Olympics

Sprinters Holder and Warner set to tie the knot

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Eric Rosales, CTVOlympics.ca Staff
5/4/2012 7:39:08 PM
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Nikkita Holder is nervous just thinking about the big day.

The 24-year-old hurdler from Pickering, Ont., says she feels ill-prepared, and wonders if she'll be able to come through in the clutch.

Beside her, Canadian sprinter Justyn Warner can't help but laugh.

She is not talking about her upcoming race for an Olympic berth; today Holder is thinking about something else: her wedding day, when Holder and Warner will walk down the aisle - the culmination of a friendship that began as kids, an on-again-off-again relationship through high school before getting serious in college.

They have a long history together. Holder always jokes that she and Warner were "womb buddies." Their respective mothers have been friends since they were about 10 years old and were pregnant at the same time. The two were born just 52 days apart.

Talk to Holder about stepping onto the Olympic podium in London, and Canada's top-ranked hurdler is calm and confident. Ask her about the other podium - she one she will be on as she delivers her wedding speech - and that is where the nerves come in.

"I'm going to be bawling," she said.

While the pair, who got engaged last fall, is busy planning a wedding, they've got another big challenge coming up: trying to qualify themselves for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

In a sport so individual by nature, the pair, who also train together in Toronto, have developed quite a steady support system.

"We always tell each other to be optimistic. Times that we're down, when she's down, I'll tell her to think about the goals and just be optimistic, period," Warner said. "I'll see the same thing happen with me, and she'll tell me the same thing. We always push each other and it wouldn't be the same if either of us were not there to be doing that."

It's a routine that runs right up until race time.

"We are how we are until we get to the track," Warner said. "When we split up, she'll put her headphones on and I'll put my headphones on."

Even then, they communicate right through warm-ups, constantly offering encouragement and a sounding board - not exactly what you think you'd see on the track.

"It's not as easy as getting on the track and running. It's a lot of mental preparation and toughness," added Holder. "He'll keep me in check, mentally, and I'll keep him in check mentally. And it's good."

Getting to London may be actually tougher than competing in London for Holder, who's currently the top-ranked Canadian hurdler. Arguably Canada's strongest track event, there are five world-class candidates  vying for three Olympic berths at the Canadian Track and Field Trials in Calgary beginning June 27.

Two of them are her training partners, Priscilla Lopes-Schliep (who won bronze in Beijing 2008) and rising star Phylicia George, as well as two-time Olympians Perdita Felicien and Angela Whyte.

At her most recent race in Guadeloupe, Holder finished the 100m hurdle race in fourth, just behind Lopes-Schliep. Holder's time was good enough to reach the IAAF's qualifying standard - leaving the Trials as the last box to check off before London.

Preparing for a wedding is one thing, but the effort and sacrifice Holder has put into her hurdling career - a journey that's gone on for years - is quite another.

"I definitely don't want to be a finalist anymore," she said. "I want to be on the podium – that's what I'd like to accomplish in London. And keep working towards that goal."

Warner is faced with his own daunting task.

He has visions of recapturing Canada's place in sprinting royalty in the men's 100-metre, a perch that hasn't been reached since the glory days of Donovan Bailey and Bruny Surin. Still searching for a sub-10 second run, should he find his way to the final, he'll be in a glamour field, led by Jamaicans Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake.

"This year, making the final for me is my biggest goal in London," he said. "Just thinking of all the names of the 100m guys – Usain, Yohan … there's tons of guys. I think last year, 20 guys ran under 10 seconds, that was the most in a long time."

About a year ago, Warner was faced with a different challenge - finding the perfect way to propose to Holder.

"I was just thinking, 'Can you please hurry up?'" Holder recalled.

Because they spend so much time together, it was going to be tricky.

His opportunity arrived just after the World Championships in September 2011. Warner flew back to Toronto, while Holder completed the rest of her race circuit in Europe. He had about a week to work with.

"I called her best friend and we sat down and hashed everything out," Warner said. "I wanted to plan a surprise party, get the ring … I told her mom, and I told my parents."

Friends helped to decorate a bridge by the dog park with calla lilies, Holder's favourite flower.

"She came back, and I picked her up at Pearson [airport] and she asked where we were going, because I drove right by her house.

"She still had no clue yet," Warner said.

"I didn't not have a clue," Holder countered. "I figured something was fishy but I've heard so many stories woman thinking 'they're going to (propose) now,' but it doesn't happen, so I didn't want to get my hopes up."

The pair will wed in October 2012. 

Because they are also a competitive duo (Warner admits he can't touch Holder in Scrabble), they keep things usually pretty fun.

"At practice, I always have to be joking. Me and the coaches are always joking. We get done what we need to get done, but I like to laugh all the time. Once I'm comfortable, things go smoothly," Holder said.

In fact, as a black Volkswagon Beetle crosses the intersection, Holder can't resist.

Punch buggy black. No return.

"It's one of the games we always play. We play all the time," Holder said, explaining their reasoning for sudden laughter. "I punched him, and he said 'we're not playing that today. Only on practice days.' We can be really competitive, in a good way, though."

That should only serve them well this year, as they humbly play down one of the intriguing storylines that could unfold in London for the unofficial fastest couple in Canada.

"It's new to everybody looking in on us and now that our track careers are kind of blooming, and everyone's starting to know us as track athletes. To them, we're the fastest couple in Canada," Warner said. "It's humbling, but we just have to focus on what we have to do."

Because once they have traveled the path to London 2012, it is on to the difficult stuff - like a wedding speech in October.

Justyn Warner (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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