WHEN North Vancouver runner Jessica Smith crossed the line in third place in the women's 800metre race at the Canadian National Championships and Olympic Trials in Calgary last weekend, there was one overwhelming emotion that came to her.
"Relief," Smith told the North Shore News as she mentally replayed the moment that sent her to her first Olympic Games at the tender age of 22. "I was pretty emotionally invested in the whole race on Friday and Saturday. You look forward to it so much and you're working so hard just to make it official."
Smith cleared a major hurdle in her path to the Games at the Harry Jerome Classic held last month at Swangard Stadium where she beat the Olympic A standard time, becoming the fourth Canadian woman ever to break the two-minute barrier in the 800 m. But to get to the Games she still needed to finish in the top three at last weekend's trials, no easy feat considering that two of the other Canadian women to break two minutes - Melissa Bishop and Canadian record holder Diane Cummins - were also in the race.
"It's easy enough to tell people that I have to come top three at nationals, the Olympic Trials, but it's not all that easy," said Smith with a laugh. "I had to go through semifinals to get to the final. And once you're in the final you have to be in the right position at the right time to guarantee your spot. It's definitely been quite an interesting and exciting journey. When I crossed that line and saw that I had come third there definitely was a sigh of relief and joy."
Smith spent most of this season trying to get that A standard but in Saturday's final she needed to completely change her focus from racing the clock to racing her opponents.
"All season I was just trying to run fast," said Smith. "You've got that clock in the back of your mind. You're also being competitive and trying to go for the win in every race but when there's a standard to chase you're definitely more focused on the time. At nationals it was more placing."
After 200 metres in the final it was obvious the pace was slow and the racers were saving their legs for a final sprint to the line. Smith positioned herself right behind the leaders and waited for the fun to start.
"The race surprised me a little bit in that I thought it was going to go faster than it did," she said. "With 300 to go I could feel the energy. I was sitting in second or third, I could tell that girls were going to come on pretty strong. . . . It was pretty much a race to the finish from 300 out. That last 150 m was definitely allout, give it everything you've got. At that point I definitely was not giving up a spot."
Smith leaned through the line, glancing to her right to see Cummins cross beside her. Smith's margin over the national record holder was just nine hundredths of a second but there wasn't any doubt in her mind that she was third and going to the Games.
"I just had to go out there and get it done," she said. Finally punching her ticket to the Games after working at it all season allows her to enjoy the ride the rest of the way, said Smith.
"It's my first Olympics so I don't really have any expectations of what it's going to be like but I'm definitely more relaxed now that I can just go out and give it my best - a lot of the pressure has been taken off," she said. "The most exciting part for me is going to be being in the Village with all those exceptional athletes from all over the world. Being in the stadium and hearing the crowd, that type of thing."
It's been a fast rise for Smith, a runner who got her start with the NorWesters Track and Field Club. Five years ago she was racing for Argyle secondary, dominating the competition to sweep the 800 m and 1,500 m at the B.C. high school championships. A stellar career at Simon Fraser University followed where she blossomed under the tutelage of Brit Townsend, herself a former Olympic 800 m runner.
"Over the years, from my high school days and my time in the NorWesters Club and all the coaches who have helped me, it's been phenomenal," said Smith. "Back in high school I never would have expected to say that I would be a Canadian Olympian at 22 years of age. But it's been a really exciting experience and I just want to thank everyone who has supported me and helped me get to where I am right now."