THIS COUNTRY’S BEST track-and-field medal hope, the reigning world indoor and outdoor women’s hurdles champion, a budding superstar on the European circuit, still doesn’t own a car. So on a steamy Saturday morning, less than two weeks before the start of the Summer Games, and fresh off a flight from a meet in Sweden, Perdita Felicien has marshalled a group of vehicle-rich friends to help her and her roommate haul boxes of books, clothes, and
disassembled Ikea furniture into their new digs. They’re all back at the old apartment waiting to leap into action while she’s navigating yet another media obstacle on the road to Athens, a photo shoot on the track at her alma mater, the University of Illinois in Champaign.
Dividing a rare “off day” between moving on the cheap and dealing with pesky journalists doesn’t sound like the ideal way to prepare for the race of your life, but Felicien’s too busy laughing and revelling in her selfproclaimed “loquaciousness” to voice any complaints. Diva displays and fits of highperformance pique aren’t part of this champion’s make-up. “A lot of people have told me to stay the same Perdita, not to get caught up in this,” she says. “I always try to remember that this can be taken away from me in a moment. The same way I just appeared on the scene, I can disappear.”
Not likely. In a discipline where most athletes hit their prime in their late 20s (the perennial U.S. champion, hurdling icon Gail Devers, is 37), the 23year-old Pickering, Ont., native shows the promise of a long and fruitful career. Since bursting onto the international stage at the world championships in Paris last August, Felicien, a two-time NCAA champion, has dispelled all flash-in-the-pan notions. In March, she captured the world indoor title in Hungary, and she won four of five races outdoors this season, including last Friday in Zurich in her last tune-up before Athens.
Ranked No. 1 in the world, she seems to be enjoying the pressure that comes with the view from atop the podium. While U.S. broadcasters and millions of fans will be pulling for Devers—this will be the two-time Olympic sprinting champion’s fifth GamesFelicien is determined to deny her childhood idol a storybook ending. “When I line up in the blocks, my motivation is knowing
that all these women want to dethrone me, knowing that I took something from them last year that I probably had no right taking because no one knew of me,” she says. “They’ll be back to avenge themselves, so I can’t think that the magic that was in Paris and Budapest will all of a sudden appear in Athens. I have to work for this, just like I did last year.”
That sort of chutzpah could give Canadian fans a rare opportunity to celebrate at the main Olympic stadium in Maroussi, site of the track and field events. Following a disappointing Sydney Games in 2000, and an embarrassing no-medal performance as the hosts of the 2001 World Track and Field Championships in Edmonton, Athletics Canada has embraced the Canadian Olympic Committee’s tough new selection criteria. In what is being termed a “rebuilding Games,” there will be just 26 Canadian track athletes competing in Athens. Alex Gardiner, the team’s head coach, rates Felicien and high-jumper Mark Boswell as medal favourites, with the men’s 4 x 100-m relay team having an “outside shot.” Others, like 800-m runner Diane Cummins, 1500-m runner Malindi Elmore, sprinter Nicolas Macrozonaris, and 5000-m specialist Emilie Mondor, could make their finals. Jeff Adams and Chantal Petitclerc, both past Paralympic medallists, could also add medals in their “demonstration” wheelchair events. “Our team will be smaller, but more experienced and focused,” says Gardiner. “Our goal is to have 70 to 80 per cent of them finish in the top 12.”
Felicien, who didn’t make it out of her heat in Sydney, realizes she will be carrying Canada’s track hopes in Athens, and is saying all the right things about such expectations not being a burden. “Some people never win medals in their lives—some people never make the Olympic team.” she says. “I know
that I have only so many more chances to win Olympic gold. It would be nice to get it out of the way now, but that’s not the focus.” Yet her intense preparations—a final training camp in Italy, a late arrival in Athens, a recent decision to cancel plans to have her mother come cheer her on—belie any “just happy to be here” rhetoric.
She’s candid about her love-hate relationship with her sport. When Felicien first started running track in high school, she loathed the hurdles, and resisted her coach’s attempts to divert her from sprinting. Compact and powerful—just 5 foot 4, but with bulging thighs and improbably tiny feet— her style is to skim the barriers, rather than vault them, always flirting with disaster. “Even now, I’m still intimidated. I line up and I think, how am I going to get through this? How am I going to do this?” she says. “Human instinct is to bail out, to stop because you are going to crash and burn, but it’s the power of the mind that forces you to keep going. And the whole risk aspect is what attracts me to it.”
That mental toughness, proven over the last year, is now about to be tested like never before. On the night of the Olympic final, Aug. 24, Felicien, who turned pro last fall after her world championship win, will be racing for herself, her country and her economic future. There are already endorsement deals with Nike and Cheerios, with other corporate benefactors waiting in the wings.
Standing on the track in Champaign, cows from the agriculture school lowing in the background, Felicien breaks into a wide smile as she envisions the final. “I’m so close to my destiny,” she says. That night could change everything, even her future transportation. “If I win, I can get a nice new car,” she says. “If I lose, I might have to downgrade to a used one.”
A model of the roof over the 75,000-seat main stadium was subjected to windtunnel tests at the University of Western Ontario. Designed to remain stable in an earthquake up to 8 on the Richter scale, it withstood winds up to 120 km/h.
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