Taking things slowly is not something that Elmira resident Olivia Charnuski is accustomed to doing these days. Spending the summer at her Birdland home and working at a feed mill in Elora is a drastic change of pace for the 20-year-old who has spent the past two years competing as a sprint hurdler on a track scholarship at Liberty University in Virginia.
Charnuski began training as a sprint hurdler more than five years ago when she ran for Elmira District Secondary School as well as the Laurel Creek Track and Field Club. Previously she had run short sprints and done gymnastics competitively: sprint hurdling was a combination of the two that her coaches thought she may be good at it – and that certainly turned out to be the case.
In the summer of 2008 she competed at the Canadian Junior National competition in British Columbia, a meet for the top runners 19 and under. There she came in second place and was eligible for the Commonwealth Youth team. That fall, just a few weeks into starting her education at Liberty, she travelled to India to run for Canada.
“It was an honour to go over there and represent my country,” said Charnuski. “It was a bit of culture shock for me and unlike anything I had ever done before but I feel so blessed to have been able to go.”
At Liberty, Charnuski started out as a little fish in a very big pond.
“I chose to go to a school in the U.S. because they have a longer season for track and field,” she explained. “They take the sport very seriously down there, which I love, but it meant I was no longer the fastest person.”
It hasn’t taken her long to catch up, however, and she climbed to the second tier of the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) in her first year of competition. Based on her times during competitions, she was named the fastest freshman Liberty had ever seen.
Following her first year, she came back to Canada and competed at the Junior National Competition again, this time in Prince Edward Island, coming in third. Her relay team from Laurel Creek came in first place and broke a Canadian record, putting Charnuski on the podium once again.
This past year, the star athlete kept up her momentum and broke personal records with nearly every race in which she competed and even began training for a more vigorous event: the 400-metre hurdles.
“The 400-metre is extremely tough. A combination of the lactic acid [buildup], hurdles and mental toughness makes it the hardest race on the track.”
While training for the second event, she was able to keep up her sprinting speed and qualified for the ECAC indoor competition.
Then at a meet at Liberty, Charnuski broke the Liberty women’s 100-metre hurdles record which had stood for 21 years, with her wind-aided 13.65 second race in the preliminary round. The athlete who had not run faster than 14.18 in the 100-metre hurdles during her two seasons with the Lady Flames obliterated her previous best by more than a half second. Aided by a strong tailwind, she ran nearly stride-for-stride with post-collegiate athlete Samaiyah Islam, shrieking with surprise and excitement when she heard the announcement of her clocked time.
“I wanted to run beside [Islam] because I knew she was fast. Being next to her would make me want to run faster,” she said. “It is practically unheard of for a sprinter to drop more than half a second in a 100-metre race. That one race transformed the rest of the season for me.”
That race put her in the top 48 runners on the East coast.
“To race against that caliber of athletes was amazing. Just thinking ‘I am a part of that now’ was so exciting.”
Despite the three- or four-hour practices several times per week and events each and every weekend throughout the year, Charnuski manages to stay on top of her school work and even made the dean’s list this past year. She is enrolled in the exercise science program and hopes to one day become a chiropractor.
“I spend a lot of time doing homework in hotel rooms, or on buses or airplanes, but I get the chance to do what I love so it is entirely worthwhile.”
Eventually, Charnuski hopes to compete at the National Collegiate Athletic Association level where only the best quarter of track athletes on the East Coast attend.
“That’s every NCAA athlete’s goal. The best of the best, the cream of the crop are at nationals.”
For this summer however, she is back in town and trying her best to take it easy.
“I just really needed a break,” she said. “All year we are going and going and going and I don’t want to burn out or get injured. I do miss running already, but it is good to be home.”