John Gay is coming off the season of his life. At age 22 he qualified for his first World Championships in Doha, then came back from a long summer season to finish fifth at the National Cross-Country Championships and secure his spot on Team Canada for the Pan Am Cross-Country Cup.
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Over two weeks later and still letting the experience of my first Global Championships sink in. My experience representing Canada @iaafdoha2019 was a lot of things: exciting, daunting, humbling, eye opening and so much more. Mostly, though, it was confirmation of all the things that make me love my sport and a reminder of just how blessed I am to build my life around my passion. I love what I do and, after some much needed time off, I am fired up and raring to go for the year ahead. This year has been so good to me, but I’m determined to ensure that the best is yet to come. #iaafdoha2019 #steeplechase #trackandfield #running #athleticscanada
National team experience: 7-time national team member
Most notable achievement: World Championships qualifier 2019
Born and raised in: Kelowna, B.C.
Gay’s been running cross-country for a decade. He started in grade nine, with the XC course serving as his first competitive introduction to running. He explains that he was more of a basketball and soccer player and skier in the early days. “I didn’t start track and field until high school,” he says. “I played house league soccer and basketball until I realized my hand-eye co-ordination was lacking. Ski racing was a big one for my family when I was growing up. We were always at Big White on the weekends. I would occasionally run, but it wasn’t until high school that I was involved in a competitive way.”
Gay moved from Kelowna to Vancouver for university and ran as a UBC Thunderbird for five years. He finished his undergrad in four, but when he found out that his team would be joining U Sports, and therefore, he would be receiving that magical fifth year of eligibility [the NAIA only gives runners four years], he decided to enrol in a Masters program.
Gay’s time as a university athlete provided some of his fondest memories in the sport: “My favourite cross-country memory was in 2017, when the UBC men’s program won its first national NAIA title. We’d come really close the prior year, so close that we thought we’d won, but we didn’t. It was a dagger. We’d already celebrated a win that we didn’t have.” Going into the 2017 season the UBC men wanted to win beyond a shadow of a doubt, and they did. Gay went on to race one more year with the team at the U Sports championship in 2018, the school’s first year in the league.
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The smiles say it all. Grateful for a coach who believes in me, competitors who push me, and parents who will support me no matter the outcome. Athletics has blessed me so richly. – – – – – – – – – – @athleticscanada @bc.athletics @thunderbirdstrackclub #trackandfield #running #steeplechase #actrials
This past 12 months brought big positive change for Gay. He graduated from university and decided to use his time to really step up his running game. He explains that he wanted to use the year to be better in the small ways that over time make big differences. He says, “I went into the season with the mentality that I needed to spend money to make money. For me this meant putting in a big effort in 2019 so that I could have bigger success in 2020. I also felt like I needed to have a year that justified me staying in the sport.”
What Gay’s referring to is the transition from university to post-collegiate athletics. Many runners post-university decided to hang up the spikes (at least in a nationally competitive sense) and move on from high-level training. However, a select few decide to continue to pursue running. Of this select few, there are those who are obvious choices for professional sport–think Gabriela DeBues-Stafford (who made her first Olympic team at age 20). And then there’s another tier of runner, the runner who’s accomplished nationally but hasn’t punched through to the international level yet. Gay was in that category. He was not receiving national funding at the time and was betting on himself, but the bet paid off. He would go on to run World Championship standard in the 3,000m steeplechase in the summer of 2019 and qualify for his first World Championship.
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What an experience. By far the toughest race of my life, but possibly the most rewarding as well. Thanks to @worldcrosscountryaarhus2019 for the unforgettable event. It was another proud moment to represent Canada and I’m grateful for the support of @athleticscanada throughout. Onwards to the track! 📸: @arunnerseye @justinbritton – – – – – – #wxc #run #nike #crosscountry #canada
Gay explains the feeling of transitioning from being a student-athlete to a runner. “While I was a student-athlete, that provided a convenient duality in my identity. When school got busy I could be an athlete first and a student second. I could justify cutting corners in running because of my other demands. But when I started doing all of the little things, I saw a positive change in my results.”
Three days before the 2019 National Cross-Country Championships, Gay learned that he’d received national carding for the first time. He said, “In the weeks leading up to nationals I was a little worried that I wouldn’t be fit enough, that I’d make a fool of myself on the race course. But it ended up working out, I was in good enough shape to run a race I was proud of and the carding news was good for my confidence. Since I was officially on the payroll of Athletics Canada it added some fuel to my fire.”
Gay’s excited to race at home this February and continue his success into the rest of the year, “I was in the conversation in 2019 and now I want to stay in the conversation for 2020.”