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LANGLEY, B.C. — At this time last year, John Gay was chasing down the Olympic 3,000-metre steeplechase standard in a torrential downpour in Montreal with nobody to push him, and no fans to cheer him on.
In the most memorable race of the trials, he won by a whopping 200 metres and punched his ticket to Tokyo.
The 25-year-old from Kelowna, B.C., had some company this time.
He finally put some distance on Ryan Smeeton over Friday's final lap, winning in eight minutes 20.77 seconds to cheers from the fans at McLeod Athletic Park — the first time fans have been permitted at national trials in three years due to COVID-19.
Ottawa's Smeeton ran 8:23.81 to finish second. Jean-Simon Desgagnes of Quebec City was third in 8:26.01.
"It's different when you have guys breathing down your neck like that, but it's the way racing should be," Gay said. "So I was grateful to have some guys pushing me from behind."
Gay was en route to Europe for a last-ditch shot at Tokyo's Olympic standard last year when his gut told him during a stopover in Montreal to stay in Canada. This year had none of that drama.
"It's been the polar opposite," he said. "I've slept in my own bed (in Vancouver) for the last month. I had a leisurely day at home on my own couch. It's surreal actually, after the year I had last year, that everything has just kind of come so naturally this year.
"I certainly don't want to take it for granted, especially knowing how tough this sport can be and how unforgiving it is," he added. "So you got to ride the wave when you catch it, and I think I've caught a good one right now."
The Canadian championships are the last chance for athletes to hit qualifying standards for the world championships July 15-24 in Eugene, Ore. Athletes can also be selected based on world ranking.
Gay and Smeeton have already met the world standard. Gay hopes that Friday's tight race clinches Desgagnes, a Laval University medical student, a spot on the team based on ranking.
Vancouver's Ceili McCabe won the women's 3,000-metre steeplechase in 9:30.69, narrowly missing the world standard of 9:30 flat.
Regan Yee of South Hazelton, B.C., won silver (9:31.77). Yee, who competed at the Tokyo Olympics, already had the Olympic standard.
Gay said it was bittersweet to race at nationals on the heels of longtime Canadian steeplechaser Matt Hughes' retirement due to injury,
"I've been so fortunate to have a guy like Matt Hughes in my corner and Ryan and J.S. would all say that's been a blessing to dovetail our careers with the end of his," Gay said.
"To be able to watch the way that he conducted himself with such professionalism. And that's encouraging to see a guy like that, you get the opportunity to train with him, to go on trips with him, and see him perform with the best of the best consistently, and you think 'gee, I can do it too.'
"A bit bittersweet to not have one more chance to race him head-to-head at national championship, but I hope he was watching and if he is, just a huge thanks to Matt for paving the way."
Gracelyn Larkin of Huntsville, Ont., won the women's 5,000 metres Friday in 15:51.47.
Charles Philibert-Thiboutot of Quebec City, who raced at the 2016 Olympics, took the men's 5k in 13:31.98.
Calgary's Sienna MacDonald won the heptathlon with a score of 5,643. Rostam Turner of Kelowna scored 6,418 to win the decathlon.
Victoria's Adam Keenan won the men's hammer throw with a toss of 75.17 metres.
Montreal's Margeurite Lorenzo cleared 1.80 metres and beat Barbara Bitchoka in a jump-off to win the women's high jump.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 24, 2022.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press