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U of T's Sarah Wells at the Olympics

Physical education and health student Sarah Wells began training with the U of T Junior Development Team when she was 15 (photo courtesy of Sarah Wells)

Hurdler Sarah Wells has been involved with sport since her youth - an experience defined by hard work, injuries and perseverance. Her list of achievements includes making five national teams and, most recently, winning Gold at the National Championships in Calgary to secure her spot on the Olympic team.

Before taking on the world at London, Wells spoke with writer Gavin Au-Yeung.

How did it feel to win in Calgary and secure your spot on the Olympic team?

I thought it would be a feeling I could predict, but I was more ecstatic than I could have ever imagine. I appreciate it even more especially because my whole family was there.

To have them all run down from the stands to me, the moment I realized I would be in the Games, was really great.

Is there a particular athlete or event you want to watch in London?

I have a friend competing in the modern pentathlon [U of T's Donna Vakalis], so I’m excited to go and watch her compete. It’ll be cool to see the two of us Varsity Blues compete at the Games.

And I’d love to see the diving; I think it’s an incredible sport. It’s just spectacular to watch the art.

A year or two ago, did you think you’d be competing in the 2012 Games?

Competing in the Games was always a goal of mine; I knew I had the athletic potential.

However, last year I was diagnosed with a femoral stress fracture. I couldn’t train intensively for nine months. I didn’t know if I could get back on the track and make up for lost time, because it was a struggle returning to high performance shape.

I always told myself the Olympics were a possible goal, but at the time I don’t know if I truly believed it. It was only a couple months ago that I started thinking it was achievable.

Can you describe that nine-month rehabilitation?

Every workout was grueling because I didn’t have my usual levels of fitness and strength. I met with a lot of doctors to ensure my nutrients were balanced. That way, when I did step back on the track I would be in the best possible shape.

From there on, it was a lot of hard work and pushing through. There were times when I didn’t want to keep going. But in the end I was happy to go through it all – it definitely paid off.

What’s your mindset entering a competition?

I put a lot of pressure on myself to meet certain standards, but I’m a nervous person. So I talked with my sports psychologist and coaches to work on being able to read my psyche and avoiding anxiety. For example, taking two deep breathes is something I use to relax and focus during a race. Competing is nerve racking, but I know it’s something I’ve accomplished many times in practice.

How did you get involved with hurdles?

My coach, Dave Hunt, recruited me to train with the U of T Junior Development Program when I was 15. After eight months I made the world youth team and I realized I could compete at a higher level in the future. At 17 I was training with the varsity team which further developed my talents.

Dave is a hurdling coach, so it’s something I adopted, and it ended up being what I was best at.

Can you describe your training schedule?

I train six days a week; which includes four intensive workouts and two lighter ones. But there’s also a heavy time commitment beyond the track. A lot of time is spent in the clinic doing physiotherapy. And almost everything I do is somehow related towards competing. This could involve what I eat or spending time to rest and recuperate. It’s extremely busy, but I’m happy with the choices I’ve made.

How does being able to participate in the Games stack up to some of your prior accomplishments?

This is the top of every accomplishment I’ve ever had, and something so few people get to experience. Being named an Olympian is an everlasting accomplishment – it goes beyond your year of participation. This accomplishment isn’t just about 2012; but the past eight years of my life.

The feeling is something that can’t even be explained because it’s such an unreal experience. Even a couple days after being named to the team, I still don’t think I understand the severity of how great the Games and the experience are going to be.

What are some of the more challenging aspects of an Olympic athlete which may be overshadowed by the glamour?

Many amateur athletes have commitments beyond training. We’re not a country that is amazed by track and amateur sport so there’s less fan base, less facilities, and less earning potential. That means I need to focus on schooling to prepare for my future. Professional sports athletes have more opportunities to succeed because they can completely focus on training and are financially stable.

I’m heavily involved with schooling and worked as a personal trainer during the entire time I was preparing for competition. I know I’ll need to have a job after my athletic career.

How has your time at U of T helped in shaping you to the athlete you are today?

The University of Toronto is great at supporting athletes and training them towards a level of high performance beyond their academic career. The program isn’t about trying to get the most production out of me within my time as a Varsity Blue; it’s about developing me as a complete athlete. I’ve been fortunate to be part of the program and allowed access to the facilities and medical staff to achieve this type of success. I really don’t know if I would be in the same position had I selected a different school.

What’s in store for you after the Games?

I’ve made a lot of connections through sports, and I’d love to work in a sports-medicine clinic or maybe become a nurse practitioner. My ultimate dream would be to get into sports medicine through nursing because I’d get to combine my two passions!

I’ll be applying to the U of T nursing program after next year.