Winning mentality has Justyn Knight thinking big ahead of Tokyo Olympics

·6 min read
The goal for Toronto's Justyn Knight leading up to the Tokyo Olympics in July is finding a way to win all his races, no matter his time or quality of the field. So far, so good as he's won five in a row dating to Jan. 25, 2020. (Submitted by Ben Weingart - image credit)
The goal for Toronto's Justyn Knight leading up to the Tokyo Olympics in July is finding a way to win all his races, no matter his time or quality of the field. So far, so good as he's won five in a row dating to Jan. 25, 2020. (Submitted by Ben Weingart - image credit)

During a rare five-day break from the track, Justyn Knight is up late playing video games with his brother Jaryd, sleeping in until 9 a.m. and enjoying life.

"I'm a guy that loves relaxing so I'm just doing that," he said over the phone recently from his apartment in Charlottesville, Va. "Apparently, it's supposed to be my last break until after the [Tokyo] Olympics."

The 24-year-old Toronto native was busy in February posting a season world-leading and personal-best time of 8:13.92 in a two-mile race in New York and an effortless 3:36.62 in the 1,500 metres at the Texas Qualifier.

Knight was victorious in both races and has won five straight dating to Jan. 25, 2020 in New York City.

"I'm very pleased with where I'm at. Training has been phenomenal," said Knight, the Canadian record holder in the men's 1,500. "In terms of tactics, I was happy with being able to win [in Austin, Texas] because that's important when you head to the Olympics. It's not just about running a fast time but being able to make the right move at the right time. Tactically, I'm ready [for the start of outdoor season]."

The goal for Knight leading up to the Tokyo Games in July is finding a way to win all his races, no matter his time or quality of the field. It's an approach he used during his track and cross-country years at Syracuse University, where he was a three-time NCAA champion, four-time runner-up and won a combined 16 individual and team Atlantic Coast Conference championships.

"Going into every race thinking I could do something special has propelled me to do some special stuff," Knight said. "I'm looking forward to making this Olympic team [for Tokyo] and try to do something special."

The one moment Knight felt he faced long odds was the Portland Twilight meet on June 23, 2016. Fresh off a strong sophomore season, the then-19-year-old was facing 2012 Olympic silver medallist Galen Rupp, a heavy favourite entering the 5,000 on a cool and rainy Oregon evening. Two months earlier, Knight ran 13:27.43 at the Payton Jordan Invitational in California in an attempt at the 13:25 Rio Olympic standard.

About one hour before the Portland race, Syracuse coach Chris Fox called Knight and asked him to do something they hadn't talked about in a while — focus on winning.

"I don't care if you run 13:22 or 14:22. Put yourself in a position to win and follow through," Knight remembered coach saying. "That's all I needed to hear. Not once did I look at the [race] clock." Knight outkicked Rupp for the win and clocked 13:26.36.

"I was the closest I've ever been to making the [Canadian] Olympic team," he said. "I feel like I've always had the desire to win since I first started running in high school [in Grade 11]. I've seen it dwindle but sometimes all it takes is a reminder."

'He became wiser'

The winning mentality got away from Knight while dealing with the stress of adjusting to a new city and team environment after turning pro with Reebok Boston Track Club in the summer of 2018. But he started holding himself more accountable after a period of self-reflection following a disappointing 13:26.63 performance in the men's 5,000 final at the 2019 world championships in Doha, Qatar.

WATCH | Knight encouraged by top-10 finish at 2019 worlds:

Athletics Canada head coach Glenroy Gilbert approached the runner in the hotel lobby to reiterate his belief in Knight and express the need to work hard and figure out a way to improve.

"I took it to heart," said Knight, who achieved the Olympic standard in the 5,000 four months earlier with a 13:09.76 PB. "I thought, I'm a professional runner, I get paid to run and I don't want to be the guy that didn't live up to his potential."

Fox, who retired from college coaching in 2018 to join Knight at Reebok Boston, told CBC Sports he knew the runner was off form in Doha but proud he made a world final at age 23.

"He gained a lot of experience and I think it kicked his ass emotionally to say 'I've got to be more of a pro. I've got to do better,'" said Fox, who recruited Knight out of St. Michael's College School in 2014. "He became wiser, willing to train, willing to do more mileage and harder workouts.

"Anybody that's any good in our sport has had their setbacks or things that disappoint them. And people that are great at our sport are the people that figure that out and make it better. Some people quit but that's not in Justyn."

Added Gilbert: "In our sport, there's talent and the mental aspect and I think he embodies both. You're seeing an athlete come into his own and, more importantly, believing in himself and his ability."

Knight didn't compete in 2020, choosing to train on his own with Fox for seven months to reduce the risk of contracting coronavirus since many retirees live in his apartment complex.

'He has stepped up everything'

In the fall, Knight shared his goals for 2021, including a desire to gain speed in the 1,500 to have a fast closing mile and the ability to keep up with the lead pack in the 5,000. He challenged himself training with a couple of marathon runners, doing tempo runs — running a pace you can maintain for about 60 minutes — and hill workouts.

"He improved a ton," Fox said. "He's made steady progress and you don't always see that in our sport. We took a year off racing and he stepped back into it like it was easy.

"Eating, sleeping and how he takes care of himself has become way better. He has stepped up everything … and does it all the right way."

Knight probably won't return to racing until the end of April in a lower-level 1,500, Fox said, before entering a more competitive 1,500 and 5,000 at a Diamond League meet in Europe or in the United States ahead of the June 25-28 Canadian championships in Montreal.

"Everything he's doing now is everything we thought he could do when I met him six or seven years ago," Fox said. "We've tried to elevate his training each year as he matures, and he responds so well to almost anything.

"Winning is how you learn to win a gold medal, and if you win your races, you're eventually going to run fast times.

"Justyn's always been one to think big and I know he's thinking big this year," the coach continued. "A year ago, we wanted to make the Olympic final and [finish] top five or six [before the Games were postponed]. If he keeps healthy and things go right, we certainly can think about a medal [in Tokyo]."