By ALLAN MAKI-CALGARY : Eight steps to the first hurdle. Three in between. Sprint, then lean at the finish. If Perdita Felicien has run the 100-metre hurdles once, she’s run it 10,000 times or more.
The difference these days is where she’s running – in a new city with new teammates and a new coach. It is all part of a fresh lead-up to the competition that has broken her heart and challenged her psyche.
“For me, the best way to describe the Olympics is they’re the boyfriend who avoids you,” said the woman who fell in Athens, then four years later injured a foot and couldn’t compete in Beijing. “You need to go after him.”
That Felicien has taken her Olympic pursuit to a city known for its Winter Olympics athletes and resources has caught many by surprise. Previously, she had been in Champaign, Ill., and Atlanta with coaches and contacts she has known for some time. At the University of Calgary, where she is working with former national team head coach Les Gramantik, Felicien moves about campus to the recurring question, “What are you doing here?”
Having just finished her first full week in Calgary, the Oshawa, Ont.-born Felicien is beginning to feel more at home.
“Les and my old coach, Gary Winckler, know each other and Les is overlooking things,” Felicien explained after a workout. “It’s a situation where I can get the medical and training, all the benefits of working with other like-minded athletes. Everyone has really embraced me. It feels good.”
One of the most compelling reasons for coming to Calgary was the presence of Jessica Zelinka, ranked the sixth-best heptathlete in the world. Zelinka and Felicien spent time together at recent Athletics Canada camps in Phoenix and Saint Kitts. They talked about working out together on a regular basis. It has been a pairing that has benefited both women as they head into this week’s Canadian track and field championships in Calgary and the 2011 IAAF world championships that begin Aug. 27 in South Korea.
“With Jessica being a good hurdler, Perdita has a solid training partner,” Gramantik insisted. “Stopwatches don’t motivate you; a training partner does.”
“Not many athletes get to race with such a great athlete in training,” Zelinka said of Felicien. “It’s interesting to hear what works for her.”
Felicien’s recent showings in Europe weren’t to her liking, and she joked about her results: “I was six in three races. I need an exorcist [for being 666].”
Having finished fourth overall last year, Felicien is still a podium threat no matter where she races. Although she turns 31 on Aug. 29, there are still world-class hurdlers running fast in their mid-30s, and Felicien is keen to embrace new ways to squeeze an extra hundredth of a second off her times. Of late, Gramantik and Felicien have taken her race apart, worked on segments, then reassembled everything in a way they hope will pay off.
“Every week, we work on a different aspect. We try to get more bang for our buck. The blessing being sixth [in three consecutive races] is you know where the weaknesses are and where we can get faster times,” she said. “I just want to get the end of my race coming along. It’s not as sharp as it should be.”
For all her successes – Felicien has been a multiple medalist as well as a world outdoor and indoor champion – the Olympics are the great “what ifs” of her career. In 2004, she was favoured to win gold but crashed after hitting the first hurdle. She carried on for the Beijing Olympics, only to suffer a bone fracture in her foot. She ended up working those Olympics as a commentator for CBC television and saw teammate Priscilla Lopes-Schliep win bronze in the 100-metre hurdles.
Lopes-Schliep is expecting her first child in September but is still planning to compete in London.
“I felt I would have been on that podium at the  Olympics. Watching the medalists, it wasn’t about them or being upset that they’d won. It was more about how you missed that opportunity,” Felicien said. “That’s human nature.”
Felicien readily admitted the Olympics have a hold on her. Despite the two disappointments, she knows she’s fortunate to have another go at redemption. She believes she’s mentally stronger for whatever lies ahead.
“[The fall in 2004] was one of those things that got away from me. It happened, you analyze it. Yeah, it sucks. But you move on,” she said. “I know what it takes to prepare for the Olympics. I’ve been there before. We’re all great specimens. It’s about the mindset.”
And that’s why Felicien moved to Calgary – to change things up, feed her mind. So far, everything seems to be falling into step.
“If she wins an Olympic medal, she’ll be the most decorated female in Canadian athletics,’ Gramantik said. “That’s what she’s chasing.”
CALGARY — From Globe and Mail