Crystal Emmanuel hopes to blaze a trail for Canada’s female sprinters

Toronto's Crystal Emmanuel celebrates as she wins gold in the women's 100-metre race at the 2017 Canadian Track and Field Championships. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

LONDON — Crystal Emmanuel knew little about longtime sprint star Marita Payne-Wiggins, other than as the name listed alongside a Canadian record she had been diligently chasing.

"Only thing (I knew) is that she had the 200 record, and her son is (NBA star) Andrew Wiggins," Emmanuel said with a laugh. "I heard it ringing in my ears throughout the season, so I’m getting to know who she is now — because I’ve got to come out here and represent for Canada."

Payne-Wiggins set the 200 record in 1983 — a full eight years before Emmanuel was born — and the 34 years since haven’t been kind to Canadian women sprinters.

Emmanuel, who finally broke Payne-Wiggins’ 200 record last month, is intent on changing that, and on Saturday at the world track and field championships, the 25-year-old from Toronto sped to second place in her heat of the 100 metres, booking her spot in Sunday night’s semifinals.

While the skies opened up over London Stadium just a minute or two before Emmanuel stepped into the blocks, she still recorded a personal best 11.14 seconds, the 11th fastest time on the day and just 0.05 out of eighth.

"When we were standing there I looked up and I’m seeing these little things and thinking ‘It’s not snowing so it has to be raining,’ but that didn’t really affect me," Emmanuel said. "Things happen. Rain falls. Sunshine. I’ve got to be ready."

Germany’s Gina Luckenkemper was the only woman to dip under 11 seconds, running 10.95.

Canada hasn’t had a woman in a world 100-metre final since Angela Bailey was sixth in 1987 in Rome. Angella Issajenko was also in that final, but was disqualified after her 1989 doping admission.

Canada’s sprint news in the years since has been dominated by the likes of Donovan Bailey, Bruny Surin, and of course Andre De Grasse, the 22-year-old star who would have had top billing in London but withdrew after tearing his hamstring in training Monday night.

Emmanuel said it’s "amazing" to be able to carry the torch for female sprinters.

"Because I want to be an inspiration to all sprinters," she said. "I get the women and girls coming up to see me out here competing with the best in the world, and putting Canada back in the mix of things. I just want to empower a lot of women and girls coming up, so I’m going to do that."

Emmanuel, whose mom Rosalind ran internationally for Barbados, will also race the 200, which is her better event, in London. She broke Payne-Wiggins’ national record of 22.62 at a meet in Ireland, racing to 22.50.

Payne-Wiggins, now a mom of six, has a park named after her in Vaughan, Ont., just north of Toronto. She handed off the Pan American Games torch to son Andrew at the opening ceremonies in 2015 in Toronto. Andrew Wiggins even released an Adidas shoe named after his mom, the "Marita." It’s red and silver, the silver a nod to Payne-Wiggins’ silver medals in the 4×100 and 4×400 relays at the 1984 Olympics.

Molly Killingbeck, who was also on that Olympic 4×400 team in Los Angeles, never thought "it would be that long" before Canada had another female sprinter on the global stage.

"Certainly we have a good group of sprinters, I just don’t know why it hasn’t happened. So this is a long time coming. It’s very very exciting to see Crystal running as well as she is. And what it’s going to do is encourage others to move up into the next step where she is. I think sometimes you just need one person to break through and others will follow."

Killngbeck, who works with the country’s promising young athletes as Athletics Canada’s "NextGen" manager, watched Emmanuel’s race from back home in Toronto.

"Incredible race," Killingbeck said. "She made it look so easy, great execution start to finish. If she keeps this up, it’s not long before she gets under 11 seconds."

The five-foot-six Emmanuel was easy to spot on the track Saturday. She wore long red and white socks with "CAN" in block letters that she designed herself with her sponsor Yo Sox. Her hair was pulled back under a red-and-white headband. She wore a chain of tiny beads around her waist, a handmade gift from her best friend that she wears for good look. She has a stud earring dead centre through her tongue.

"It’s just something to show ‘There’s Crystal,"’ she said of her festive attire. "I like to stand out just a little bit, to show that I’m still here to look cute, but I’m here to be the beast I am."

Leya Buchanan of Mississauga, Ont., is another promising young sprinter, but had a tough day Saturday. The 20-year-old was fifth in her heat in 11.84, well off her best of 11.32. The 20-year-old didn’t initially qualify for worlds, and so shut her training down after last month’s Canadian championships. She was among a group of athletes who received a late invitation by the IAAF to compete.

Buchanan said she feels "very prideful" of the strength of Canada’s young women sprinters.

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