Entering Olympic year, Canada’s Ahmed, Knight won’t follow exodus of Bowerman track athletes

Justyn Knight was so focused on his comeback from Achilles tendon surgery and having fun with new teammates that the rate Bowerman Track Club was losing professional athletes didn’t cross his mind.

Calgary-born Grant Fisher of Michigan, the North American record holder in three distances, was the first of the recent departures on Oct. 19. He was followed by Cooper Teare (2022 U.S. 1,500-metre champion) and Elise Cranny, this year’s U.S.women’s champion in the 5,000 and 10,000.

In total, six athletes have left the Nike-sponsored club since it moved 175 kilometres southwest from Portland, Ore., to Eugene in the summer of 2022, coinciding with head coach Jerry Schumacher’s decision to also guide the University of Oregon cross-country and track and field program.

“When people leave, they do it in the best interest for their career,” Knight said in a phone interview from his Eugene apartment. “For me, joining Bowerman was best for my career.”

Knight, a Toronto native, arrived on the scene in early October and isn’t going anywhere, he told CBC Sports, after signing a multi-year contract in late July.

“Across the board my needs are being met here. I feel so supported and happy,” said the 27-year-old Knight, who ran with a partially torn left Achilles tendon and placed seventh in the 5,000 final of his 2021 Olympic debut in Tokyo before having surgery this past June 1.

“Nike has been phenomenal, (as has) Jerry, the rest of the coaching staff and physio team. Jerry’s still the coach and I still have remarkable teammates. I’m as excited as I was prior to signing with the team.”

An email to Schumacher requesting comment was not returned.

Ahmed ‘happy, enjoying training’

Fellow Canadian Moh Ahmed, Knight’s longtime friend and 2021 Olympic silver medallist in the 5,000, also isn’t planning to leave the team he joined in 2014 after starring at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Two-time Olympian Andrea Seccafien of Guelph, Ont., is the other BTC member from Canada.

“I’m happy, healthy, enjoying training and looking to the year ahead,” Ahmed, who is under contract with Nike through the Paris Olympics next summer, said in a text message. “From my point of view, everything remains the same (at Bowerman).

“I have great relationships with the individuals that left and everyone here does. They didn’t leave on bad terms with anyone, including the coaches.”

Ahmed, 32, was seventh but only 64-100ths of a second from bronze-medal position in the 5,000 final at the World Athletics Championships in August. He is under no obligation — contractual or otherwise — to be part of Bowerman but “it continues to be a great situation for him,” said his agent, Dan Lilot, of Aurum Sports Group.

WATCH | Jakob Ingebrigtsen pulls away from Ahmed for world 5,000m win: 

Norway’s Ingebrigtsen wins 5,000m gold, Canada’s Ahmed finishes 7th at worlds

Featured VideoJakob Ingebrigtsen of Norway successfully defends his world title in the men’s 5,000 metres. Moh Ahmed of St. Catharines, Ont., places seventh and leaves his second consecutive World Athletics Championships without a medal.

Evan Jager of Algonquin, Ill., has seen several athletes come and go since joining BTC in 2009, including Canada’s Gabriela DeBues-Stafford and her sister, Lucia Stafford, last year.

The steeplechase runner said after athletes learned of the move to Eugene within a week of worlds being held in the city, there was “the most negative vibe since I’ve been on the team” that didn’t subside until late this season.

“The reminders were frequent that people were unhappy,” recalled Jager, the 2016 Olympic silver medallist. “They were unhappy being in a college town and having to share Jerry. It was a little draining on the people who stayed and tried to make it work. It kind of got old for me and a couple of people I talked to.”

American steeplechase runner Evan Jager says Bowerman athletes recently adopted a positive mindset despite some members being upset about the team’s 2022 move to Eugene. “I’ve never had thoughts of leaving,” he says. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images/File)

Jager lived most of 2022 in Eugene since his wife Sofia, who works in Portland, was on maternity leave for the year. He split most of this year living in the two cities but for the foreseeable future will train on his own in Portland after fully recovering from a misdiagnosed stress fracture in his left foot by mid-September.

Recently, Jager noted, the team agreed to adopt a positive mindset and move forward less than a year from the Olympics.

“I’ve loved being on this team. Some of my best friends have been on this team with me,” said Jager, who is currently renegotiating his contract with Nike. “I’ve never had thoughts of leaving. Jerry is an amazing coach and the team is so good it didn’t make sense.”

‘I feel healthy,’ Knight says

Back to Knight, who ran outside Tuesday for the first time as a BTC member on the track at Hayward Field. It followed a 45-minute workout on an AlterG anti-gravity treadmill, which uses differential air pressure technology to provide effective partial weight-bearing therapy.

“I feel healthy. No problems with the Achilles tendon,” he said of running on the track. “Right now, it’s cleaning up little things like getting my stride where it was (pre-injury). I probably could hop into workouts (with the team) but I gotta do things gradually.”

Knight, who turned pro in 2018 and joined Reebok Boston Track Club, added he should be striving to “get into fitness” in January or February, with a potential return to competitive racing shortly after the outdoor season begins in April.

“I feel for the goals I have for myself, it’s not far-fetched for me to go to the Olympics,” said Knight. “I would like to make the final and be competitive.”

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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