It was a finishing kick heard around the (athletics) world.
At the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, the most competitive collegiate event in athletics, Canadian Jaimie Phelan went from 12th to first over the final lap to win the women’s 1,500m. The Kitchener, Ont. native’s victory, which was shared hundreds of times on social media because of the close finish, was the first of its kind for the University of Michigan.
The race seems reminiscent of golf cap-wearing Dave Wottle’s 800m gold medal run at the 1972 Olympics in which the American went from last with 300m to go to victory in the final metres. The kick, perhaps the most well-known in athletics history, gave him the nickname, “Wottle the Throttle.”
Phelan’s NCAA 1,500m time, 4:13.78, featured a 61.62 final lap, the only athlete in the race to split sub-62 seconds for the final 400m. (To give you a sense of pacing, Phelan split approximately 69 seconds for the two laps leading into the bell lap.) She passed 11 runners between 1,100m and 1,300m and held that lead to the finish. With Phelan narrowly beating out Arkansas’ Nikki Hiltz by 0.02 seconds, there was an initial pause after the race before the fourth-year student (in her third year of athletics eligibility) got to do a victory lap at Hayward Field, considered by many as the global home of track and field. It’s the same track that Steve Prefontaine helped make famous.
Phelan says she was mostly unaware of any challengers until the final steps of the race. That should come as no big surprise as Hiltz was closing in lane four, three lanes out from Phelan who held the inside rail. In fact, Hiltz was so far out that most photographs from the race don’t show her in the frame. Phelan held that inside position for much of the race before the last lap, running the shortest possible distance and staying out of the jostling that is commonplace in championship finals.
In case you missed the finish
— ESPNU (@ESPNU) June 10, 2017
“It’s been so amazing so far,” Phelan says of the post-race buzz since Saturday. “It took a while for everything to sink in. I’m humbled and grateful for all the messages I’ve received. Everyone who I’ve received messages from I’ve wanted to have conversations with to see how they’re doing.” Back in Canada, for the time being, Phelan says that she watched the entire race for the first time on Monday morning.
The most surprising or coolest person to reach out to Phelan post-race? Bobby Orr, a member of the National Hockey League (NHL) Hall of Fame and arguably the greatest hockey player of all-time, sent over his congratulations to Phelan. “That was really exciting,” Phelan says. “He’s always been a huge role model.”
“Nothing compares to seeing the block M (Michigan logo) out front and knowing this girl personally – her attitude and approach and character – makes this moment so incredibly special,” Nicole Sifuentes, a two-time Olympian for Canada and former Michigan Wolverine, said on Instagram.
In the hours leading up to the race, hail fell on Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., a “theme of the season” according to Phelan adding that she prefers racing in cold weather, perhaps a testament to her Canadian roots. Of all the hype around the race itself and the history she made, Phelan adds that two moments stick out in regards to the weekend: doing the aforementioned victory lap and seeing her coaches, parents – who never miss a race – and friends right after as well as cooling down – a post-race run in other words – with nine of the 12 women’s 1,500m finalists.
“We had nine out of 12 girls all cool down together,” she recalls. “That stuff is hard to make happen. We chatted about the race, upcoming plans for the future and stuff outside of running.”
Delta (the airline) honoured Phelan on the return trip to Ann Arbor, Mich.
— Michigan Track & Field / Cross Country (@UMichTrack) June 11, 2017
The psychology major says she trains between 70-80K per week including a 16K long run. Training has been balanced with injury management as Phelan says she has been battling a minor foot injury, yet to be diagnosed, after it flared up earlier this year. She will race a high-performance 800m on Wednesday, in Guelph, Ont., at the Speed River Inferno. She’s opted out of the Canadian Track and Field Championships in July to focus on cross-country in the fall in what will be her fifth and final year of undergrad.