They didn’t medal, but they did make Canadian Olympic history.
Comox Valley athletes Cam Levins and Geoff Kabush were both in action on the final weekend of the 2012 Summer Games in London.
At Olympic stadium on Saturday, distance runner Levins became the first Canadian in 100 years to run in the men’s 5,000-metre final. Battling illness, he finished 14th in the 15-man field. On Sunday, cross-country cyclist Kabush finished a solid eighth in his 50-rider event at Hadleigh Farm, the best men’s Olympic mountain bike result in Canadian history.
Competing in his third Olympics, Kabush topped his previous best Games result, ninth in Sydney in 2000. In a race to the wire, Jaroslav Kulhavy of the Czech Republic edged Swiss rider Nino Schurter by a single second. Italy’s Marco Aurelio Fontana took the bronze, riding the final few kilometres without a bicycle seat. The winning time was one hour, 29 minutes, seven seconds.
Kabush finished in 1:30.43, just 1:36 behind Kulhavy, after trying to track lead groups of three and then five riders.
“I just wasn’t able to get in that lead group,” the Courtenay competitor told the media. “But I was close, maybe just lacking the little bit of snap to get up there with the leaders,” he said.
“I really felt comfortable and confident on the starting line. It was a close race and there are so many variables and things that can change the course of a race,” Kabush said. “I dreamed big and I came up with the goal of winning a medal. But I accept my eighth place and I’m satisfied,” the seven-time Canadian champion stated.
To appreciate how close Kabush was on Sunday, he finished two minutes closer to the gold medallist than fellow Canadian Catharine Pendrel managed in the women’s race the day before. Pendrel, the reigning world champion, finished ninth.
The only other Canadian in the men’s race, Max Plaxton of Victoria, had an early fall and later abandoned the race just before the 20-km mark. The 34.08-km men’s route saw the riders complete seven loops of a course just under five kilometres long.
“Coming to the Olympics you always dream big. I definitely came here with the goal of a medal, but top eight is a great result,” Kabush told reporters. “I’ll take some satisfaction out of that and just continue to enjoy riding my bike.”
The 35-year-old Courtenay native, a graduate of G.P. Vanier, would get his next kick at the Olympic cat in 2016 in Rio.
Meanwhile, Kabush’s fellow Vanier grad Levins, who on Aug. 4 made an auspicious Olympic debut by running the best-ever 10,000m race by a Canadian, followed that up on Aug. 8 by becoming the first Canadian to qualify for the 5,000m final in 100 years.
Levins set a personal best of 13:18.29 in the 5,000m qualifying heats (finishing eighth), and prior to the Aug. 11 final told reporters, “I would really love a top-10 performance,” in the 5,000m. “I’ve dreamed of this my whole life. I’ve looked up to these guys for years, just waiting for the day I could run with them and experience that. It’s happened. Hopefully in the future I can run with them the whole time.”
As his hometown Black Creek fans watched from their homes or gathered at the Salmon Point Pub for the event, they saw Levins hang back in the field, with his trademark finishing kick never materializing. The reason did not become known until after the race, when he revealed he had been battling a cold for almost an entire week.
The Southern Utah University track star said he became ill after his first race in London and could not shake it off in time to perform his best in what is usually his best event. He said he was being treated with antibiotics for a chest cold he picked up from a member of the Canadian team in the athletes’ village.
“It was just a bad cold that’s moved down into my chest, into my lungs, and you kind of need those to run well,” Levins said. “When they’re filled up with junk, it’s kind of hard to breathe.
“I was hoping I could sort of medicate it off to where I could run well. But it still didn’t work out the way I wanted. I hate making excuses, but I just didn’t feel like myself at all when I started.”
Great Britain’s Mo Farah won in 13:41.66 to add the 5,000m to his 10,000m gold medal. American Bernard Lagat, one of Levins’ idols, finished fourth in 13:42.99. Levins finished in 13:51.87, far off the PB he ran in Wednesday’s semifinal. He said that he’d started to get sick by then, but it didn’t affect him until afterward.
Although disappointed in his result (clearly evidenced in his post-race television interview), Levins appreciated the opportunity to compete on the world stage, which his where his career is taking him as he prepares to turn pro.
“I watched a lot of these athletes on TV in the past, in Diamond League events, world championships and the Olympics. I’d be saying, ‘I wish I could go race these guys, be as good as them one day.’ And now I’m going to be racing them all the time (on the European circuit). I just can’t think that these guys are amazing. I have to compete against them,” Levins told a reporter.
After running his final NCAA race for SUU earlier this year, Levins signed a long-term contract with Nike, which will ease his financial worries as he pursues his sport on a full-time, professional basis.
And a return to the track four years from now in Rio is also very much a part of his plans.
The Comox Valley was also well represented at the 2012 Olympics by Highland grad Martin Reader, who along with partner Josh Binstock tied for 17th in the 24-team men’s beach volleyball event.
Reader and Binstock won their first game at the Horse Guards Parade venue then lost their next three. The Canadian duo, in their first year together, were competitive in all their matches and were crowd favourites every time they stepped onto the sand.
OLYMPIC NOTES Levins’ 27:40.68 in the 10,000m was not quite a PB (coming six weeks after a leg injury) but was the best time ever by a Canadian in the event, much faster than the 32:36.20 that Joseph Keeper ran to take fourth at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, the same year Alex Decoteau of Edmonton finished sixth in the 5,000m … Like Levins, Keeper (a member of the Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba) ran both the 5,000m and 10,000m races.