NEWS

Hilary Stellingwerff's Road To The Olympics A Long One

08/03/2012 01:41 EDT | Updated 08/09/2012 12:10 EDT
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UPDATE Aug. 8, 3:15 pm: Despite an amazing push at the end of her race, Hilary Stellingwerff did not qualify for the final of the 1500m. She finished in a time of 4:05.57, just narrowly being edged out of the fifth and final qualifying spot in her heat.

UPDATE: Stellingwerff finished 6th in the women's 1500m race Monday, Aug. 6, 2012 to qualify for the semifinals. The semifinal race will start at 2:45 ET.

Whenever Canadian middle-distance runner Hilary Stellingwerff won a race or smashed a personal best over the years, she's attributed her start in running to her Grade 3 teacher, Margie Grimes.

So when Stellingwerff, 30, was officially named to the Canadian Olympic team in the 1,500 metre distance, there was only one thing left for Grimes to do.

She booked a flight to London.

The news that Ms. Grimes, as Stellingwerff still refers to her, will be in the Olympic Stadium on Aug. 6 as she competes in the first round of heats is surreal but fitting, said Stellingwerff.

"I would love to see her," she told The Huffington Post Canada while training in St. Moritz, Switzerland. "I talk a lot about her but I haven't had much contact with her (over the years). She's a person from long ago who inspired me and I still think about her."

Grimes certainly hasn't forgotten about the day more than 20 years ago when she first noticed Stellingwerff's running prowess. It was during gym class that Grimes, then a brand new teacher at St. Michael Catholic School in Bright's Grove, Ont., noticed the blond third-grader bolt in front of her classmates during a race.

"Hilary was just off like a shot. She was just beating everybody," recalled Grimes, adding she immediately encouraged her to try out for the school's track and field team even though she was too young.

"She looked up at me and said, 'you know Ms. Grimes, I think I could even run faster in running shoes.' I looked down and she had hard shoes on. I remember I just howled laughing."

Then Grimes said something that neither of them will ever forget.

"She specifically said, you can go to the Olympics," said Stellingwerff, adding the phrase has stuck with her during the ups and downs of her professional running career.

Grimes recalls having good reason to make such a bold statement to an eight year old.

"There was something in watching her that made you think jeez, she could. I remember just the natural ability plus determination. You could not have picked a better class. You guys were just so enthusiastic."

Full disclosure: I was also in that Grade 3 class and Stellingwerff is my oldest and one of my dearest friends. We've seen each other through the best of times (being her maid-of-honour in 2005) and worst (when she missed out on the 2008 Beijing Olympics because she was half-a-second too slow). Sometimes we've gone months without talking as her running career took her around the world, but whenever we've connected again, it's as if no time has passed.

See photos of Stellingwerff in her youth.

Our memories of that class are vivid for both of us. It was the first time Stellingwerff -- and everyone else -- noticed her physical talents and I discovered what it was like to have a best friend. Attempting to keep up with her on the playground was a welcome distraction during a confusing and scary time at home. My mother, Nancy, was diagnosed with breast cancer that year and although she'd never admit it, our teacher, Ms. Grimes, was instrumental in helping me understand what was happening at home.

Stellingwerff and I were inseparable for the remainder of elementary school. My favourite memories are of the long summer days we'd take turns biking to each other's homes, whipping up two boxes of Kraft Dinner and watching Ricki Lake. Our sleepovers in her basement usually ended with her mother begging us to stop laughing and go to sleep and I'll never forget the time when we both broke out in a poison ivy rash after a game of hide-and-seek in her neighbourhood.

Stellingwerff’s can-do attitude has rarely faltered over the years, despite some devastating setbacks, and that’s especially true just days away from fulfilling her Olympic dream.

"I've had the best workouts of my life so I'm really excited," she said, adding every year she and her coach, Dave Scott-Thomas, along with her husband, Trent Stellingwerff, who's an exercise physiologist and sports nutritionist, created a plan for her to excel at various championships and events like the Commonwealth Games. This is the year it worked out.

"Everything has fallen into place and gone exactly how we wanted it."

Well, sort of. The road to this year's Games wasn't without drama. On the day she made her Olympic A time at the Diamond League in Rome, she spent the morning over a toilet. Stellingwerff got a nasty bout of food poisoning in Morocco after another track meet and was so sick that she didn't think she could get herself to the starting line.

Her husband, half-way around the world at a conference in San Francisco, sent her a text reminding her that she runs with her legs, not her stomach. Stellingwerff not only made it to the starting blocks she ran the race in 4:05:08, a personal best.

After that, the final hurdle was placing in the Top 3 at the Canadian Olympic track and field trials in Calgary in late June. She placed second and her parents Claire and Tom Letang were there when she was officially named to the Canadian team at a ceremony on Canada Day.

"We have to keep pinching ourselves. I've just been a blubbering fool since this happened. Certainly they're happy tears. This is such an emotional rollercoaster," her mother said.

Such is the game as a professional athlete. One minute you're on top of the world and the next you're questioning everything. But Stellingwerff has learned how to cope with the ups and downs and is showing a high level of calm and clarity that will serve her well during the Games, said her mom.

Perhaps the darkest moment in Stellingwerff's career came in 2008 when she narrowly missed making the Canadian Olympic team. Ranked 16th in the world for the 1,500 metre distance at the time, she was confident about her chances of competing in Beijing.

But she struggled from race to race trying to qualify and knew something wasn't right. Eventually diagnosed with anemia, she received treatment but it was too late. At the Olympic trials in Windsor, Ont., dozens of family members and friends showed up in matching yellow t-shirts with the slogan “Run Hilary Run” on them, a phrase coined by Grimes two decades before. Crossing the finish line just a half-second short of her goal, Stellingwerff waved to the crowd of supporters despite the crushing disappointment.

"I took it as it wasn't meant to be...but I was up and down for about a year where I was going through some depressing times or losing a bit of motivation," she said. "It made me question if I was as good of an athlete than I thought I was."

Trent Stellingwerff said he did his best to be comforting and understanding in the months after Beijing but when the fall rolled around and she still wasn't motivated, it was time for some tough love.

"I remember that night," he said, adding the heated conversation lasted over two hours and included some yelling and tears.

"Basically I just put it on the line. I said this sport is so hard, and if you're not into it, forget it. I actually challenged her to retire because I could tell it was tearing her apart."

But his wife's fiery reaction made it clear that she wasn't done, he said.

"It was a tough conversation at the time but it was also a turning point for her to really examine whether she wanted to carry on with another four years and 130 to 140 kilometres a week of work."

It meant saying no to wine and ice cream when she wanted to say yes, slugging it out at the track in the rain and not seeing her family and friends as much as she'd like.

But on Monday when she steps into the Olympic stadium with her family, coach and Grade 3 teacher cheering her on and friends around the world tuning in, it will have all been worth it.

"It's surreal because this is something I've been thinking about since I was 10," said Stellingwerff. "It doesn't feel real yet and I think that's a good thing. It needs to feel as normal as possible as close to the Games as possible because I just want to do what I've been doing."

And that's all you need to do.

Run Hilary, run.

Hilary Stellingwerff

Hilary Stellingwerff will compete in the 1,500 metre heats Aug. 6 at 6:45 a.m. EST. The semi-final will be run on Aug. 8 at 2:45 p.m. EST and the final on Aug. 10 at 3:55 p.m. EST. The races will be broadcast on CTV.