Celebrating Black Excellence in Sports
GAVIN SMELLIE – ATHLETICS
by Aaron Sanders
Gavin Smellie showcases three things that makes athletes successful – persistency, adaptability and leadership. Those traits help him represent Canada in track and field.
Gavin was born in in Kingston, Jamaica. It was there where Gavin turned on the TV and watched the Olympics for the first time. At 10-years-old, he watched Jamaican-Canadian legend Donovan Bailey and American Olympic icon Michael Johnson perform at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
“At that age, it was an amazing sight to see,” Smellie said. “Just watching the 100m dash, the main event, no doubt these guys (Bailey and Johnson) inspired me to go out, put on a pair of spikes and see what I can do.”
The Smellie family moved to Canada when he was 14-years-old. Four years later, Smellie transferred to the Dante Alighieri Academy in North York, Ontario. He wanted to play soccer, but could not play in his first year due to school transfer rules. Instead, he competed in other sports like volleyball, badminton and track and field. When he was eligible for soccer in his second year, Smellie played and went to the OFSAA Championship with both soccer and track and field teams. The problem was that both tournaments were going on at the same weekend. He chose track and field since it was an individual sport, it made it easier for recruiting and he was performing much better in that sport than soccer. He ended up second in the 200m dash and third in the 100m dash in the OFSAA tournament.
Smellie’s first chance at representing Canada came at the 2007 Summer Universiade where he placed fifth in the 200m event. He was point-three-five seconds away from winning the gold medal. Two years later, Smellie returned to the event and participated in two events – the 200m event once again and the 4x100m relay. He and Canada placed sixth and eighth place respectively in 2009.
Gavin running. Photo: Toronto Star
Gavin then participated at the IAAF (now named World Athletics) World Championships four times between 2009 and 2017. In 2011, he was in the middle of running in the 4×100 relay race until he sustained a strained hamstring. Despite the pain, Gavin pushed through for the duration of the race. The injury sidelined him for about a month and made him more eager for the next year.
When he was 26-years-old, Smellie and Team Canada took part in the 2012 Olympic Games in London, England. They made it all the way to the final round of 4×100 relay. However, they were disqualified when one of the runners did not stay inside their border. It was a result that cost them the bronze medal.
The experience from the London Games brought the track and field team even closer as they trained for the next world event – the 2013 World Championships. Gavin returned to the IAAF stage and took his chances at the 4x100m race with his team once again. That time, Team Canada ended up at the podium taking home the bronze medal with a time of 37.92 seconds. A moment filled with vindication and perseverance.
“We came up with an even faster time and that was pretty incredible, knowing that the Canadian record wasn’t too far away,” said Smellie. “I was very happy about that situation [and] we somewhat redeemed ourselves. It was an amazing feeling.”
The Commonwealth Games was next on Gavin’s agenda where he competed twice in 2014 and 2018. His best finish in those two appearances was when he placed eighth in the 200m race in the 2014 Games.
From left: Gavin Smellie, Brendon Rodney, Aaron Brown and Andre De Grasse at the Toronto 2015 PanAmerican Games. Photo: Harry Jerome Classic
In 2017, Gavin and Team Canada took the stage in the World Relays. They brought the gold medal back to Canada after winning the 4x200m relay race.
In 2018, Gavin was 32-years-old, a father and felt that his career was winding down. But, he still wanted to finish the year on a high note. He competed in a meet in Florida where he defeated former world champion Tyson Gay in the 100m dash. Less than a week later, he was in the Johnny Loaring Classic in Windsor, Ontario. It was an event that Gavin initially didn’t want to participate in due to the weather. But thanks to his coach, he reversed his decision and headed to the City of Roses. He got more than he bargained for when the forecast called for rain that day.
“In the preliminaries, my knees were in puddles [at the mark position] and I was like ‘This doesn’t make sense,” Smellie said. “‘It’s going to be very slow.’ When the gun went off, I ran my best to see what I could do in the rain “
The temperamental weather adjusted his game plan in the preliminary round, but he still qualified. Eventually, the weather cleared up and the stage was set for the finals. With a mostly dried up track, Gavin did not hold anything back.
“I knew the prelims I was holding off, but in finals ‘ I’m just going to go and I’m not going to think about anything else,” said Smellie. “When the gun went, I never got off the blocks that fast in my life before and I kept going and went for it.”
Not only did Gavin go for the win, he also set a new personal record by winning the Men’s 100m dash at 10.01 seconds. At the time, it was the fourth fastest time worldwide. At the end of the day, Gavin was grateful that he competed in the Johnny Loaring Classic. It proved to him that even at 32-years-old, he was still at the top of his game.
Gavin racing in London 2017. Photo: Adrian Dennis/Getty Images
“Just thinking back how I just wanted to go there and have fun, I took all that pressure off of me and it led me to great results,” Smellie said.
With the experience of being a Canadian Olympic athlete comes the growth. Smellie says that track and field has taught him a number of valuable things along with advice to pass on to future athletes.
“This sport teaches you the fundamentals in life – discipline [and] the hard work,” said Smellie. “Nothing will come easy. Have respect because if you’re not respectful in this sport, it really could damper you. [For competitions,] if they know you have a bad reputation, they won’t invite you.”
As a role model for future generations, Gavin takes that to heart. As a Jamacian-Canadian, he hopes that people can remember him for being very helpful towards the young generation.
“Leading by example is a good thing,” Smellie said. “Leadership is a big thing now. I just feel like we need more black people in leadership roles where kids can be inspired. If they don’t see it, they won’t do it. If they keep seeing, [for example] NBA players, they might feel like that’s where they belong. If they see a doctor, an engineer, or a firefighter, they can be like ‘Wow, we can do that too.”
Diversity is important in sports and Smellie hopes that everyone, regardless of the background, gets a fair share to make a name for themselves.
“So that everybody gets the same opportunity and not get short handed,” said Smellie. “I feel like being diverse is a beautiful thing. We want everything to be the same for everybody. I don’t want things to be given to [black people]. I want them to actually earn it at the same level as everybody else.”
Gavin at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Photo: Gavin Smellie, Facebook.
One person that is a great example of diversity in Gavin’s life is his former coach – Gold medalist Glenroy Gilbert. He is currently the Head Coach for Athletics Canada and Gavin says Gilbert’s hard work as a coach paid off.
“To see him in the head coach position is just a beautiful thing because I’ve seen him move up the ranks and earn it,” Smellie said. “For him, he accomplished so much that it was even hard for them to take it away.”
Now as a 35-years-old and a father of two daughters (Sydney and Naomi), Smellie’s future is filled with great potential on and off the track. So, what’s next?
“I definitely want to give back to the kids,” Smellie said. “I can’t really limit myself because I’m still in the sport. I just want to accomplish as much as I can. And when I’m done, I might be in coaching, marketing, maybe an entrepreneur. You never know.”