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Canada's Derek Drouin wins surprise bronze in men's high jump at London Olympics

08/07/2012 02:49 EDT | Updated 10/07/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON - A year ago at this time, Derek Drouin was barely walking, let alone leaping.

The 22-year-old from Corunna, Ont., had suffered a lisfranc fracture, a gruesome foot injury that has ended the careers of countless athletes, and one that his doctor warned may keep him off Canada's Olympic team.

Certainly no one watching Tuesday night would have guessed that as he captured bronze in the men's high jump, Canada's first track and field medal at the London Olympics and its first in the event since Greg Joy's silver at the 1976 Montreal Games.

"That was the amazing thing," said his coach Joel Skinner, a high school teacher in Sarnia. "He struggled with it, got over it, was determined, came back from it. He has come back from this lisfranc fracture to win an Olympic medal and a lot of people need to know about that because it's just an amazing feat."

Drouin finished in a three-way tie with Britain's Robert Grabarz and Qatar's Mutaz Essa Barshim. All three cleared 2.29 metres without any misses then missed three attempts at 2.33 metres.

Ivan Ukhov of Russia won the gold with a jump of 2.38 metres while American Erik Kynard took silver with 2.33.

Mike Mason of Nanoose Bay, B.C., was eighth with 2.29, narrowly missing on one of his attempts at 2.33 metres that would have put him in the medals.

Canada now has 11 medals at the Games.

Drouin suffered the injury in March 2011 when he planted his right takeoff foot an odd way. The mid-foot injury results when the metatarsal bones are displaced. Picture a rider falling from a horse without being able to free his foot from the stirrup.

The three-time NCAA champion for Indiana University had surgery to secure his foot with screws and then was sidelined for eight months.

"My doctor made it very clear that if I was going to qualify (for London) it was going to be very, very tight. The rehab was extensive, it was very long," Drouin said. "Basically my goal was just to get through the season and get to the Olympics."

Mission more than accomplished — a remarkable turn of events for an athlete so young competing on sport's biggest stage. The London Olympics represented Drouin's first national senior team appearance. The largest crowd he'd ever jumped in front of before the Olympics was at Penn Relays one year when Jamaican superstar Usain Bolt was racing.

But the young jumper wasn't overwhelmed competing before some 80,000 people Tuesday night.

"He's a rare one, he doesn't get rattled by too much, he has great focus, and thinks of everything as just another track meet," said Skinner.

For the better part of two hours, he made sure his eyes didn't stray up beyond the first couple rows at Olympic stadium. Drouin looked at the high jump pit, and he looked up at his coach sitting a couple of rows up from track level, and not much else.

"It was nice having my coach down low, it made it feel like a normal meet," he said. "I could just look eye level, I didn't have to look up and see everyone. That kind of made it very familiar.

"I do a good job of getting out there and not noticing everything. I did not notice how big this stadium actually was until I was doing my victory lap. I do a pretty good job of zoning everything out, and that was lucky."

He went to Skinner in the stands the moment the event ended.

"He was pretty emotional," Drouin said. "I ran over and gave him a hug and he almost broke a couple of ribs, he was hugging me pretty tight."

The six-foot-four jumper then went to his parents — mom Sheila and dad Gates — who were seated about five rows up. They handed him a Canadian flag that had been signed by dozens of supporters from Corunna, a city of about 3,500 near Sarnia. Then he ran to catch up to what became a five-man victory lap.

"I see people doing victory laps all the time and to actually be doing it, it's awesome," Drouin said. "I got really excited every time I saw a Canadian flag, people I don't know and they were very excited for me, I was smiling the entire time.

"The stadium is enormous. Even now looking out at it, it's pretty big."

Back in Corunna, dozens of old friends and supporters packed into a bar to watch the event on a large-screen TV. The bar locked its doors after reaching capacity.

Drouin's future is bright given that high-jumpers are often competitive into their 30s.

"A very talented young man," said Les Gramantik, a senior national program coach with Athletics Canada. "When you're young and you have no expectations — or maybe you have some — you're freewheeling, because you don't think of anything else but the jumping.

"It's great, we need the medals badly."

Canada's lone medal four years ago in Beijing was Priscilla Lopes-Schliep's bronze in the 100-metre hurdles, but she hit a hurdle in the Olympic trials and didn't make the team. Canada's other hopes in track and field were shot putter Dylan Armstrong and Jessica Zelinka in the heptathlon, but they finished fifth and seventh respectively.

Joy watched the high jump in Ottawa, and thought "Let's finally do it."

"We've had so many great high jumpers," he said in an interview. "We just haven't been able to get a medal since mine and the one before mine was 40 years before my medal. I didn't want to have to wait 40 years again."

Drouin, a lover of track stats, didn't pause when asked if he knew who won Canada's last high jump medal.

"Greg Joy," Drouin said. "He's obviously an incredible jumper, I feel like I'm in good company with him, and to be the first one to do it since a long time before I was born, it feels pretty great."

Drouin, an all-around athlete who grew up playing hockey, basketball and volleyball — and has even done a few decathlons at Indiana University — said he's never seen three bronze medals awarded in the event. He and Mason had a feeling that might happen Tuesday. The bar is normally raised in increments of three centimetres, but officials were raising it by four, which threw off many jumpers in the field.

The medal ceremony was scheduled for Wednesday, and it's a good thing, Gramantik said

"They're going to have to manufacture a couple of medals overnight. I'm sure they did some extra ones, I hope," Gramantik said laughing.

The coach was more sombre when talk turned to his athlete Jessica Zelinka. The 30-year-old from London, Ont., finished seventh in the 100-metre hurdles on Tuesday, one spot behind Phylicia George of Markham, Ont.

Zelinka had hoped for better three days after she finished seventh in the heptathlon.

"I'm sure she's not happy, I don't think anybody would be happy," Gramantik said. "I guess in fairness the situation has been quite a bit of a roller-coaster the last couple of days, emotionally drained her. She doesn't seem to be the happiest girl on the face of the earth right now."

Zelinka only answered one question from reporters Tuesday before abruptly leaving the interview area.

George ran 12.65 seconds Zelinka crossed in 12.69. Sally Pearson of Australia won in a blistering 12.35 to edge defending champion Dawn Harper of the U.S. by .02 seconds. American Kellie Wells claimed the bronze.

Nikkita Holder of Pickering, Ont., was sixth in her heat with a time of 12.93 but failed to advance.

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