The start line on the track in London at this year’s IAAF World Championships is a far cry from Sage Watson’s southern Alberta ranch, where the Olympian first learned to run. The 23-year-old left behind the bone-dry heat and blonde wheat crops of the western Canadian province years ago to pursue her dream of becoming the world-class track athlete that she now is. Currently, she’s in London and Big Ben is ticking down to the moment when she’ll line up against the best competitors in the world. When the gun goes off in the British stadium where the 2012 Olympics were also held, she’ll dash forward and with expert precision, sail over the 10 evenly placed hurdles, each standing just over 76 cm in her way. 

Getting to where she is now as an athlete has been a story in the making since the late 1990’s.

As a recent grad, Watson’s life is a lot different than her University of Arizona peers: during her summer break last year, Watson made her Olympic in Rio; she’s also been to the World Championships already and she represented Canada on home soil at the Pan Am Games in 2015. More recently, at the Canadian Track Championships she set a meet record in 54.97. (Her PB is 54.52 – a serious threat to the Canadian record that stands at 54.39.) “This was one of my first races that I executed exactly as I wanted to,” she says, reflecting on that race soon after. “This gives me an extra confidence boost heading into London. Having competitors push you so you’re in race mode and executing things you want to do at World Championships— it’s an elevated practice.”

Now we’re down to the wire. The confidence that she talked about a few weeks ago is what she’ll need when she races in the heats of the 400m hurdles on Monday afternoon (Eastern Time). If all goes well, she’ll appear in the semi-finals on Tuesday and the finals on Aug.10. She is also on the Canadian women’s 4 x 400m team, racing on Aug. 12. London will be a demanding experience for Watson.

Getting to London

While she has been a runner since she was a kid growing up in Medicine Hat, Alta., it was a single moment in Rio that drew global attention on Watson: she famously winked at the camera as it locked on to her during the intro for her race. Her Instagram blew up.

Hellooo…outdoor track season!! #arizonatrackandfield #olympics #besttimeofyear

A post shared by Sage Watson (@sagewatson) on

During an hour-long phone conversation, Watson can speculate what has garnered her a fan-following of tens of thousands of people. Likely it’s a combination of her rising talent and dominance on the track in the NCAA – plus others. The point though is this: when she first set foot in Rio last year, Watson had about 3,000 Instagram followers. Today, she has 37,300. This brings forth another element of being a pro athlete and it has nothing to do with training, nutrition or marginal gains. You can bang out a wicked-fast lap of the track or master the careful rhythm needed to clear hurdles on the global stage, but managing your image as a high-calibre athlete while tens of thousands of eyes keep watch demands another skillset altogether. A year after accruing this sort of fame, Watson waits in London, a master in the art of both.

Medicine Hat

Driving through Southern Alberta en route to Watson’s hometown and you’ll past tawny fields dotted with milk carton-shaped grain elevators and evenly dispersed rolled wheat off into the distance. For anyone who has ever grown up in rural Alberta, fame is not the most obvious outcome. Medicine Hat is a modest Prairie city of about 63,000, situated three hours southeast of Calgary and just a straight shot up from the Montana border. Watson’s mom was a police officer and a runner. In the 1990’s, her daughter, Sage, wanted to run, too. “When I was younger, I would always beg to go on a run with her,” says Watson.

That’s how she got into the sport: runs with mom. Watson soon graduated to youth track meets, eventually showing her immense talent at the Royal Canadian Legion meets. Eventually, Watson raced in the Southern Alberta Games and then made the world youth and world junior teams at age 16 and 17.

Though her talent was undeniable then, training was by no means glamourous. Tracks are usually oval. Watson’s hometown track was a square box in a YMCA, two lanes wide. So, every weekend, Watson drove the three hours to Calgary to train there. If you thought the athlete who easily wins fans was once the popular girl at the high school party, you thought wrong. “I missed out on a lot of high school things. My friends wanted to do things but I was always training,” says Watson, but doesn’t hesitate to end that thought with two telling statements: “I love track. It was worth it.”

It paid off. She was recruited to Florida State University in 2013. She met her boyfriend there and switched to run for the University of Arizona not long after. She graduated with her degree in marketing earlier this year.

“I remember looking up to Olympian Perdita Felicien,” says Watson. “I would have died if I got to meet her.”

When we talk about growing up in Medicine Hat, questions on going home can’t be avoided. Watson’s parents and 12-year-old brother are there so she visits the when she can. Plus, racing on home soil is important to her.

“Now that I’m a pro, I’m going to come back to Canada more often,” she says. She also makes a point of going to schools and track clubs to inspire kids and share her Olympic and World Championships stories. That would have made a big difference to her when she was growing up, she explains. “I remember looking up to Olympian Perdita Felicien,” says Watson. “I would have died if I got to meet her.”

The Instagram story

Getting to where she is now as an athlete has been a story in the making since the late 1990s. As for the handling of her public image, the past year has been a crash course. Track is starving for viewership and fans. Many athletes in this sport are desperate for sponsorship and as the sport isn’t mainstream, track athletes in general and Canadian ones in specific need to find a way to cultivate a following. Sure, it’s great to make it to the Olympics or to come close to owning a national record, but do Canadians know who you are? Do they like you? Will they watch your race? Will sponsors pay up? That’s half the battle.

“I’m so thankful I took marketing as a degree,” says Watson.

That’s not necessarily always a win though. In our conversation, Watson repeats advice that was given to her by more seasoned female athletes: male followers often want to think of you as a single female athlete. Comments come in droves, so social media blackouts are a smart move to keep your mind focused. Or learn how to ignore it.

“I didn’t really know how to deal with it. It was overwhelming and it mentally drained me a little bit,” she says. Right away, Watson was forced to deal with the fallout of the massive amount of buzz around her Rio “camera wink.” A year later and before her next moment in the spotlight, she reflects on that: “I said ‘Actually that wink was for my 12-year-old brother.’ I was nervous, my family was nervous.”

As someone who has been trained in marketing, Watson knows exactly the breakdown of who follows her social media. “70 per cent are male which I think is crazy,” she says. “I’m definitely not trying to market myself as a single female athlete.” That’s because she’s not. She has been dating her boyfriend for the past four years. Also a student athlete (he played football), they met at Florida State and made the move together to Arizona. Having him in her life, Watson explains, has helped her balance her professional track life with the other day-to-day things outside of sports. If her any of her followers have noticed that her personal life is by and large left off of her profile, this is intentional. “If I didn’t have that many followers, I’d be posting more about family, friends and my boyfriend,” she says. Actually, she now has to ask her friends if she can tag them in photos because in the past, adamant fans have even sent messages to her pals’ personal accounts.

“I didn’t really know how to deal with it. It was overwhelming and it mentally drained me a little bit.”

“I get some hateful things,” says Watson. “I’ve gotten good at ignoring the hateful things and focussing on the positive. It’s something I had to learn after Rio.” Scrolling through her posts, it’s hard not to notice exactly the comments that she’s talking about.

I'm Leuven it! 😂🚲 • #tourist (📸 @phyliciageorge)

A post shared by Sage Watson (@sagewatson) on

Hitting the track at the 2017 IAAF London World Championships

Watson boarded her flight to London last week and has been exploring the England capital while preparing for her big moments. The days leading up to a race this big are spent mentally preparing and getting on the track for those final tweaks and last practices. Her passion for the sport is apparent in conversation from the get-go and it’s easy to see how antsy she is to get to the start line to give her competition a run for their money at the World Championships.

Days before go-time, she lets her fans see what she’s up to: there’s shot of her in the blocks, her signature lipstick on her pale complexion stands out like the maple leaf on the Canadian flag. And in a video of her doing hurdle drills, she writes: “First practice in London today! Can’t wait to race on Monday at 7:30 p.m. London time! #lightitup” It’s a carefully constructed, allowing fans access, but focusing on why she’s there: to race. Later that evening, after executing a careful race to qualify for the semifinal, Watson seemed relaxed and confident as she chatted about her run with the CBC interviewer, who happened to be her childhood hero, Perdita Felicien.