Coming off a winter of injury, entering her steeplechase race of the year and never having come within 23 seconds of the Olympic qualifying standard, Parksville’s Alycia Butterworth had no plans to make a push this year for the Canadian Olympic team.
Turns out, those plans have been accelerated.
Butterworth, a 2010 Ballenas Secondary School grad who ran for the University of Idaho, shattered her previous best time in the 3,000-metre steeplechase by 27 seconds and surpassed the Olympic qualifying mark while placing sixth in the event at the Portland (Ore.) Track Festival June 12.
Her time of 9 minutes, 41.26 seconds is the second-fastest by a Canadian woman this year and has her recalibrating her goals for the Canadian Olympic Trials next month in Edmonton.
“I wasn’t looking toward this Olympics,” Butterworth said of this summer’s games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “Back in March, I didn’t think that was a possibility. My goal was just to train and work toward making the world (championship) team next year.”
But a top-two finish at the Olympic trials, which double as the Canadian National Championship meet, would guarantee her a spot on the Canadian Olympic team, and even a third- or fourth-place showing would give her a chance depending on other runners’ places and times.
She is one of four local athletes seeking spots on the Canadian track and field team for the Rio Games. Two-time Olympic high jumper Mike Mason, another Ballenas grad who now lives in Vancouver, will be trying for his third games in next month’s trials.
Thomas Riva, a former Ballenas classmate of Butterworth’s who now attends the University of Victoria, won last year’s Canadian national championship in the men’s 1,500 metres and is shooting for the Olympic qualifying standard in that event in races this month.
“Can you imagine if our little community and the Oceanside Track and Field Club had three alumni athletes going to Rio,” asked Kim Longmuir, who coached both Butterworth and Riva in the local club.
And Parksville Qualicum Beach MLA Michelle Stilwell, who has four Paralympic gold medals and one silver in both basketball and wheelchair racing and who currently holds three world records, will be bidding for her fourth Paralympic Games trip.
Butterworth, who graduated from the University of Idaho in 2015 with degrees in marketing and human resources, came into the Portland meet with a personal-best time of 10:08.64, set in 2014, well off the Olympic qualifying standard of 9:45.
She also spent the winter at her home in Boise, Idaho, doing just about every form of training except running after suffering a series of nagging hip, hamstring and knee injuries that kept her off the track. Instead, she worked on an elliptical machine, swam “a lot” and did weight training under the tutelage of her coach, Pat McCurry.
“I didn’t realize how good a shape I was in,” Butterworth said. “My coach knew the whole time, though. He’s worked with injured athletes before, and he’s really good about modifying (training) so it works and you don’t lose any ground.”
Alycia Butterworth of Parksville, who now lives and trains in Idaho, has surpassed the Olympic qualifying standard in the women’s 3,000-metre steeplechase. — Photo submitted by Alycia Butterworth
Butterworth came out of the winter entering low-key, smaller races at 800 and 1,500 metres. She also served as the “rabbit”, a runner who sets the early pace for a field of runners before dropping out, in the steeplechase at a meet in California in May.
But her first actual steeplechase race of the season came against a world-class field of women in Portland this month, on a cool, windless evening ideal suited for a distance run.
The top seven finishers all shattered the previous record in the meet, which began in 2007. Maria Bernard, who finished in seventh place, three and a half seconds behind Butterworth, is also a Canadian and also attained the Olympic qualifying mark.
“We went out a little harder than I wanted,” Butterworth said of the pace. “I usually hang back a little. But my coach and I had talked about it and decided that since I’d waited a little longer for my first steeple of the year, and my goal was to get under the Olympic standard, that it would be OK to go out aggressively and get right behind the leaders.
“I decided to hang on with them as much as I could and battle it out the last three laps. The first steeple of the season is such a beast.”
The steeplechase combines long-distance running with immovable barriers, or hurdles, including a water barrier that runners must negotiate each lap.
Butterworth, who has competed in cross country and in races from 800 to 10,000 metres at the provincial, national and collegiate level, first began running steeplechase in the rather rustic environs of the Ballenas Secondary School track.
“For learning the steeplechase, our track at Ballenas is like a third-world country,” Longmuir said with a laugh. “We didn’t have the equipment for it, but Neil Jack made a homemade steeplechase barrier for us that we still use. We gave him a bottle of wine for it, I think.”
With a single barrier set up in the grass, the only time Butterworth could actually race the full steeplechase was in bigger meets. But she parlayed her skill and work ethic into a scholarship at Idaho, where she became one of the first two freshman women in school history to qualify for the NCAA championships and who ended her career with multiple all-Western Athletic Conference and all-Big Sky Conference first-team selections and multiple NCAA appearances.
As a senior, she placed ninth in the NCAA West preliminary meet in the 3,000 steeplechase and went on the to national championships, where she placed 19th.
“(My husband) Randy and I could not be prouder,” said Longmuir. “This is a young woman who is one of the hardest-working and most dedicated athletes we have ever coached. She’s had a remarkable year where everything has some together for her. Not that she didn’t have a great career at U of Idaho, but something has just clicked.”
And, if Butterworth can carry her momentum into the Olympic Trials in Edmonton July 7-10, her local fans may be able to click a TV remote to watch her wearing the Team Canada uniform in Brazil.
“I’m hoping the (trials) race goes out honestly, because I’ll have a better shot than if we’re going slow and everyone’s kicking at the end,” she said. “I don’t like to lead from the start, but I’m hoping I can help push it to an honest pace.
“My original goal coming into this season was just to break 10 minutes, but that’s no longer my goal. I changed gears and started to focus on this Olympic cycle.”