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Rachel Cliff opens up about not getting to fulfill Olympic dream

This month, Rachel Cliff got news that though she achieved the Olympic Standard, she would not be on the team. In the weeks before the Olympics, she reflects on not being able to compete for Canada this time around.

The July 11 announcement of the Team Canada athletics roster left a few runners disappointed. Some notably strong athletes were left off the team and two submitted appeals. Runners had a 48-hour window to do so after the announcement was made if they felt they were wrongly not included.

One of those athletes is Rachel Cliff.

The standard set by Athletics Canada for the women’s 5,000m was 15:24. Cliff slid under that standard on June 28 when she ran a 15:23:94. She was paced by Canadian 10,000m record-holder Natasha Wodak in a mixed gender race, which does not interfere with rules around running the Olympic standard, as she was paced by a female.

At this year’s Olympic trials in Edmonton, she placed fourth. To get the automatic go-ahead to be named to the team, an athlete must have had the standard and earned a top two position in the trials. Then, a third athlete could be named to the team however Athletics Canada uses their own discretion when doing so.

On July 11, the day the roster was released, Cliff was shocked that she wasn’t going to be sent to represent Canada in the 5,000m. Toronto’s Andrea Seccafien and Calgary’s Jessica O’Connell were selected after placing first and second at the trials. Cliff submitted an appeal but lost. She has recently opened up to us about the disappointment of not getting to go to the Olympics this year.

Update [July 22]:

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for Athletics Canada clarified their position regarding Cliff’s qualifying time, her not being selected and her failed appeal. “Rachel’s standard was recognized by Athletics Canada,” the spokesperson said via email, “this point did not weigh in the selection process by the National Team Committee. [See her result in the rankings here] As far as Athletics Canada is concerned, it was a legitimate result. Performance at Trials was weighed heavily by the National Team Committee in all selections to the team. Outside of the relay pools, no athlete was selected to the team who finished outside of the top three at Trials.”

We spoke to Cliff about her reaction to her experience attempting to qualify for Team Canada, how she felt about the snub, and her rejected appeal.

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CR: Do you think the subjectivity of the selection criteria is a good thing or a bad thing for athletes?

RC: In my opinion there’s no reason to have subjective criteria in a sport as objective as track and field. If you expect your athletes to finish in the top three at the Olympic Trials that’s fine but, just tell them. Do you want them to run the Olympic standard in 2016? Again that’s fine, but tell the athletes so they don’t spend time and money chasing qualifying standards in 2015. Do you want your selection to be based on season rankings, or on their place at trials? Let the athletes know. This is just my opinion and I understand there’s an argument against it as well.

Having subjective criteria leaves athletes stressed and struggling to know what they need to do in order to be selected. While, this is unavoidable in some sports it is uncalled for in track and field where everything is measurable. I also think the criteria should be as inclusive as possible. The IAAF already set the Olympic standards to be challenging. Achieving them proves one’s worthiness to compete on the world stage.

CR: Would you still consider the year a successful one despite this disappointment? You improved and hit a time few others were able to.

RC: Absolutely. Coming into 2016, I knew there was a good chance I wouldn’t make the Olympics: I was 10 seconds off the standard in the 5,000m and 34 seconds off it in the 10,000m. I was aware of the risks: scenarios where I didn’t gain enough fitness to run a standard, where I’d run it but the team would be filled with three other 5K and 10K girls, or that I’d be too aggressive in training and get injured. I never considered the scenario where I’d check every box and still be left off the team with the third spot unfilled.

Every day for the past few months I’ve woken up with one major goal in mind: the Olympics. I focused solely on athletics, taking care of every detail, putting absolute faith in my coach and treating running like my job. It all paid off in June when I reached a new level as an athlete. On June 28, I became the third Canadian woman to hit the Olympic standard in the qualifying period and wanted to showcase my fitness at the Olympic Games and make my country proud.

CR: What are some other things that fans of running or the Olympics need to know about the selection process?

RC: I think as spectators and fans of the sport we can get so caught up in the excitement of the Games that we focus on the success stories. It’s easy to overlook the fact that with every team announcement comes heartbreak. There are many talented athletes who will be left at home this year. The morning after my final appeal was denied, for the first time in years, I woke up without knowing what my next goal was. It was an emptiness like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I’m not the only athlete in this position. I’m very proud of what I accomplished this season and I’m so thankful for the outpouring of support I’ve received. My Olympic dream didn’t play out how I pictured it but I know that I gave it everything I had. I have a lot of good friends and my husband competing at the games. I’ll be down in Rio and I look forward to cheering them on.