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Sage Watson’s race that changed everything

The Canadian Olympian takes us back to her final collegiate 400m hurdles race - in which she became NCAA champion

In CR‘s series entitled ‘The Moment That Changed Everything,’ we take an in-depth look at a momentous race, event, or happening in the career of a runner that has helped shape them into the athlete they are today. (So far, we’ve chatted with Charles Philibert-Thiboutot and Luc Bruchet.)

Rio Olympian Sage Watson stars in this week’s feature. The 2017 NCAA 400m hurdles champion for the University of Arizona takes us back to the final race of her varsity career, in which she claimed her first individual NCAA title, while setting herself up for a successful debut as a professional athlete.


As told to Alex Cyr

“To understand how important this race was for me, you have to know the full story. In 2012, I decided to attend school in the NCAA, despite having many people advise me to stay in Canada, thinking that I would fall victim to the rigorous training regime and get injured. It made most sense for me, however, to go to the states. The athletics were stronger, and my schooling was paid for. I chose to attend Florida State University.

“Unfortunately, things did not start off so well. In my sophomore year, I had developed a stress fracture in my foot, which caused me to red-shirt the 2014 track season. I worked hard to find my stride again, and managed to get healthy by 2015. There was, however, a coaching change at Florida State. I did not feel like I was in the right environment to succeed anymore. So, after three years competing in Florida, I started to look at other schools offering a strong mix of academics and athletics, where I could stay healthy and compete at my best again.

“University of Arizona fit that mould for me. I clicked well with the coach, Fred Harvey, and I was finding my groove again. In my Junior year, 2016, I won bronze in the 400m hurdles, and made the Canadian Olympic team that summer. A NCAA gold medal, however, still eluded me.

“This brings me to 2017 – my senior year. Though some of my focus was directed towards the IAAF World Championship later in the summer, I wanted to perform my best at NCAAs. I knew I finally had a shot at that title. The national championship was in Eugene, Ore.

“I comfortably made it through the heats, but was getting increasingly nervous for the final. The race was on Saturday, and agents and scouts were there, about to watch me run. It felt like my whole track career would be defined by that day. I felt a lot of pressure. Thankfully, my coach was there to reassure me, and he helped me focus. Once I got into the blocks, it felt like I had already won – I had played out that scenario so many times in my head.

“The gun went off. I rounded the first corner, and not even halfway through the lap, I saw a competitor from USC challenging me. It urged me to pick up the pace on the last bend. When I turned towards the home stretch, I was running for my life, fighting to keep the lead. I threw my arms up in the air as I crossed the line in first place. As an added bonus, I had run a PB of 54.52. It was a huge relief. After being injured and coming so close for years, I had accomplished my goal.

“Looking back, that race was momentous for me. I had to run in the 54 second range to get a sponsorship. In the running world, they are hard to come by. Winning the race would not have been enough – I needed that time, too.  This race is dear to me, because it was the time where I had to prove myself the most, and I was able to make it happen. Months later, I was fortunate to sign with Nike. Now, I can pursue my sport as a professional.”