Winnipeg Runner Nicole Sifuentes on a Quest to Make Canada’s Olympic Team in Rio
ALGARY – Upon graduation from the University of Michigan, Nicole Sifuentes felt like a real-life MythBuster working as a forensic engineer.
Her job required her to gather the facts surrounding all sorts of calamities and deduce what went wrong when disaster struck.
“It’s litigation based,” says the Winnipegger, who won bronze in the 1,500 metres at the 2014 World Indoor Championships. “A bridge collapses. Whose fault is it? Was the bridge constructed properly when it was first put up? Or was it a shoddy job? Why did it happen? We would do a lot of car accident, truck accident scenes and we would reconstruct the accident. Whose fault is it? You’re suing me, I’m suing you. They need an expert witness.”
These days, Sifuentes uses the full power of her investigative skills in the quest to represent Canada at the Rio Olympics. Her efforts are centred on qualifying for the Games at the Canadian trials this week in Edmonton and then peaking in Rio.
She examines her races — good and bad — and applies the lessons for the next time she lines up on the track.
So far, so good. With less than four weeks until the Olympics begin, she ran a personal best of four minutes, 3.97 seconds earlier this month in Greenville, S.C. – just 1/100th of a second behind the season-best time of Toronto’s Sheila Reid, the top-ranked Canadian.
Veteran Hilary Stellingwerff, of Sarnia, Ont., is also in the mix with an Olympic qualifying time of four minutes, 5.61 seconds. Toronto’s Gabriela Stafford is within half a second of the magic mark.
Canada will send two or three women to race the 1,500 metres in Rio.
“We have four girls who run really fast,” says Athletics Canada head coach Peter Eriksson. “So one of them is not going for sure.”
Known for her dogged attention to detail, Sifuentes, 30, arrives in Edmonton knowing she has done everything in her power to book passage to her second Olympics.
“She leaves no stone unturned in her training and preparation,,” says Dianne Sproll, who coached Sifuentes as a teenager in Winnipeg. “If you think of it, she’s covered it. She is single-minded and more than determined. Whatever it takes, she is going to do it. I’ve never come across an athlete like her before. She just has such intensity.”
Sproll first witnessed that intensity when Sifuentes and her sister joined the Winnipeg Optimist Athletics after a successful elementary school track meet.
Before she tried running, Sifuentes figured she had zero talent in any sports – especially given her awkward attempts at basketball and soccer in gym class.
“I was awful,” she says. “Just terrible. I have no co-ordination. None. I am only a runner.”
Looking back, Sifuentes figures Sproll helped set the foundation for her career. Goal-setting — complete with detailed plans on how to succeed instead of merely dreaming – was encouraged. Complaining was frowned upon.
And above all, Sproll wanted her charges to enjoy their time at the track, which proved difficult at times for a high-achiever like Sifuentes.
“She is very intense and she would be very, very unhappy if she lost a race,” Sproll says. “Sometimes, she would be crying for half an hour straight. I’m not exaggerating. Moaning, crying – no one could console her. It was quite something. And then she would bounce back a day or two later and be more determined and stronger than ever.”
Buoyed by that passion and determination, Sifuentes attended Michigan on a track scholarship, where she earned her degree in civil engineering.
In 2012, Sifuentes might have raced in the dirtiest event in Olympic history. Six of the women in the final have been caught or are under suspicion of cheating, including gold medallist Asli Cakir Alptekin of Turkey, who was stripped of her gold medal last summer and is serving an eight-year ban. Stellingwerff made the London semifinal, failing to advance to the final of that race by one agonizing spot. Sifuentes was 10th in her heat. Neither will ever know what might have happened in a clean field.
Instead of dwelling on what she can’t control, Sifuentes is simply focused on running her best race. And while that intensity never left her, she realizes the trials are not a matter of life or death and that she will survive no matter what happens.
“As a favourite to make the Olympic team, the pressure could be crushing me, but instead I am lighthearted,” Sifuentes wrote recently on her blog. “I very badly want to make the team, but simply do not feel that I HAVE TO.”
Once she reaches the finish line of her running career, a career in engineering – perhaps once again as a MythBuster — awaits.
But in the meantime, a chance at Olympic success is upon her in what everyone hopes is a Games not marred by doping.
“Never, ever, underestimate Nicole,” Sproll says. “I know I never have and I never will.”