TORONTO — At the Toronto Track and Field Centre at York University, where most of Canada’s top sprinters train, there was some good-natured ribbing going on this week.
The athletes were just home from the Bahamas, where Canada’s women’s 4×100-metre relay team twice lowered the national record and qualified for the Olympics for the first time in 16 years.
After years of men dominating the sprint events in Canada, the women are giving them a run for their money.
"It actually feels really good to… not be rubbing it in their faces, but let them know we’re there too, that we can be contenders," Kim Hyacinthe said, with a laugh.
Hyacinthe, from Lachenaie, Que., Toronto’s Crystal Emmanuel and Shai-Anne Davis, and Khamica Bingham of Caledon, Ont., were fourth at the IAAF World Relays in Nassau, clinching their spot in Rio. They broke the Canadian record in both the heats and final, and their time of 42.85 was just 0.01 seconds out of a medal position.
"It’s a really exciting time for track and field because we genuinely have athletes who are one, young, but they’re also competing at a high level, so they’re just scratching their surface," said Phylicia George, a 100-metre hurdles specialist who’s also in the women’s relay mix. "I think Canada has kind of changed their approach to how they want to get things. Its not about going and being participants, it’s about going and being competitors.
"I think it creates an environment where you see other people competing hard, you see other people doing well, you want to do that. So it brings everybody up."
The women’s 4×400 team of Nicole Sassine of Windsor, Ont., Fawn Dorr of Marten River, Ont., Carline Muir of Edmonton, and Audrey Jean-Baptiste of Montreal, was sixth last weekend, guaranteeing a berth in Rio with their top-eight finish.
Canada hasn’t had a women’s relay over either distance run at the Olympics since 2000 in Sydney.
Hyacinthe moved from Montreal to Toronto almost three years ago to surround herself with better sprinters.
"Me and Crystal have this ‘I’m going to beat you on this one.’ Just yesterday, she said ‘Are you waiting for the whup ass this weekend?’ I was like ‘Woah… really,"’ Hyancinthe said, laughing. "It’s all fun and games. And when we’re in (heavy) base training and we die, we die together. We’re all dying together, crying together, vomiting together. (More laughter).
"It’s a good environment."
The men’s 4×100 squad was disqualified last weekend because of a bad baton exchange, but Canada’s men are clocking fast times this season as well.
Andre De Grasse of Markham, Ont., a 20-year-old who runs for USC, ran 10.04 in the 100 metres recently.
"That’s one of the fastest times for awhile… 10.04, going back to Donovan Bailey time," said Gavin Smellie, part of Canada’s heartbroken 4×100 team that lost bronze on a disqualification at the London Olympics.
"Everybody feeds off it, because if somebody runs fast, for some reason somebody else comes. And it keeps getting faster every year. Everybody feeds off the competition and we’re just going to get better from there."
Priscilla Lopes-Schliep’s bronze in the 100-metre hurdles at the 2008 Beijing Games was Canada’s only Olympic medal in the sprints since 1996, when Bailey won the 100 metres and the men’s 4×100 relay team raced to gold in Atlanta.
The Canadian men made up for their heartbreak in London by winning bronze at the world championships in 2013. Dontae Richards-Kwok, who ran on the bronze-winning team in Moscow, said the depth in the sprints has cranked up the competition level in Canada.
The Canadian championships next month in Edmonton is the qualifying event for the world championships, and the battle for spots will be fierce.
"Definitely it’s lot harder (to make teams) than it has been in the past," said the Mississauga, Ont., native. "We have legitimately five or six people who could be on the team for the 100 and the 200, so it’s going to be tough. But that is good, it raises everybody’s level of competition.
"As opposed to the past, you had a pretty good idea of who was going to make it, now anyone could make it, so you’re kind of — not thinking about it all season — but you have that pushing you in the back of your mind, because nothing is certain this year."