(photo by Sandy Nicholson)

This track star qualified for the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games after switching events

Qualifying for an international sporting event such as the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games is typically the culmination of many years’ practice.

But Varsity Blues hurdler Gregory MacNeill managed to get himself ready for the Games in just three months.

“I recently changed my event from short-distance to long-distance hurdles,” says MacNeill. “It was a big leap of faith. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so excited and so proud of myself. It’s the fact that I was able to qualify in such a short period of time.”

MacNeill began tackling the 400m hurdles in March, traveling to Florida and California to take advantage of warm-weather training. 

“I think it's quite rare for someone to pick up a new event and qualify for an international Games in such a short time,” says Bob Westman, the Blues’ assistant coach for sprints and hurdles.  “In Greg's case, we felt he had the components necessary to be successful, however that is by no means a guarantee of success. It came down to his commitment and work ethic.”

MacNeill certainly had his work cut out for him. The first obstacle was to change his body’s engrained approach to hurdling.

“Our first and biggest challenge was to develop the ability to hurdle with both legs interchangeably,” says Westman. “MacNeill’s brain has been programmed to hurdle exclusively on his right leg for years. The first step was to deprogram that old system and reprogram his brain to use both legs freely. This takes time and repetition, but Greg was fantastic at committing to the change.”

In addition to training his body to adapt on the track, MacNeill had to keep a closer eye on his health. A type one diabetic, MacNeill doubles or triples the amount of times he checks his blood sugar whenever he prepares to compete. 

“It’s definitely a challenge, but I’m handling it well,” says MacNeill. “Diabetes can impact a runner, but I think I’ve done a very good job of monitoring it.”

Being away from home and training for a new event at the height of exam season also added pressure for MacNeill. But the American studies major says that a shot at winning Pan Am gold on home turf makes it worth the hard work. 

“It’s always motivating to run in front of friends and family. I’m really looking forward to having that extra support.”

When it comes to fostering positive, supportive energy, MacNeill is ready to give as much as he anticipates receiving. Besides the thrill of competing in his own event, MacNeill looks forward to cheering on his teammate, alumna Sarah Wells. The Olympic hurdler who will also be competing in the Games “has taught me a lot through my whole track career.

“She’s been that big sister, high performance athlete and role model who’s always helped me out when I had any questions. Watching her at the starting line is going to be a special thing for me.”

As Game Day approaches and excitement around the city builds, MacNeill is focusing on keeping a clear perspective. “Yes it’s a bigger stage, but it’s the same thing I do every single day. I come off the blocks the same way,  get over the hurdles the same way, the track is the same size. I think staying conscious of that will go a long way in helping me do the best I can.”

Westman also agrees that MacNeill is in top form for July. 

“The final portion of the race comes down to pure guts…and that Greg has plenty of!” 

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