Whenever Charles Philibert-Thiboutot crossed paths with fellow Canadian runner Will Paulson last season, he remembers his usually relaxed and funny friend feeling stressed about qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics later in the year.
Paulson ultimately fell 42-100ths of a second short of the three-minute, 35-second automatic entry standard in the men’s 1,500 meters and struggled to regain his improved form, posting times up to six seconds slower to finish his season.
“I know it was mentally tough for him to rebound from being so close,” said Philibert-Thiboutot, who was 1.44 seconds shy of the Olympic standard, only to run 3:34.23 shortly after the qualifying window had closed.
In April, the reigning Canadian champion from Quebec City noticed a big change in his friend at an altitude training camp in Flagstaff, Ariz., where Paulson was working out with his Oregon Track Club Elite teammates. He and Philibert-Thiboutot hung out regularly and ran together a couple of times.
“I could see he was in a much better state [of mind]. He was telling me about his workouts,” Philibert-Thiboutot said, “which on paper were impressive and dominant and quite telling because there are Olympic finalists in his training group.
“He told me his mentality has shifted this year in training and it’s more about having fun and giving his best rather than trying to chase a [specific time]. Seeing that his training had gone well, and his mentality had changed, I think the breakout was around the corner. He was hungry for more.”
Later in April, Paulson met the 3:35 standard for the track and field world championships in July with a 3:33.97 performance at the Bryan Clay Invitational in Azusa, Calif.
Self-belief key in setting personal best
He will run his first-ever Diamond League 1,500 this Sunday at 2:15 pm ET in the Mohammed VI International Athletics Meeting in Rabat, Morocco.
Self-belief and being in a training environment that challenges Paulson daily, Philibert-Thiboutot told CBC Sports, were key factors in the 27-year-old setting his personal best.
Last Saturday, they raced together in the men’s Bowerman Mile (1,609 metres) at the Diamond League’s Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore. — site of the July 15-24 worlds — where Paulson spent the bulk of the 1,609-metre race jostling for position, wasting energy and unable to break free from the back of the pack.
With fewer than 200 meters remaining, he outkicked Philibert-Thiboutot and others to place eighth in 3:52.42, nearly 10 seconds faster than his previous best of 4:01.78. Philibert-Thiboutot was ninth (3:53.82).
Paulson turned professional in January 2020, joining OTC Elite after representing Great Britain. He was born in Oxford, England and has dual Canadian-British citizenship, thanks to his French-Canadian mother and British father.
In the fall of 2013, Paulson moved to the United States and pursued his track and field dreams at Princeton University in New Jersey, where he graduated in 2018 with a degree in biology. Paulson then completed a one-year master’s program at Arizona State University in Phoenix.
He set the indoor mile school record (3:58.07) in his lone season as a Sun Devil and won a Pac-12 title in the outdoor 1,500.
Paulson didn’t meet the 2019 world standard but won the 1,500 at his first Canadian championships that year and earned a bronze medal 11 days later at the Pan Am Games in Peru, representing Canada for the first time.
1st 200 meter win of the season
Sprinter Jerome Blake is the other athlete representing Canada this weekend in Rabat, competing in the men’s 200 at 2:58 pm ET. The event begins at 2 pm ET on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app and CBC Gem.
I would like to clean up my entire run. I want to be more smooth off the turn and on the straight.— Canadian sprinter Jerome Blake on his plan for the 200 meters in Rabat
The 26-year-old from Kelowna, BC, won his first race of the season in the distance on Tuesday, stopping the clock in 20.14 seconds to defeat American Elijah Hall at the 61st Ostrava Golden Spike track and field meet in the Czech Republic.
WATCH | Blake tops 200-metre field in 20.14 seconds in Ostrava:
“I’m still running great times even while making mistakes,” Blake said of his first victory in a 200 final since July 7, 2019 at the BC Athletics Championship Jamboree in Kelowna. “I would like to clean up my entire run [for Rabat]. I want to be more smooth off the turn and on the straight. With better acceleration, I think that would set me up for a good time.”
Blake’s toughest opponent will probably be Kenny Bednarek, the 23-year-old American making his season debut in the 200. The 2021 Diamond League Trophy winner boasts a 19.68 PB from his silver medal effort in last year’s Olympic final, and is fresh off a 10.18, seventh-place finish in the 100 at the Prefontaine Classic.
Reigning Olympic champions Elaine Thompson-Herah (women’s 100) and Karsten Warholm (men’s 400 hurdles) are among the international headliners at the Prince Moulay Abdellah sports complex in Rabat.
Thompson-Herah, 29, has usurped Jamaican teammate and two-time Olympic gold medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce as world no. 1 with six victories in as many races, including heats, this season. Marie-Josée Ta Lou, from the Ivory Coast, is the other big name in the 2:28 pm ET race. She was fourth in the Olympic final last summer in Tokyo.
The top-ranked Warholm, 26, will be racing for the first time since September when he capped an undefeated 2021 season with a 48.08-second showing in Berlin. He owns the world record at 45.94 and won’t have to face Brazil’s Alison Dos Santos, the season leader in 47.23.
American Khallifah Rosser’s 48.10 is the fastest in 2022 of those in the field for Sunday’s showdown at 3:27 pm ET.
After Sunday, the Diamond League season resumes June 9 at the Golden Gala in Rome, beginning at 2 pm ET on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app and CBC Gem.
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.