A special award from the annual Athletics Ontario Gala and Hall of Fame Induction ceremonies on Saturday (Sept. 27) in Toronto capped a brilliant season on the track for St. Thomas More Catholic Secondary School runner Robert Heppenstall.
The 17-year-old speedster was the winner of AO’s boys’ youth distance category.
Heppenstall excelled in 800 metres. The Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic Athletic Association champion went on to capture a gold medal in that event at the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations meet in Mississauga.
But that was only the beginning. The Hamilton resident also raced to victory last July in the 800m event at the Canadian Junior Track and Field Championships in Sainte-Therese, Que. That performance, along with achieving a qualifying standard time (1:50.23), earned him a berth at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Eugene, Ore.
“I’m pretty happy with the way the year went,” Heppenstall said. “But as an athlete, you’re never satisfied. Hopefully, I can keep going and get better throughout the years.”
After winning the senior boys’ 800m at OFSAA and placing fourth in the 400m, Heppenstall originally intended to compete at the Canadian Youth nationals and try to defend his 800m title from a year earlier. However, coach Phil Steel, convinced him to take a shot at qualifying for the World Junior Championships, instead. That required two things – a 1:50.5 or better qualifying time and either a first or second place finish at the Canadian Junior Championships.
“My coach pushed me to believe I could do it,” said Heppenstall, who ran 1:52.13 at OFSSA. “I needed to lower that OFSAA time by 1.5 seconds. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but in running it’s a long way.”
Against older athletes at the 2014 Canadian Junior competition – such as second-place finisher Elijah Silva of the University of Tulsa – Heppenstall was leading the field after the first lap. “With about 200m left I thought, ‘I’ve got this race’,” he said. “Then, with 100m left I let it all go. When I crossed the finish line it hit me. I’m going to the worlds.
“I can’t describe how I felt. It was a humbling experience. I had always watched the world juniors on TV, but I never thought I would be in that elite category.”
St. Mary Catholic Secondary School graduate Christian Brennan – a student at University of Oregon – also took part in the World Junior Championships. She advanced to the finals of the 400m. Heppenstall did not get past the heat stage, however, with a 1:51.66 clocking.
“It was like an Olympics atmosphere at the worlds,” Heppenstall said. “You really start to appreciate the sport, other countries and different cultures. The talent level at worlds was incredible.
“I really learned a lot in that race. I had never been in a tight race before where it was tactical. It had always been natural, raw talent just going there, not thinking too much, just running. In that race, the wheels were turning in my head. I was hesitant as to when to move and when not to go. When you lose, you learn from it. You pick out the little things you did wrong.”
Heppenstall, who has given up playing high school football and basketball in favour of track and field, witnessed a humorous incident at the AO award presentations. Guest speaker Sultana Frizell of Ottawa – a 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games gold-medal winner in the hammer throw — wore a T-shirt that stated, ‘Running Sucks’. She was also the flag bearer for the Canadian team at the closing ceremonies.
“It was meant to be funny to get the crowd laughing,” Heppenstall said of the T-shirt’s message. “Once in a while it does kind of suck. But I love the sport of running.”
Athletes inducted into the Hall of Fame were Mark McKoy, Silvia Ruegger, Ann Peel, Yvonne Saunders-Mondesire, Jane Haist, Angela Bailey and Marita Payne-Wiggins. The Builders inducted this year were Enrico Toscano, Bill Heikkila and Rolph Lund.
Val Sarjeant of Hamilton was named Volunteer of the Year.