It wasn’t a poor performance for Curtis Thom, but the Ottawa Lions wheelchair racer was in a fast T54 men’s 400 m heat and wound up missing out on the final of the event in which he’d posted the fastest time in the world this season prior to the Paralympics in London. Photo: Ian Ewing
By Dan Plouffe
There have been few bright spots for Ottawa athletes from the Olympic Stadium track since Jason Dunkerley’s bronze medal victory on Monday night.
A disqualification and a pair of narrow letdowns in heats are the struggles Ottawa Lions club members have experienced in recent days at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, while Josh Cassidy and Rachael Burrows have a chance to change the tide in Thursday night finals.
4x100 relay team sets PB, then are DQed
In what guide runner Andrew Heffernan called the most technical event in able-bodied or para-sport, the Canadian T11-13 men’s 4x100 m relay team for visually-impaired athletes was disqualified during their heat.
The team – which includes Jon Dunkerley and his guide, Sean Young, as well as Brandon King and Heffernan, all Lions, plus Braedon Dolfo, Dustin Walsh and guide Dylan Williamson – was unsure why they’d been disqualified in the moments after their race.
“It all looked clean to me,” Heffernan said. “As you saw with the able-bodied 4x100 team, it could be like a toe on the line, so it could have been anything.”
The athletes were pleased with their performance nonetheless as the young group bettered their personal-best time of 45.13 seconds by around a half-second in London.
“We’re gonna take it as a positive and these guys can build on that going towards Rio,” Young said, noting their time wouldn’t have quite been fast enough to reach the four-team final even if it had counted. “I’m proud of the guys. They all showed up on the biggest day of their life and they ran their best time ever.”
Dunkerley and King both have individual races remaining on their schedules. The entire relay team are staying together on the same floor in their Athletes’ Village apartments. Dunkerley, at 32, is the veteran of the group.
“We spend a lot of time together. We’ve got some experience and some rookies,” he highlighted. “It’s not the first meet for anybody, but it is the first Paralympics for some of the guys. It’s the biggest stage in the world. I went to Beijing and I’ve got nerves too.”
Twenty-one-year-old King didn’t let the buildup intimidate him in his Paralympic debut, choosing to keep a low profile the first few days of the Games and just relaxing in the Village to focus on his races.
“My nerves were more just excitement. I wanted to go out there and show the world what I’ve got,” recalled King, who moved to Ottawa in advance of the Paralympics to train under Lions/national team coach Hugh Conlin. “I’ve got another chance in the (T12) 200 on Friday and I’m going to prepare for that.”
Dunkerley competes in the T11 men’s 400 m heats on Thursday evening in London.
Thom narrowly misses 400 final
Lion wheelchair racer Curtis Thom found himself in the fastest heat of the men’s T54 men’s 400 m. He placed fifth in his heat in a time of 48.57 seconds – .27 short of advancing to the final on time, although he was quicker than three auto-qualifiers from other heats and posted the sixth-fastest time overall.
“It was a tough race,” Thom said. “I went out pretty hard. I just tied up at the end and I couldn’t stay with them.”
His time wasn’t out of his recent performance range, although he had entered the race with the best time in the world this season at 47.20.
“I think I was a lot more nervous,” Thom acknowledged. “I think I had a lot of pressure that I put on myself, knowing that I had the world-leading time. It was an interesting feeling, but it was a lot of pressure for me.”
Generally his weaker event, Thom surprised himself earlier in the Games by qualifying for the 100 m final. He’d been ranked 12th in the event, and wound up placing fifth in front of the crowd of 80,000.
“Being in my first Paralympic final was phenomenal,” smiled the 26-year-old who participated in the 2004 Athens 4x400 m relay. “I was pretty happy with that.”
Like King, Thom relocated to Ottawa in advance of the Games. The Mississauga native trained daily under coach Bob Schrader, while Young acted as his conditioning coach with the Canadian Strength Institute.
“I pretty much changed my whole routine,” Thom highlighted, noting he cut out basically every part of social life once he moved to the capital. “It really helped.”
Robinson heartbroken to miss 400 final
Had Leah Robinson’s race been only 300 m long, the 18-year-old would have been in excellent shape Thursday morning in London. But that’s why the 400 m is regarded by many as the toughest race on the track, since it requires a sprint for an entire lap.
Robinson laboured heavily down the home stretch of the T37 women’s 400 m heats for athletes affected by cerebral palsy and wound up missing the final. Her time of 1:16.94 was well off her personal best of 1:10.81, which would have got her into the final.
“I definitely realized about 275 metres in that it was a little too quick,” Robinson explained in an interview after taking a few minutes to compose herself under the stands by the track exit. “I don’t know what it was, but I didn’t quite listen to that conscience in the back of my mind saying, ‘Too fast, too fast.’
“I just kind of gave out, and these girls happened to be that much stronger than me on this given day.”
Robinson noted that she also went out too hard at last year’s world championships, but managed to get through to the final nonetheless. She wound up placing fifth at the worlds, so missing out on the top-eight was a major letdown for the Conlin-coached athlete.
“I have no one to blame but myself,” Robinson added. “This is a big heartbreak. I’ve given 110% all year. I moved cities. I have a phenomenal coach, who I want to thank. He’s been there with me through ups and downs, and he’s going to be there with me today, I’m sure, through this awful heartbreak.”
Burrows & Cassidy reach finals
Two Amanda Fader-coached wheelchair athletes advanced through their heats and will compete in Paralympic finals on Thursday evening.
Rachael Burrows earned the third auto-qualifying spot in her T34 women’s 200 m with relative comfort, beating a U.S. competitor to the line by almost a second in 39.59.
“To make the final earlier in the week in my 100 was great, but to do it in my 200 as well, I’m very happy,” Burrows highlighted. “I’m proud of myself to get finals in both my Paralympic events. That’s what I wanted.”
Relatively new to the international racing scene, the 29-year-old was another one of the Mooney’s Bay-area roommates who transplanted themselves to Ottawa in advance of the Paralympics.
“It’s hard to see some of the ones who have been to the Paralympics before not make finals,” Burrows noted. “For me, that’s really hard because I’ve grown up looking up to them, and I still look up to them now, but to see them not do it, it’s like, ‘Aww, no.’”
The athlete who carries red streaks through her hair and an eternal smile on her face doesn’t have any magical reason to explain why she’s performed at a top level in her Paralympic debut.
“I try to run it like any other track meet, even though it’s in front of 80,000 people,” giggled Burrows, who races in her final at 2:44 p.m. ET. “I just try to stay relaxed and happy – that’s me.”
Josh Cassidy, who is still recovering from illness as reported in this previous story
, will compete in the T54 men’s 800 m final tonight in London, at 4:16 p.m. ET. Cassidy snagged the final qualifying spot in his event on time with a season-best 1:38.24 performance.
“The 800 metres isn't my race, but I'm glad of the way it turned out, it was really close,” noted Cassidy, who’s also had a London tunnel named after him for a day
. “(The 800) will be another attempt for me in a final before the marathon on the weekend.”