By Taylor Dutch
In the summer of 2016, Kate Van Buskirk completely detached herself from the elite running world. Frustrated after an ongoing battle with injuries and an inflammatory disease, Van Buskirk shut down her Olympic dream. But as time passed and wounds healed, the Canadian record-holder has finally returned to top form in preparation for her first world championships since 2013.
“After not making worlds for so many years, it feels great to be wearing the maple leaf on my chest again,” Van Buskirk told FloTrack via email. “Although I've learned not to be in this sport just to make teams or make money — because the reality is, at times you won't make either — it is nonetheless gratifying to be back in the Canadian kit, toeing the line with the best in the world.”
On Friday, the 30-year-old from Toronto will compete in the first round of the 1500m at the 2018 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, England. Van Buskirk earned the opportunity to compete for the national team after a season which included a Canadian record and a mile title at the national championship.
Van Buskirk made her 2018 debut with a breakthrough performance of 4:26.92 in the mile to win the Dr. Sander Invitational in New York City on January 27. The mark beat the previous Canadian record of 4:27.02 set by Sheila Reid in 2013. The performance also shattered her previous indoor mile personal best of 4:30.14.
“That mile record was a great little surprise,” she said. “Honestly, I was more pleased with the way I executed that race than with the time. But especially given that it was my season opener, I was thrilled to have achieved world standard.
“I actually didn't know for about an hour after the race that it was a Canadian record! That was the cherry on top of a great day. Although, with the depth of Canadian women's middle distance running right now, I don't expect it to last very long!”
A week later, Van Buskirk ran another personal best of 8:49.02 in a competitive 3K at the Millrose Games before winning the mile on February 3 at the Canadian indoor national championships, officially securing her position in Birmingham.
Van Buskirk earned the right to wear the maple leaf again after a gut-wrenching series of setbacks, which she described in a blog for CBC Sports. One week after earning a bronze medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Van Buskirk suffered from a torn hamstring that sidelined her for months. When she made her return in 2015, she started to have intense pain in her pelvis and lower back. Eventually, she was diagnosed with spondyloarthropathy, an inflammatory rheumatic disease that causes extreme pain in the joints and, in some cases, spinal fusion. The 2016 Olympic year followed with more disappointment.
She reflected on the painful memory in her writing: “As my physical condition persisted, my emotional state deteriorated. Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications helped a bit; work with a psychologist helped more. But it wasn’t enough. After months of frustration, depression, and physical pain, and with only three weeks to go, I withdrew my name from the Canadian Olympic Trials. On Thursday June 16, 2016, I put my track spikes in a box on the top shelf of my closet and closed the door. In doing so, I closed the door on my Olympic dreams for that summer.”
While it would have been easy for Van Buskirk to hang up her spikes forever, she instead made the decision to return to the track. After a long, healing, and reflective break, she started training again for the 2017 season. The year was highlighted by a season’s best of 4:07 in the 1500m, a personal best of 15:22 in the 5K, and several competitive performances over the summer that ended with a season’s best of 4:29 in the mile.
After an arduous journey back to health, Van Buskirk is ready to take advantage of her long-awaited opportunity at the world championships.
“Returning from a setback is relieving and perspective-shifting,” she said. “I've grown to appreciate my body, to explore its potential, and to respect its limitations far more than I did when I was a younger athlete. I've learned to be grateful just to be able to run, since there were times when I questioned if I would be every do that again.
“The most important realization for me was that I am in love with my sport, and even in the toughest moments, I wasn't ready to give it up. Setbacks force you to answer some hard questions and I've come away from those challenges with a renewed sense of commitment to and love of running. And it's helping me to savour the good times so much more.”