Perhaps nobody was surprised as Ben Thorne when he crossed the Bird’s Nest finish line third in the men’s 20km race walk, earning Canada’s first medal of the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015.
Until his stunning performance on the Beijing circuit set up adjacent to the Bird’s Nest stadium, he might be best known as part of the Race Walk West training group cobbled together by coach Gerry Dragomir in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The 22-year-old mechanical engineering student earned a silver medal at the World University Games earlier this season, a consolation prize maybe, after being the odd man out in the Canadian Pan American Games selection. His training partners Evan Dunfee and Inaki Gomez were handed the two available spots and went on to take gold and silver in Toronto.
But Thorne is astute enough to know there is an enormous difference between the World University Games and the World Championships.
“I would trade a silver medal from the World University Games for a bronze in the World Championships any day,” Thorne said. “But they are both great events.
“I think the World University Games race was a springboard for me. We came down from altitude training in Switzerland and a week later I am in (Gwangju) Korea. I was so happy at the time and that was my best performance at an international race. And now, somehow, to go from that to a World Championships medal is just unreal. I don’t know how I did it.”
Thorne is a humble young man in a humble man’s event. And, as he made his way from interview to interview, he kept one eye on the clock to phone his parents in Kitimat, British Columbia, and his girlfriend in Vancouver without having to wake them. Not expecting a medal, he had left his mobile phone in his hotel room.
Kitimat, to the uninitiated, is a town on British Columbia’s western coast just below the Alaska panhandle. Its 8400 residents thrive on aluminium mining and fishing and they endure notably harsh winters. It is here that Thorne took up cross-country skiing in high school – finishing 10th in the Western Canadian Championships one year – and then race walking.
“I was born in Kitimat and lived there for 17 or 18 years, then I moved to Vancouver in order to study mechanical engineering at UBC,” he said. “The race walk coach and my training partners are in Vancouver so that helps. Also it snows a lot in Kitimat, so it’s hard to train through the winter.
“There is an indoor arena with a 200-metre track along the top but you have to go up and down stairs (each lap) and if you don’t want to then you have to brave the slush outside.”
The beauty of the surrounding area is not lost on Thorne who admits to being a keen outdoorsman. Each summer he and his family enjoy hiking and camping in the mountains for four or five days at a time, carrying backpacks filled with sleeping bags, tents and food. The area, he says, is mountainous and beautiful and there is enjoyment in reaching a high mountain pass. But he has also had experiences that were a little too much even for an outdoorsman like him.
“There was one time I was race walking at the side of a highway and all of a sudden I saw a grizzly bear in the ditch,” he recalls. “So I had to stop and turn around. The common practice when confronting a grizzly bear is to stop, hold your ground and then slowly back away. I did. And then it wasn’t interested in me. It looked at me, sniffed, then turned around and ran away. So I was the bigger man that day.”
He laughs at his joke and it is clear the enormous achievement of taking home a medal – particularly when he struggled to finish 20th at the 2013 World Championships two years ago – has yet to sink in.
He says all the weeks of 150-160km race walking have paid off, but he also knows that things will change now.
“Before (Beijing) I was thinking a natural progression would be top five at the Olympics,” he says. “I think I have to adjust that and look at least getting a better colour of medal. I think I sort of had an advantage this year because nobody knows who I am. I was under the radar. Next year people will be looking at me and expect me to do good things.
“I am going to need to up the training and make sure I am ready to meet expectations and defend against the competitors. So it does change things.”
Paul Gains for the IAAF