Justyn Knight hasn’t raced since the men’s 5,000-metre final of his 2020 Olympic debut and he’ll miss a second straight World Athletics Championships, which begin later this week, yet he can hardly contain his excitement.
That’s because fellow Canadian Moh Ahmed, the reigning Olympic silver medallist, and college rival Grant Fisher are his new Bowerman Track Club teammates. Knight announced on Instagram Monday that he join them in the fall in Portland, Ore., after signing a multi-year contract with Nike in late July.
“Moh has been my friend, my mentor,” Knight told CBC Sports before Monday’s official announcement. “I raced against Grant a ton in college [at Syracuse University]. The [Bowerman] team is phenomenal. Just to train together, push each other, bring out the best in each other. That’s an environment I’m very excited to be part of.”
Knight won’t arrive at Bowerman until at least September following June 1 surgery in his native Toronto for a partially torn left Achilles tendon. The 27-year-old suffered an incomplete tear in the large tendon which joins the muscles of the calf to the heel bone.
Knight spent nearly a year trying to strengthen muscles around the Achilles and believed he was progressing before the tendon flared up. Surgery was deemed necessary if the three-time Canadian silver medallist in the 5,000 wanted to regain his pre-injury form.
He ran the Tokyo Olympic final on Aug. 6, 2021 with the injury and placed seventh in the 16-man field in 13 minutes 4.38 seconds, a little under six seconds behind Ahmed (12:58.61) — Canada’s first Olympic medallist in the distance.
“I could feel the Achilles flaring up and I was [in the mix for a medal],” Knight recalled. “My body was in shape enough to do it, [but] one specific area of my body wouldn’t allow me. I would say I have a pretty good pain tolerance and I’m determined.
“After the semifinal [three days earlier] I had trouble walking and cooling down [but] was able to recover for the final. After that I said, ‘Enough’s enough.’ I came home, got an MRI and was diagnosed with a partial tear.”
WATCH | Ahmed 3rd, Knight 5th at 2021 Diamond League meet in Italy:
“Incredible,” the Somalia-born and St. Catharines, Ont.-raised Ahmed said of Knight’s Olympic performance in a recent interview with CBC Sports. “It tells you what the body can do if you train it well, it’s fit and conditioned. In 2021, every race he ran was incredible.”
Knight’s 2021 breakthrough campaign as a professional included a personal best in the 1,500 (3:33.41) on May 9 and a month later in the 5,000 (12:51.93).
“He’s a 12:50, 12:51 guy. How many of those are out there? Very few,” Ahmed said over the phone from Switzerland, where he’s training at altitude ahead of the Aug. 19-27 worlds in Budapest, Hungary. “From a talent and accomplishment standpoint, he’ll contribute a lot [to Bowerman].”
Knight remembers experiencing discomfort in his Achilles when he finished second in the outdoor 1,500 on April 24, 2021 at the USATF Grand Prix at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.
I’ve seen so many athletes I appreciate make that comeback from Achilles tears. Over time, they got back to their true form and that gave me hope.— Canadian runner Justyn Knight
“I had slight pain [in that race]. I didn’t know what it was, but didn’t stop me from training,” he said.
An avid basketball fan, Knight has been inspired during his recovery by several NBA players, including Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson, who returned to game action on Jan. 9, 2022, 14 months after surgery for a torn Achilles tendon.
“There was never a point where I thought [my injury] was career ending,” said Knight, whose first love in high school was basketball before he turned to running in hopes of improving a low mark in his Grade 11 gym class at St. Michael’s College School. “I follow the NBA closely and I’ve seen so many athletes I appreciate make that comeback from Achilles tears. Over time, they got back to their true form and that gave me hope.”
Underwater treadmill sessions
Knight has been told by his surgeon to expect to be jogging and running “normally” by September. However, it’ll take time for the former Reebok Boston Track Club member to reach his desired fitness level.
Knight is currently in the walking phase of his underwater treadmill sessions and hopeful of running on it around Aug. 20.
“I’ve slowly progressed to calf raises in the water,” said Knight, who receives physiotherapy twice a week and at least one massage per week. “The walking is as close to running as I can get.
“I’m in a mindset now that I am grateful to [have the chance] to run and grateful to be healthy. This will be the first year coming back from [serious] injury so I don’t know [how that feels].”
Bowerman head coach Jerry Schumacher told CBC Sports the goal is to get Knight to full health, “bring him back to where he was,” and maximize his talent and abilities.
Schumacher, who has doubled as head coach of the University of Oregon cross-country and track and field program since July 2022, recruited Knight out of college before the runner signed with the smaller Reebok Boston group in July 2018.
“We’ve known Justyn for a long time,” he said. “He’s obviously an incredibly talented and gifted athlete.”
Knight said he reached out to Schumacher after parting ways with longtime coach Chris Fox and Reebok Boston.
“Jerry has always taken the time to talk to me [at races] and ask how I am,” Knight said. “That speaks highly to the person Jerry is and one thing I’ve admired about him.
WATCH | Knight encouraged by top-10 finish at 2019 worlds:
“All the athletes that have gone through the [Bowerman] program have improved to an exceptional level and were always ready to perform at the major championships.”
Ahmed noted Knight, who competed at worlds in 2017 and 2019, will learn how to compromise and work in a group dynamic being part of a bigger squad.
“He’s inexperienced in some ways,” said the 32-year-old Ahmed, “but given his championship experience, it’s huge. He’ll learn a lot, and I’m sure he’s going to feel like a fresh fish, but there are many on our team willing to help him.
“He’s young, positive, jovial, a typical Canadian. I feel me and him have got along very well on the [national] teams we’ve been on together.”
On June 10, 2021, Ahmed and Knight became the two fastest North American 5,000 runners of all-time when they reached the finish line in 12:50.12 and 12:51.93, respectively, at the Golden Gala Diamond League meet in Florence, Italy.
‘We know how to bring out the best in each other’
Later, Ahmed lowered his Canadian and North American record to 12:47.20, a time the Calgary-born Fisher of Michigan beat by 2-10ths of a second in September 2022.
“How often do you get the two best 5K runners in Canadian history on the same team at the same time?” said Knight, who missed the 2016 Olympic qualifying standard in the 5,000 by 1.36 seconds. “We know how to bring the best out of each other.
1st and 2nd fastest NORTH AMERICANS OF ALL TIME in the 5k!! And we’re just getting started.🤞🏾🇨🇦 <a href=”https://t.co/caAb1ywUi0″>pic.twitter.com/caAb1ywUi0</a>
“I know Moh’s passion for the sport and how hard he works. Being able to train together and understand each other a little bit more is going to be beneficial.”
While his new teammates are racing in Budapest, Knight will be watching on TV and learning more about his future competitors, old and new.
“Gearing up for next season is understanding what tactics are being enforced,” he said. [In college] we used to do the sit and kick thing, maybe jog a little bit. Today, you see a lot of more confident runners going to the front [of the pack] and staying there.
“I’m ready to work and ready to do what I need to do to make sure I’m ready to go in Paris [at the Olympics next summer]. A lot of people only have one [Olympic] moment and I knew [Tokyo] wasn’t going to be my last.”
Knight’s notable NCAA achievements
- 3 titles: 2018 cross-country champion, 2018 indoor 5,000m champion and 2015 cross-country champion (team)
- 4-time NCAA runner-up
- 16 Atlantic Coast Conference championships (11 individual, five team)
- 2017-18 Bowerman Award finalist as top U.S. male collegiate athlete
- Only man with two of the top-10 outdoor times in collegiate history in the 5,000m (2018)
- 3-time Syracuse Orange male athlete of the year
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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