Evan Dunfee has raced on countless difference courses, in virtually every type of condition imaginable over his distinguished race walking career.
Nude sunbathers marked a first.
The 27-year-old from Richmond, B.C., who famously was bumped out of the bronze-medal position at the 2016 Rio Olympics, walked to an easy win in the men's 20-kilometre race at the NACAC Championships on the meet's opening day Friday.
The race walk was held on an open course on the Toronto Islands, forcing walkers to dodge the odd cyclist and pedestrian. It wound past Hanlan's Point nude beach.
"Traffic was a bit busy, there were trucks on the course at certain points. It felt a little bit like Mario Kart to be honest. Dodging things. Just needed some banana peels, we would've been set," Dunfee said, laughing. "A few guys coming up from the nude beach, kind of caught us offguard.
"It was not short of entertainment."
Dunfee was one of the feel-good stories of the Rio Olympics, when he crossed fourth in the 50K race, but was upgraded to bronze after Japan's Hirooki Arai was disqualified for jostling the Canadian. Arai won an appeal, bumping Dunfee back to fourth. Dunfee opted not to pursue a counter-appeal, saying in a statement: "I will sleep soundly tonight, and for the rest of my life, knowing I made the right decision. I will never allow myself to be defined by the accolades I receive, rather the integrity I carry through life."
Class of the field
Dunfee was the class of Friday's small field, racing to a time of one hour 25 minutes 39 seconds to win Canada's first gold of the meet. He and American Nick Christie paced each other for about eight kilometres before Dunfee pulled ahead for good to win by more than four minutes.
Only four walkers competed, and three finished. American Emmanuel Corvera was disqualified.
Small fields were the norm in most events Friday night at the University of Toronto's Varsity Stadium as well. There were just three women in both the 3,000-metre steeplechase and the women's 5,000, and just five in the men's 10,000.
The NACAC Championships are for athletes from North America, Central America and the Caribbean, but Dunfee pointed out the 2018 Central American and Caribbean Games, which ended Aug. 3 in Colombia, caused a logjam in the schedule for those countries.
"Federations don't have that much money so they can't have a meet in Colombia and pay for that, and a week and a half later turn around and bring everyone to Toronto for a meet," he said.
The NACAC championships, however, are an important fixture in the IAAF's revamped qualifying criteria for the world championships and Olympics. Rather than set times and distances athletes must meet, the new qualifying criteria will be based on rankings that are tabulated partly on points earned in international meets such as the NACAC championships.
Despite some reduced fields, the meet is dotted with some bonafide superstars. American Kendra Harrison, the world recorder-holder in the 100-metre hurdles, won her semifinal Friday night in a fast 12.66 seconds. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, a two-time Olympic champion in the 100 metres, will race that event Saturday. Cuba's teen sensation Juan Miguel Echevarria will compete in the long jump Sunday.
De Grasse looks on
Canada is missing its biggest star. Andre De Grasse shelved his season after straining his hamstring last month, and while he signed autographs and posed for pictures for a long lineup of fans at Varsity Stadium, meet organizers obviously would have preferred the three-time Olympic medallist lining up in the start blocks.
In other Canadian results Friday, Tim Nedow won silver in the men's shot put with a personal best 12.02 metres, while Jillian Weir was second in the women's hammer throw. Kate Van Buskirk won bronze in the 5,000. Johnathan Cabral won his semifinal in the 110-metre hurdles, and Aaron Brown and Chrystal Emmanuel posted the fastest times in the men's and women's 200 metres semifinals.
For Dunfee, the race was the perfect gauge of his fitness coming off a couple months' break. He took time off after the world team championships in May, returning for last month's national championships.
"Basically started back from zero, healed up some injury things, built up some strength, really was just starting over, so this was built in perfectly . . . the time here was nothing impressive, but for me it means a lot, it shows I'm heading in the right direction."
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