Van Buskirk and teammates thrilled to compete at home at NACAC championships

TORONTO — Kate Van Buskirk turned down a chance to race the 5,000 metres at the 2015 Pan American Games in her hometown. Instead, she flew to Europe to chase the Olympic standard in the 1,500 metres and came up just short.

Passing up that opportunity is one of Van Buskirk’s biggest regrets, and so the 31-year-old from Toronto jumped at the chance to race in the NACAC Championships on Friday night at Varsity Stadium.

“I was seeing all the tweets and the photos of the medallists and the stands that were full in a sea of red and white (at the Toronto Pan Am Games),” Van Buskirk said. “You have to love the sport for the purity of the sport, but a close second to that is seeing a hometown crowd who’s out there to support you and your teammates.

“I feel like I missed out on something special and I wanted to make up for that.”

The three-day meet begins Friday and features some of the world’s best athletes from North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Among the headliners: teen long jumper Juan Miguel Echevarria of Cuba, who had social media buzzing in June when he almost cleared the entire pit to win the Stockholm Diamond League; women’s hurdles world record-holder Kendra Harrison of the U.S.; and Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the 2008 and 2012 Olympic gold medallist in the 100 metres.

Van Buskirk and race walker Evan Dunfee are co-captains of a Canadian team that is missing some of its biggest stars to injury. Three-time Olympic medallist Andre De Grasse shut down his season after straining his hamstring last month, Olympic high jump champ Derek Drouin is out with a neck injury, Melissa Bishop, the world silver medallist in the 800 metres, took the season off to have a baby, and shot putter Brittany Crew broke her foot in training last week.

At Thursday’s press conference on Varsity Stadium’s new double-blue Mondo track, De Grasse played moderator in a question and answer session with athletes. He had some fun with fellow sprinter Aaron Brown, who should challenge for NACAC gold in the 200.

“Are we expecting to see a Canadian record?” grinned De Grasse, who owns the Canadian 200 record.

“I feel great coming in with one of the top times, I have some big confidence based on what I’ve done this year,” Brown replied. “I don’t know about the Canadian record, it’s pretty fast. That guy who ran it is pretty fast. I’m trying to just go out and win and that’s my main goal, try and win and put on a good show for the crowd.”

De Grasse took a playful shot at Justyn Knight, who’s racing the 5,000 metres.

“I have not watched anything from start to finish past the mile,” De Grasse said, to laughter from the crowd. “How are you going to get me excited to watch this race on Saturday?”

“You’re not alone,” Knight answered. “When I wasn’t a track star I was playing basketball just like you, and when the Olympics came on, I was watching the 100. I think just being involved in the 5K, you see how much work is being put into it.”

Knight, who recently turned pro signing with Reebok, echoed Van Buskirk’s sentiments about the rare opportunity to race in front of a hometown crowd. For the past four years, Knight has done most of his racing in the U.S. for Syracuse.

“Just coming back to my home track, this is where I used to train in high school (St. Michaels College), just being able to give my family and friends and fans from Toronto an opportunity to cheer me on, it’s very special and heartwarming,” Knight said.

Van Buskirk, who’s racing on her 10th Canadian team, has enjoyed a bit of a breakout season, running a six-second personal best in the 5,000, and breaking Sheila Reid’s Canadian record in the indoor mile in January. It wasn’t until Van Buskirk was talking to her dad half an hour after the race that he informed her of the record.

“I found that for myself when I’m not chasing times, and I’m just focusing on executing the best race I can, that’s when I tend to run my fastest,” she said. “I was just really fit and I had a great day, and I executed the way we had talked about, and so the thing I was most excited about when I crossed the line was that I had won and had run a (personal best), and had hit the world standard.

“But I had no idea what the record was because that wasn’t even in my viewpoint at that time.”

Van Buskirk made her first national team at age 16, almost half a lifetime ago. She figures she’ll likely call it a career after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and has found new motivation with just two years left in the sport.

“As I’ve gone on in this sport as long as I have, my approach to competition has evolved significantly, so I actually enjoy the sport far more now even though I’ve had more setbacks, because I was just so riddled with performance anxiety when I was younger and had my blinders on all the time,” she said. “It prevented me from taking in the full experience of the travel I was doing, and the people I was meeting, and the opportunities I was having.

“Tokyo is 24 months away . . . in some ways that’s almost a little bit freeing because it allows you to be like ‘Well, I may as well enjoy each of those 24 months because there’s 24 of them left,’ and every kind of milestone along the way. This sport has given me so much and I hope to give back to it at some point, but for now, I’m going to soak up every opportunity I can.”

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