By Stuart Miller-Davis
This year’s Olympic Games was supposed to be Alicia Brown’s curtain call.
Now those plans are out the window.
The former Ottawa Lions and Merivale High School track star was planning on hanging up her cleats after the Tokyo 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Now, another year makes for another challenge for the 30-year-old sprinter – something she’s had no shortage of in her career in athletics.
It’s been more than six years since her low point: In January 2014 – months after winning a national championship in the 400 metre – she accepted a voluntary provisional suspension after testing positive for hydrochlorothiazide, a drug that can be used as a masking agent for other performance enhancers.
Originally, an arbitrator ruled Brown was not at fault. That ruling was overturned when the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport appealed the arbitrator’s decision, cementing Brown’s suspension.
In a recent phone interview with the Sportspage, Brown said it was when overcoming her two-year expulsion from competition that she truly learned to deal with adversity.
“There have been many points in my career before that moment where I had experienced challenge, be that in the form of injuries or moving training environments, but nothing with the same gravity as having gone through an anti-doping allegation,” she said.
“For me, integrity is the most important thing that I have. So, it was very difficult for me to be in a position where I felt I had to prove my innocence or to demonstrate I’m an honest athlete.”
She said her suspension forced her to develop ways to overcome adverse situations. It also fostered inspiration.
“I carried a lot of that fire over those years,” Brown said. “It helped fuel, inspire and motivate me to become the athlete I am today. It’s been a blessing in disguise for sure.”
Andrew Pagé, a former coach of Brown’s with the Ottawa Lions, said challenges have been central to Brown’s career and have always given her strength.
“She was very dedicated when she started track and with every different obstacle it just means the old adage, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ and I think that none of these obstacles broke her,” Pagé said.
He and Brown kept in touch over the years. Brown went to the University of Toronto and currently lives in Toronto as well. Over the years when she’s spent time in Ottawa, Pagé has been a coach Brown’s turned to.
Brown’s suspension concluded in November 2015, allowing her to return to competition. She immediately turned her sights to qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympics. At the Canadian Olympic trials, Brown placed in 2nd in the 400m, running the race in 51.84 seconds – a time more than a second faster than her 2013 national championship time and, more importantly, under the Olympic qualifying standard.
Pagé was at the race and remembers it vividly.
“After all she’d been through, the injuries, the hamstring stuff, figuring out the new training system, dealing with the long road, it was very emotional,” he said.
To Brown, competing at the Rio Games was surreal.
“I remember when I finished, I looked up at the clock and saw the time and where I finished in the race and had that moment of ‘wow you did it,’” she recalled. “But it didn’t really sink in. I think after running a 400m as anyone who’s run a 400m knows, there’s a lot of pain and discomfort that comes after. So, immediately it was just dealing with the race.”
Brown finished 5th in her heat with a time 52.27 seconds. Her time was 28th overall. It was later during a cooldown workout with a teammate that Brown was hit with emotion.
“I just completely broke down,” she said. “In the middle of the field I just stopped, and I bawled. I think that’s when it finally hit, I had a little bit of time to reflect on myself and my journey. That was a really instrumental moment for me.”
In the 400m relay, Brown ran the second leg and helped the team to a 4th-place finish, their best showing since 1992.
When Canada first made its decision to yank its team from the upcoming Olympics, Brown said she was heartbroken. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that she’s planning on toughing it out and competing next year.
Given the career Brown’s had, Pagé is hoping her roller coaster ride can end at a peak with a last flash of international success.
“I don’t think she needs it to feel that she did well. But I wish she could to validate all the effort she put into it,” he said. “I think that sport will have helped her grow as a person, not just as an athlete. That will keep going long after her track career is over.”