08/27/2015 12:25 EDT | Updated 08/27/2016 01:12 EDT

Hurdler Nikkita Holder says death of her dad has put running in the right place

BEIJING — In the moments before she was paraded out onto the track for one of the biggest races of her life, Nikkita Holder put on her headphones and danced.

A television camera panning the hurdlers paused on the 28-year-old from Pickering, Ont., and she responded with a wide smile and a wave.

Holder is all about enjoying the moment. The stress of racing slides right off her. The death of her dad has put running in its proper place.

"It's kind of let me relax a little bit and enjoy life a lot more. And not take it so seriously," Holder said. "It's kind of put a different perspective on track. Track is amazing and it's great and it's been so good to me. But it's not the be-all, end-all, and (his death) has actually allowed me to run relaxed."

Holder advanced to the semifinals of the women's 100-metre hurdles, finishing second in her heat Thursday morning. Her time of 12.86 seconds was the sixth-fastest on the day.

Phylicia George of Markham, Ont., also advanced, finishing fifth in her heat in 13.03

Holder raced in white wrap-around around sunglasses and white spikes — and of course the silver Pandora bracelet on her right wrist, a gift from her father Jeffrey on her 28th birthday in May.

Her father died suddenly only a few weeks later, on June 8.

"I wear that, just to keep him with me," she said.

She hasn't taken it off.

On her left wrist she wears a big red and gold Michael Kors watch — she removes it before racing — that belonged to her father.

"The last time I saw him, I said 'I'm totally taking that from you,' and he said 'Yeah right,'" Holder said, laughing. "So when he passed, my aunt took the watch and gave it to me. So I wore it to the track. I wear it every day. It's a nice reminder.

"The watch is far too big for me to run in, but if it wasn't, I would totally run in it."

Holder also finds solace in her son Kaedence, who was born in October of 2013. Kaedence is back in Toronto with her mom.

"He's awesome, he's growing way too fast," she said. "I Skype him every night, I miss him, I miss him a lot."

Holder said her family had gathered to watch her race back in Toronto, all wearing the red "TeamKita" T-shirts they wore when she raced to bronze at last month's Pan American Games — her first major international medal. 

Her teammate George has been where Holder is. The 27-year-old lost her mom Glenna to cancer in 2010, and running was a big part of the healing process. 

"For me, coming to the track was like my safe haven, a little bit of peace, created some normalcy for me," said George, who trains with Holder in Toronto. "And I'm sure that's kind of the same thing for her, you get to come to the track, laugh, and you get to take your mind of those kinds of things."

George writes a blog series called "Free to Be" in memory of her mom.

Holder and George are continuing a tradition of strong women's hurdlers in Canada. Perdita Felicien won gold at the 2003 world championships, while Priscilla Lopes-Schliep claimed bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

George was seventh at the 2011 world championships in Daegu, South Korea, and sixth in her Olympic debut in London a year later. Holder was sixth at the 2011 worlds.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press