Ogbasilassie eyes Canadian spot in world track championship

Canadian Lemlem Ogbasilassie (right) wins the women's 800 meter race at the 2011 Vancouver Sun Harry Jerome International Track Classic at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby July 1, 2011. - Photograph by: Ric Ernst, PNG July is

Canadian Lemlem Ogbasilassie (right) wins the women’s 800 meter race at the 2011 Vancouver Sun Harry Jerome International Track Classic at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby July 1, 2011. – Photograph by: Ric Ernst, PNG

July is always a special month for Victoria-based middle distance runner Lemlem Ogbasilassie. 2011 is no different.

On July 1, Canada Day, Ogbasilassie — a 23-year-old immigrant whose personal story speaks volumes about the risks people will take in order to escape the world’s troubled corners and come here — won the women’s 800 metres at the Harry Jerome International Track Classic.

She whipped around Burnaby’s Swangard Stadium track in a personal best time of two minutes, 01.23 seconds and followed that with a solid second place finish to North Vancouver’s Jessica Smith at the Victoria Track Classic on Sunday.

The results move her a little closer to gaining a spot on the Canadian team for the 2011 world championships that begin August 27 in Daegu, South Korea.

“It would be awesome if I could go to world championships this year,” said Ogbasilassie. “I still haven’t raced a big race for Canada.”

Ogbasilassie knows winning a national team spot won’t be easy. She finished second to Vancouver’s Helen Crofts at national championships last month in Calgary, and now must meet the ‘A’ qualifying standard of 1:59.80 set by the IAAF. Her 2:01.23 time meets the ‘B’ standard of 2:01.30.

But the Montreal resident has never taken the easy route. Not by a long shot.

On July 4, 2003 a 15-year-old Ogbasilassie, who was nearly as naive as she was fast, came to Sherbrooke, Que., to run for Eritrea at the World Youth Championships. On July 13 she finished fourth in the 1,500 metres.

Then, a day later, on July 14th, a day she’ll never forget, Ogbasilassie made a life-altering decision. She hopped on a bus in Sherbrooke. That bus took her to Montreal and the start of a new life.

“On the 14th of July I just decided to stay in Canada,” she said.

“Oh my God, I felt more strong that day than I do today,” she continued when asked to recall the day when everything changed.

“I was just 15. I don’t know how to explain it, but I was so strong. I didn’t even have money. I had $35 when I left home (Eritrea) and someone gave me $20 for dinner (meal money). I didn’t eat any dinner. I didn’t eat any food but I used that money for that bus.”

People helped her. But it was still a struggle. Getting Canadian citizenship and winning a spot on a Canadian national team wasn’t nearly as easy as she thought it would be.

“I was a teenager, so you don’t know what you’re doing,” she said. “I thought it would be easy. I was thinking like a baby. I thought it’s 2003 and by 2004 I’ll be running for Canada and I’ll go to the 2008 Olympics. But it took me almost five years to get Canadian citizenship.”

Ogbasilassie got her Canadian citizenship in September 2007. She has not been back to Eritrea. She said she’s afraid to go.

“I couldn’t go back home,” she said. “I had skipped the country. I felt like I did something wrong. I didn’t know what would happen. Probably they would hurt me. I didn’t want to take a risk to go back home.”

Last year Ogbasilassie moved from Montreal to Victoria to train with Wynn Gmitroski, the man who coached the now retired world championship 800 metre silver medallist Gary Reed.

The partnership is going well. And now she’s chasing the A standard.

Ogbasilassie said she’s been dealing with some persistent tendonitis problems with her left leg but she figures she’ll have a good shot at making the ‘A’ standard at one of the big meets in Europe.

“It’s a really good time for now,” Ogbasilassie said of Friday’s 2:01.23. “If everything is OK I will go to Europe where I can get the ‘A’ standard. I can do it if I go to Europe because the races are faster.”

Then, reminded during her post-race interview Friday that it was Canada Day and that her victory and her story were perfectly timed for the moment, she broke into a big grin.

“Oh yeah it is!,” she said. “It’s July 1. I love July 1! I love July!”

And she’ll have reason to love it a little more if she can get that straight A sometime in the next three or four weeks.

tbell@theprovince.com

aseye.asena@gmail.com

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