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A jam-packed women's hurdles field highlights the Canadian Olympic trials

06/26/2012 07:43 EDT | Updated 08/26/2012 05:12 EDT
CALGARY - Priscilla Lopes-Schliep is gunning to return to the Olympic podium after taking a year off to become a mom, while Perdita Felicien is hoping to finally achieve Olympic glory after twice having her heart broken.

But pitted against a field that is jam-packed with some of the best hurdlers on the planet, the two Canadian stars need to get to London first.

All eyes will be on the women's 100-metre hurdles race at the Canadian track and field trials that begin Wednesday at Foothills Athletic Park.

Six Canadian women have achieved the Olympic qualifying standard, but just the first three across the line in Saturday's final can make the team.

Pressure? You bet, Felicien said.

"There were years when I was the only one who had the standard, so if you didn't have a hot day (at trials) you'd still be named to the team," Felicien said at a news conference Tuesday. "Now you have to be Top 3, you have to solidify that spot, so it adds a little bit more of the pressure and stress to it.

"It is one of the events that everyone's going to be pinned to, and no-one knows what's going to happen, no-one can call it."

The 31-year-old from Pickering, Ont., hopes to make her third — and most likely last — Olympic appearance. She was a favourite for gold in 2004 in Athens but crashed on the first hurdle. She didn't compete four years ago in Beijing because of a foot injury.

"I've had a lot of drama in the sport, a lot of ups and downs, and I've learned over the last couple of years to use them as my strength," she said. "Before I'd look at them like, 'Ugh, gosh, there's always some drama going on.' But now I think, 'You've fallen down, you've gotten up, you've forged ahead year after year, and done some amazing things.' For me, I use that as my strength."

Lopes-Schliep won Canada's only track medal in Beijing — a bronze — and was the world's No. 1-ranked hurdler 2010 before taking last year off to become a mom. Her daughter Nataliya was born in September.

"I already expect a lot from myself, I put a lot of pressure on," said the 29-year-old from Whitby, Ont. "When it comes to this weekend, I'm going to go out there and relax and have fun and let my hard work speak for itself.

"Fingers crossed, hopefully make my third Olympic team, that would be icing on the cake of the mommy comeback."

Phylicia George of Markham, Ont., Nikkita Holder of Pickering, Ont., Angela Whyte of Edmonton, and heptathlete Jessica Zelinka of London, Ont., have also all made the Olympic A standard — a field of hurdlers who are all arguably capable of racing in an Olympic final.

"Most other events, if you get your A standard, you know you can pretty much come to trials and you'll come top-three," George said. "But it definitely makes it exciting and lets you know that if you do make the team, you'll be ready to compete at the Olympics. I'm the type of person that I want to compete against the best and be the best, so if I'm competing against those girls, it's only making me better."

While she's not completely comfortable with the term "trailblazer," Felicien agrees the depth of the Canadian field may be partly her making.

"It is flattering. I don't take credit for anybody's success, but it is nice to know I've been a pioneer of sorts," said the former world outdoor and indoor champion. "I think what I'm most proud of is that I've been around this long, people have two-year careers, five-year careers, I've had a 10-year career, that's a blessing. It's winding down now but I'm still not counting myself out."

All but Whyte was at the introductory news conference held under a tarp on a rainy afternoon at Foothills Athletic Park.

Felicien admits to mellowing over the years, saying there was a time when she could never have made small-talk with her competition.

"A few years ago I wouldn't be able to be here and smile and laugh and ask Priscilla how her daughter is. I'd see red, I'd see war, I'd see blood," she said. "I've really really calmed myself down, it's about me and the 10 hurdles, I can't control what somebody else does.

"I still see it, but I have my glasses on and it's not as intense."

Athletics Canada's head coach Alex Gardiner said the fierce rivalries and deep fields are great for the sport. Gardiner said he can't stronger fields for the national championships and called the event a "benchmark, vanguard Olympic trials."

Athletes need to both achieve the Olympic qualifying standard — 28 have done so already — plus finish top three this week.

"This is the second most important meet for them before the Olympic Games, this is where it really is all on the line, this is the crucible test, this is what's going to harden them for London," Gardiner said. "This is the time of year when it's absolutely stress-packed for the athletes, I call this their 'red zone.' For the parents and the coaches, this is the Maalox zone, or the extra-bottle-of-red-wine zone.

"But after these four days are over, we're going to have a great picture of a great team."

Athletics Canada's goal for the Games is to improve on the lone medal from Beijing, and have eight to 10 athletes finish in the top-eight. Gardiner believes the team could win as many as three medals.

Dylan Armstrong of Kamloops, B.C., world No. 1-ranked in the shot put last season, is Canada's top hope for a track and field medal in London.

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