Competing with the O-word

Sports | Lifestyle

Five ponytails bounce as six young women round a corner of the 200-metre track. But the tight frizzy black bun of Rachel François sits still. Tambourines jingle with aggression and teammates scream from the side of the track as her arms and legs move in mechanical unison. François is separated from her peers not only by her motionless hair, but also by her perfect upright posture with each seamless stride.

The first of three laps finishes and François, who started in lane five, overtakes second place on the outside of lane one. The six Canadian university runners circle the Winnipeg track, and entering the third lap, François makes her move into first. The lap continues and François gains a few-pace lead on her competition.

Coming into the final stretch, the women’s steady run turns to sprint. Timing their dash is everything. François remains first, but a Guelph University runner from the back of the pack pushes to catch her. Even at peak exhaustion, François is still smooth as her competitors strain. François holds out the late push and bows her head across the finish line — the first time it’s left its steady upright position all race. She raises her right arm in celebration. UVic’s rookie runner, Rachel François, takes gold in the women’s 600-metre indoor final of the 2012 Canadian Interuniversity Sports (CIS) track national championships with a time of 1:30.19.

The 2012–13 school year commences, and the UVic Vikes gain sponsorship from Nike. The extra funding is evident as the Vikes’ team gear is nicer, merchandise is trendier and life-size banners of the top athletes decorate McKinnon Gym. Hands on hips and smiling like a catalogue model, François is pictured sporting a grey Vikes shirt and royal blue running shorts. Having won the 600m gold and 4x800m silver at nationals, François was named the 2012 CIS Track and Field Rookie of the Year. The Vikes marvel at the honour of housing such a talent and the “O”-word has started leaving lips.

“Rachel’s going to be an Olympian for sure,” says Vikes track legend Trish Fougner. “I really believe that.” Fougner ran for the Vikes with two-time Olympian Robyn Meagher in the late ’80s and just missed out on the Seoul games herself, so knows what is required of a high-calibre track star.

But the 2013 track season didn’t begin as planned for François. She was 10th in the CIS 600m rankings with a time of 1:32.66 going into the Canada West Championships in Regina — two-and-a-half seconds off what she ran in last year’s final. Furthermore, she hadn’t met the time standard to qualify for nationals going into the Feb. 23 Canada West Championships.

“[This year has] gone a lot different than last year because it didn’t start off perfect,” says François. “I’ve had to adjust my thinking in a way… It’s a lot easier going into a race number two than number one.”

François says she tries to think of races the same way she did last year, trying to have fun rather than focusing on winning.

“[First year] was a little bit overwhelming,” she says. “It was basically, for me, a perfect season of what I wanted because every race I got a personal best until the championship races, where I won them.”

After her 2012 success, François was put into Canada’s athletic assistance carding program to aid her financially so she wouldn’t have to work. She was also taken on as a 2016 development athlete with the Canadian Olympic team.

Raised in St. Albert, outside Edmonton, Alberta, François is familiar with the track life — her parents, Andre and Julie, met through the sport. André François became the first man to compete in the 200m sprint for Caribbean islands Saint Vincent and the Grenadines at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Rachel’s mother, an Australian from Sydney, ran until a ruptured Achilles tendon ended her career as a junior.

François says she has a huge amount of support from her parents, particularly her father, who she goes to for advice and to share her goals. She also writes her goals on the mirror in her room and in a book so they constantly surround her.

“I don’t feel pressure from anybody else,” she says, “just all from myself.”

In a February race in Winnipeg, François says the pressure affected her.

“I just mentally broke down,” she says of the University of Manitoba’s Feb. 1–2 Bison Classic. Having entered the 300-metre event the previous day with no expectations, she had run a personal best, but when it came to her main event, she didn’t perform.

“I hate running badly in ways I can control,” she says about the race, “and I think I have control over how I approach races.”

Struggling to recover last year’s form, François attended an Olympic team camp in Phoenix, which may have been the boost she needed.

This was François’ second Olympic camp as a senior athlete, but she had also attended before as part of the junior development group. At the camp she was able to train with Canadian runners who competed in the London Games, as well as prospects for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

“It’s just a great environment because everyone there is looking to go to the Olympics,” she says. “I like to pick people’s brains … A lot of people there I definitely look up to, especially people who aren’t in my event.”

François says you don’t want to idolize your competitors, so she prefers to seek advice from runners in different distances.

“Just seeing how they live their life, just being around it, makes it easier to live a good lifestyle, too,” says François, “which is good for training.”

As the Olympic aspiration comes closer and with Vikes and Track Canada officials recognizing her potential, François says she embraces the hype.

“All my life I’ve wanted to [be an Olympian], but the closer it comes, the more it becomes ‘this is what you’re going to do’. It becomes less of a dream and more of a goal and expectation of what you want to do for yourself.”

François says many of the runners she met at the camp in Phoenix talked about knowing they were going to make the Olympics years in advance. Even if people didn’t tell them they were or didn’t believe they would, the athletes made it happen because they had absolute self-confidence. François says that hearing people associate her name with the Olympics creates a positive effect rather than negative pressure on her.

“I’ve heard that people believe in me, which is huge. Having so much support makes it a lot easier to go out and be like, ‘This is one-hundred per cent a reality.’”

At the 2013 Canada West finals, François ran a personal best of 130:01, blasting her into second in the CIS standings. In the Regina race, she placed second behind U of C rookie Jenna Westaway, who won the event in 130:00, beating François by one one-hundredth of a second. With the silver, François qualified for the March 7–9 CIS nationals.

Coming off a 4x800m relay gold with teammates Kendra Pomfret, Jenica Moore and Grace Annear the day before, on the final day of competition François takes her crouch at the starting line of the 600m final. At the University of Alberta, half an hour from hometown St. Albert, friends, family and her former running team surround the track, leaning over the outer lane lines to cheer.

Starting in lane six, François propels off her mark in time with the starter’s gun. The six women turn the first corner, and the University of Toronto’s Sarah Wells moves into first in lane five.

As the runners shift toward lane one at the end of the first lap, Wells, Westaway and François have separated from the group. Wells has a two-stride lead on Westaway, who sits just ahead of François. The runners complete lap two, and François, who remains in third, begins to drift toward lane two — waiting to pounce.

Still in third place on the second-last turn, François pushes for the finish line. She surges past Westaway and closes in on Wells. At the final turn, she is just a pace behind Wells and gaining. Hitting the home straightaway, François powers past Wells and crosses the finish line two paces in front of Westaway, who makes a late push for silver.

The defending gold medal run was a personal best and new Vikes record time of 1:29.69. Not only did she take gold, a personal best time, and the undisputed 600m title, she broke one-minute-thirty — the one goal she hadn’t accomplished in 2012.

“Once she got a taste of success again,” says Vikes track coach Brent Fougner, “you’re not going to stop her.

“It was a nice way to show that I can bring myself back from whatever I’m feeling and I’m able to perform under pressure,” says François. “It was nice to know that I can do what I want to do at the right time.”