had to endure four years of injuries that have led to painful setbacks and many disappointments.
On the weekend, that all seemed like a distant memory.
She started her competition by finishing fifth in the steeplechase – a result she never could have imagined.
“I started doing hurdles in January (to improve) hip mobility. I had absolutely no intent to do the steeplechase,” said the 23-year-old University of Guelph graduate who now trains with the Speed River Track and Field Club team in Guelph.
But as she worked out with teammate Genevieve Lalonde, a member of Team Canada and national record holder in the steeplechase, she became enamoured with the discipline and, over time, began to excel at it.
She opted to compete at the provincial championship and won; although there were only two competitors. Her goal at nationals was modest.
“My three goals were to stay on my feet, stay out of trouble and to try to keep up my momentum,” she said, noting she still hasn’t quite mastered the water pit.
Despite her lack of experience, she finished fifth – just 10 seconds behind Lalonde, who won the gold medal.
That accomplishment buoyed her as she contemplated her main event: the 1,500-metre race. After “getting through” the semis, her long-time coach, Dave Scott-Thomas, summoned her for a pre-race meeting.
“Basically, he said: ‘You have nothing to lose in this race. You’ve already had a successful national championship. Just go in and mix it up and see what happens.’”
The original plan called for Ayers to stay back and let the top girls set the pace. Her coach convinced her to change her tactics. He encouraged her to push the field.
“The first 200 was really slow, so I thought, ‘OK this is my cue’, and I headed out to the front,” said Ayers. “At about 1,100 metres, I was just waiting for them to blow by me and to be passed by eight other people.”
However, that did not happen. She raced her fastest-ever final lap (61 seconds) and “somehow managed to fight them off” and scamper to the unexpected bronze medal.
“Winning a medal wasn’t on my radar, to be honest,” Ayers told OrilliaMatters. “I was very surprised. I started crying … It was overwhelming.”
It was also sweet, she said, to pull off the feat in front of her “biggest supporters”, her parents, Jackie and Kevin Ayers.
Even with some time to reflect on her accomplishment, the agricultural journalist is still finding it difficult to put the feat into words.
“I have taken the last couple of days to process and it still feels a bit surreal,” she says. “To surpass my ranking by seven places is super exciting. To have my parents there was awesome. They have been my biggest supporters, so being able to show them all that hard work and me not being around is coming together … It’s really gratifying.”
It is also a testament to an unquenchable thirst to compete and excel. Despite injuries and setbacks, she has never quit. She has modified her training multiple times to accommodate injuries and has worked harder than most to overcome them. Finally, thankfully, she is healthy.
She says Scott-Thomas also deserves a lot of credit. He has worked with Ayers for years, throughout her time in Guelph; first at the university and now with the private Speed River team.
“I couldn’t have done this without him,” she said. “He was as ecstatic or more ecstatic than me this weekend. To have him in my corner and knowing that he has always believed in me is huge.”
But it’s bigger than that, she said.
“Everything is coming together at the right time,” said Ayers. “I think that can be attributed to the coaching, training program and the support of the entire running community at Guelph and Speed River. I can’t thank them enough for having stood by me the past few years. It’s been a bit of a rough go.”
That “rough go” seems to be in the rearview mirror. Recent results and good health have her confidence soaring. Tonight, she and a few of her teammates are heading to Europe to compete against some of the world’s best in season-ending races in Belgium.
It’s all part of the long-term goal: Tokyo.
“This weekend’s results definitely make the goal and outlook a lot more realistic,” said Ayers. “I have had doubts in recent years but this helps re-instill that drive and motivation that it’s actually possible. I will keep on it, keep training and keep working.”