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How Andrea Seccafien and Kate Van Buskirk catapulted themselves to Olympic qualification

The two Canadians turned a Flagstaff, Ariz., training camp into a pair of Olympic-qualifying times and, in Seccafien's case, a national record

Photo by: Jessica Scarlato

On May 14, Canada’s Andrea Seccafien raced the 10,000m at the Sound Running Track Meet in Irvine, Calif., running well under Olympic standard and flying to an enormous PB and new national record of 31:13.94. The next night, Seccafien’s training partner and fellow Canadian Kate Van Buskirk rushed to a PB of her own, this time in the 5,000m, running to an Olympic-qualifying time of 14:59.80. Canadian Running caught up with the pair to discuss their races, training leading up to the runs and plans moving forward as they prepare for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.

RELATED: Kate Van Buskirk goes sub-15, gets Olympic standard in 5,000m

From Australia to Arizona

From early in the pandemic until mid-April 2021, 30-year-old Seccafien was in Australia. This was a great place to be, because while parts of the country went into lockdown from time to time through 2020 and 2021, life was relatively normal. This normalcy allowed Seccafien to run and work out with her training group, and she was one of the only Canadian athletes who didn’t have to worry about race plans being cancelled because of COVID.

Despite these perks, after so long in Australia, Seccafien felt an itch to go elsewhere to train. On top of that, the Australian race season concluded in April, and Seccafien still had her eyes on hitting Olympic standard in the 10,000m. (She had raced a 10,000m in Melbourne in January, and while her 31:45.95 result was a PB and the third-fastest result in Canadian history, it was still well off the 31:25.00 standard.) So, Seccafien packed her bags and set off for Flagstaff, Ariz., a location she knows well.

“In a normal year, I’d go to Flagstaff before my season, and this year I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t I do that again?'” she says. “I felt like I needed a change of scenery, and when I got here, I felt so excited about training.” Working with Van Buskirk, Seccafien says her training in Flagstaff went extremely well. She usually responds well to high-altitude training, but this camp felt different.

“I was running sessions in Sedona [a city not far from Flagstaff, about 1,300m above sea level] that were better than what I’d hit at sea level,” she says. “Training was very good here – I didn’t really have any bad sessions.” Seccafien was in Arizona for five weeks before her race, and although she felt strong, she wasn’t prepared for how well she would run in California.

“I was just aiming for standard,” she says. “I mostly just wanted to get that time out of the way, because it was pretty daunting.” She not only hit standard (which in itself would have been a Canadian record) — she shattered the time by 12 seconds. When asked to compare this race to her Canadian record run in the half-marathon (she ran 1:09:38 at a race in Japan in early 2020), Seccafien says there’s no competition — the 10,000m record was far more special to her.

“This was so much more exciting,” she says. “The half-marathon record was nice to have, but it doesn’t really do much for me like Olympic standard. I was so shocked by the result.” Anyone watching the race saw that shock on Seccafien’s face after she crossed the line, and they also would have seen Van Buskirk running to Seccafien, giving her a hug and nodding excitedly as if to say, “Yeah, this is real life.”

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From Ontario to Arizona

Unlike Seccafien, Van Buskirk spent the last year of training in Toronto, where, due to lockdown restrictions, she didn’t have access to a gym, indoor track or even a treadmill. Just like the rest of us, that meant logging a lot of miles in the cold on snow-covered sidewalks and paths — not exactly ideal training conditions for someone with their eye on Olympic standard. On top of that, she had surgery on her Achilles tendon, which required 10 weeks of recovery time before she could start training again. Van Buskirk was finally able to get back to a regular schedule in November, and from there she says she had the most consistent training block she’s had in years.

That consistency paid off, and last Saturday night Van Buskirk, who is 34, smashed the Olympic standard in the 5,000m, running to a 14:59.80 finish. This has been a long time coming for the Toronto resident, who says she’s dreamed of going to the Olympics since she was nine years old.

“If I make this team, I’ll be making my first Olympics at 34, which I think is really cool,” she laughs.

Many others would have given up by now, but Van Buskirk says she’s come so close so many times, which has allowed her to keep believing that her dream was possible. She also credits her family, coach [Dave Reid], her partner Will, and even her employer [Van Buskirk produces and hosts The Shakeout Podcast for Canadian Running], for supporting and facilitating her goals.

“It’s been a combination of persistence toward a dream, moments of success that have reminded me that it’s worth it to keep doing this and giving me the belief that I can, and a really really strong support network,” she says.

Going into her race last Saturday, it was the first time she’d stepped on the track in two years, and three years since she’d race a 5,000m. But she stuck to her primary goal, which was to run the way she knew she could, be confident in her training and execute well — all three of which she did beautifully.

She says that watching Seccafien, who she’d spent that last month living and training with, achieve so much success the night before, also gave her a big boost heading into her own race, and helped to quell her nerves. “She is a consummate professional in every way,” Van Buskirk adds, “in how she conducts her training, her lifestyle approach, the way she sets herself up well for success, and the traveling and the training camps she chooses. All of that was a really good reminder, because it’s really hard to maintain that professional approach day in and day out on your own.”

Van Buskirk says that since neither of them have their partners, coaches or families with them, they have acted as that support system for each other, and she and Seccafien have become known as “team Canada” around Flagstaff.  As an elite athlete in her mid-thirties, Van Buskirk also credits all the other incredible Canadian athletes who are excelling right now, including Malindi Elmore, Natasha Wodak, Dayna Pidhoreski and Melissa Bishop-Nriagu, who are changing the conversation about what it means to be a woman in her mid-thirties and beyond.

“When I think about making my first Olympics potentially at 34, 10 years ago that would have sounded crazy, and now that’s totally accepted and celebrated,” she says.

While both women have been enjoying the afterglow of their stellar performances, Van Buskirk says there is still plenty more racing to be done. With five Canadian women who have all achieved standard in the 5,000m, nothing is guaranteed, and she has more racing planned in the coming weeks. Seccafien, for her part, now owns Olympic-qualifying times in the 5,000m and 10,000m, although she says she isn’t sure if she’ll run both in Tokyo. For now, she’s back in Flagstaff, still trying to process what she accomplished in the 10,000m and refocusing on the races still to come. One thing is for certain: running fans across the country will be watching these two inspiring women to see what they accomplish over the coming weeks.

RELATED: 3 more Canadians hit Olympic standard at USATF Golden Games