Gilbert: Canada took a chance and lengthened baton exchanges en route to relay gold

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Glenroy Gilbert didn't watch Canada's men's 4x100-metre relay team race live on Saturday night at Hayward Field.

Instead, Canada's head coach -- an Olympic champion in the relay himself -- went for a walk.

The emotions were simply overwhelming.

"I didn't want to, I didn't want to, it was too stressful," Gilbert said. "I had so much hope for them, that it was beyond anything I could control. So I thought: I'll go for a walk. And all I was thinking was, if these guys do what they're capable of doing, they can win. It wasn't even about winning a medal, we know they can win a medal. But they could win.

"I knew they were ready. They were ready to do something special."

Were they ever.

Racing on a "razor's edge," the team of Aaron Brown, Jerome Blake, Brendon Rodney, and anchored by six-time Olympic medallist Andre De Grasse, sprinted to gold at the world track and field championships. They shattered the Canadian record in the process, and toppled the mighty Americans, who'd swept the medals in both the 100 and 200 metres earlier in the meet.

The Canadians, explained Gilbert, decided to push the limit on their baton passing. They opened up their marks in the exchange zones.

So, for example, where Blake would normally count back a "comfortable mark" of 27 footsteps -- when the incoming runner Brown hits that mark, that's when Blake takes off -- he pushed it to 31.

The greater distance allows the outgoing runner to be at top speed when they receive the baton.

It's risky. But on Saturday night, it worked perfectly for Canada.

"The biggest thing was trust," Gilbert said Sunday in a phone interview with The Canadian Press. "That's the key for this group was if they could trust each other, we could open up the marks and that's what we did.

"All three zones were faster than they've ever been. It's no wonder that they ended up winning. They just did things better."

The Canadians recorded the fastest exchange zones -- 5.61 seconds, compared the U.S. (5.87) and bronze medallists Great Britain (5.94).

"We decided that we were going to go for it," Gilbert said. "They were going to really pay attention to each other, watch the tape, react to the tape, get out as hard as they can, have a nice steady target (to receive the baton), and then let the guy do his job once he gets the stick in his hand."

The victory was a terrific ending to a tough week for De Grasse, who didn't qualify for the 100 final and withdrew from the 200 a month after contracting COVID-19.

Gilbert tested positive for COVID-19 in Eugene, and had been isolating in an apartment all week. He wouldn't have been inside the stadium for the relay anyways. He prefers to watch it play out on a TV at the warmup track.

When he got back from his nervous walk on Saturday night, his phone was alight with messages.

"A friend Facetimed and said, 'They won.' I was like 'Get out of here,'" Gilbert said with a laugh.

It was Canada's first global relay gold since Gilbert, Robert Esmie, Bruny Surin and Donovan Bailey raced to victory at the worlds in 1997.

Gilbert has coached Canada's relays since the men won world bronze in 2013. Even after he was named Athletics Canada's head coach in 2017, he requested he continue to work with the relays. His goal was to restore Canada's relay to its glory days.

"I just said I need to get these guys on the podium, but at the very top, we need to win a world championship," said Gilbert, now 53. "We had the pieces to do it. It just took a while to happen. But it was something that I've always wanted to do was re-establish Canada as a sprint nation, like it was in the '90s."

Canada won Olympic gold in 1996 in Atlanta, where Bailey captured two gold, and Esmie famously ran with "Blast Off" shaved into his hair.

The Canadians, an identical team to Saturday's championships squad, won silver at last summer's Tokyo Olympics, upgraded from bronze after a positive doping test on the Great Britain team. They raced to bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

But along with the highs, there's been plenty of lows. The same squad didn't qualify for the finals at the 2019 world championships.

At the 2012 London Olympics, a different Canadian crew briefly celebrated bronze. But the joy turned to heartbreak when the team was disqualified for a lane violation.

It's very rare for the baton to travel as seamlessly through every exchange zone as it did for Canada on Saturday night.

"That's where you're getting on that razor's edge type-thing, that's where good relays usually happen, is when you take those type of chances, trying to exchange the baton near the end of the (30-metre) exchange zone," Gilbert said. "It takes a lot to get there. I think they're there now. I think they understand the value of that bigger mark, and going deeper into the exchange zone and trusting one another."

Canada's relay will have a shot at another international glory at the Commonwealth Games next month in Birmingham, England.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 24, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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