LANGLEY, BC – John Gay remembers the track at McLeod Athletic Park — he raced on it in high school. Yet, as he returns to the park for the first time since those days, he is a changed athlete who has experienced NAIAs, World Championships and the grandeur of the Olympic Games.
Gay, 25, isn’t near done with his career but is already a veteran in Canadian athletics, specifically in the 3,000m and 3,500-metre steeplechase, an event he’s claimed as his own.
Returning to the park where he once raced in high school, the 2022 Canadian Track and Field Championships are special for Gay, even as they fall amid one of the busiest summers of his career. Still, he takes the condensed meet schedule in stride, with Nationals, World Championships and the Commonwealth Games all within a matter of weeks.
In university, Gay ran with the UBC Thunderbirds of the NAIA. Competing in the American collegiate circuit instead of U SPORTS allows UBC track and field athletes to take on various disciplines.
Steeplechase is just one of them, and another main attraction is racewalk — the 2022 National Championship podium featured three former UBC student-athletes. Overall, the NAIA membership makes UBC unique as a school with some participation in U SPORTS and the American ranks.
“In some ways, I think I stumbled into a situation that turned out really good for me, going to UBC,” Gay told 49 Sports ahead of his National Championship event. “I came into my own relatively late and wasn’t especially attractive to schools in the U.S., and UBC fit the perfect mould.”
While staying at home in Kelowna, BC, at UBC Okanagan was an option; it was a trip to UBC Vancouver that sold the teenager on the NAIA and the southern B.C. program.
“It feels bad to say it was the weather, but the idea that I could go for a run in shorts in January was a big factor.”
With the weather on his side, and a program led by Chris Johnson, a familiar coach to Gay, UBC became the destination, and the school has inflicted his career far beyond the confines of the Rasphall Dhillon Track and Field Oval.
Gay didn’t get any other collegiate offers, being an under-recruited kid from Kelowna. Yet, in his short time as a student-athlete, he went from an afterthought recruit to one of North America’s best runners, setting records and winning races across the United States and the NAIA.
“If I stayed in Canada anywhere else, steeplechase wasn’t going to be an option, and the NAIA and UBC was a good fit,” he said. “I won my first NAIA years before I came close to a podium at a National Championship, and it is that bit of early success that motivates you and keeps you in the sport.”
By the time he walked across the stage to receive his UBC Arts degree, he had raced on three continents and beaten some of the world’s best. While a Thunderbird, he competed for Canada at the 2017 World University Games, prepping him nicely for his eventual Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020.
Gay finished 10th in the 3000m steeplechase at the 2017 FISU University Games in Taiwan.
While his time in Point Grey elevated his running to an elite level, adjusting from the student-athlete life to a potential Olympian and full-time athlete was a challenge, albeit not as bad as it is for some.
His coach, Johnson, a local cross country and track coach, was stepping back from his role at UBC at the same time that Gay left the school. Outside of a few independent coaching commitments, Johnson helped a select group of athletes, including Gay, in reaching the Olympic level.
“He has a small group of athletes that I was a part of, and we didn’t change a lot after I graduated,” Gay said. “We both kind of made that transition into post-collegiate together, which was one of the big reasons I’ve continued to progress fairly steadily. It’s just been year on year, moving the chains inch by inch. We didn’t try and rewrite the books.”
With his improvements streamlined in a familiar training atmosphere after he left university, the competitions have only gotten bigger for Gay. While he did not win a medal in his Olympic debut, finishing 15th in the men’s 3,000m steeplechase, the experience set him up for the Paris 2024 cycle.
If there were ever a time to peak and be at the top of the game, it is now, with a 2022 World Championships in Eugene, Oregon, followed by another in 2023, and the Olympics in 2024.
“An Olympic year always augments the emotions and the anxiety around racing chasing times, and that was especially true during a pandemic when travel is so restricted,” Gay said, more relaxed than he was at this time last year. “I haven’t left my time zone once this year, and I’m grateful for that. I won’t even have to leave for World Championships.”
McLeod Athletic Park is a familiar track for Gay, having acquainted himself with the facility racing provincial championships in high school. Now 25 years old; however, he takes on the track with a new lease on the sport, seeking an attainable personal best and Canadian Championship.