Resilient racewalker Evan Dunfee strides to 20km victory at track and field nationals

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Evan Dunfee of Team Canada competes in the Men's 50km Race Walk Final on day fourteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Sapporo Odori Park on August 06, 2021 in Sapporo, Japan. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images - image credit)
Evan Dunfee of Team Canada competes in the Men's 50km Race Walk Final on day fourteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Sapporo Odori Park on August 06, 2021 in Sapporo, Japan. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images - image credit)

Veteran race walker and Olympic bronze medallist Evan Dunfee wasn't afraid to admit he had some nerves going into his 20-kilometre race walk event to begin the track and field national championships this week.

There was doubt as he took to the start line Wednesday afternoon at Mission Raceway Park — some nagging injuries in previous months and a little bit of a post-Olympic letdown had Dunfee questioning whether he'd be able to perform the way he wanted to in his 10th nationals appearance.

Then the race started and like he has so many times throughout his career, Dunfee found his form and was able to stride to victory.

He pumped his fists in the air as he crossed the finish line, stopping the clock in a time of 1:23.24 to win gold. Dunfee had to mount a charge in the last half of the race, trailing the second-place finisher Ben Thorne at the midway point.

Before the race, Dunfee told CBC Sport he would be happy with a time around 1:24.00.

"I'm pleasantly surprised and happy with how it went today," he said after the race.

"This year has been a struggle. The goals are maybe a little different than going into Tokyo. At this point I'm focused on getting as much fitness as I can the next month and staying healthy."

Martin Meissner/The Associated Press
Martin Meissner/The Associated Press

Dunfee is one of hundreds of athletes in Langley, B.C., taking part in the national championships — a crucial qualification event for the world championships coming up in Eugene, Oregon next month.

"Now it's a month to build back form and hopefully take this pace today and extend it over another 15km to 35km," Dunfee said.

"Give it my best in Eugene and leave it all out on the course."

It's been a topsy-turvy year for the Richmond, B.C. athlete in a sport often overlooked. Last summer he had his moment in the sun by winning bronze at the Tokyo Olympics in the 50km event.

But it was a bittersweet achievement as it came the same year it was announced the event would be removed from the Olympic programme going forward.

In the weeks and months following his medal moment in Tokyo, there was some darkness for Dunfee. Plagued by a hamstring injury and lacking motivation with his marquee event removed from the Games, it's been a tough grind for the 31-year-old who's never been afraid to stare down a challenge.

"The last 10 months have been a real struggle trying to find my identity a little bit and mourn the loss of the 50km event," Dunfee said.

"I think my best years were ahead of me in the 50. It wasn't one of those things where I felt I was entering my prime. And dealing with the injury was mentally really tough on me."

That injury forced him to miss an event in Spain recently but in the time since then he's worked closely with his team and physiotherapist to try and get his body ready for a summer of competition. And it seems to be working.

Two weeks ago at the Harry Jerome Classic in Burnaby, B.C., Dunfee won the 10,000-metre race walk in a time of 40 minutes 38.99 seconds.

Things seem to be trending in the right direction.

"I'm pretty happy these days to be honest. It's been a struggle. But sitting here today I feel content with where my life is going. Cautiously optimistic about the future," Dunfee said.

He hopes that future includes being a member of Richmond's city council. He's running for election this fall and believes he has a realistic shot at winning.

"I don't think anyone is going to out-doorknock me," Dunfee said, only partially joking.

"I hope I can win. I think I have ideas that will resonate with people once I get the opportunity to share those ideas. I joke about the doorknocking, but I can't wait to get to people's doors and share my vision."

"I don't think anyone is going to out-doorknock me." - Evan Dunfee on potential political career

Before getting serious about his campaign, Dunfee will compete at both the world championships and Commonwealth Games this summer for Canada.

He hints that the end of his race walking career might be drawing near.

"I'm certainly going to keep going after this year because I know I haven't been able to get the most out of my body this season. I don't want to end on those terms," Dunfee said.

"And then the following year is Paris. It seems silly to finish before that. I think I'll try and finish off this cycle but some of it does depend on how the election on October 15 goes. I think so much of it depends on where my life trajectory goes this fall. I don't want to be doing this if I don't love it. That's the deal I've made with myself."

Dunfee is mostly inspired by family, friends and students he gets to share his story with in schools these days.

As he prepared for his 20-kilometre event Wednesday, he looked at 1,700 cards he autographed that he'll be taking to students in the coming days and weeks — a reminder of his journey and what sport has offered him throughout his life.

"I didn't realize how much my motivation to train was tied to being able to be in my community," he said.

"In Rio, when I was closing in and trying to get third, the motivation was from telling myself to take one more step. It was very internal. In Tokyo, my motivation was thinking of all my family and friends who were walking with me. That's such a perfect microcosm for where I'm heading."

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