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Aug 27 2017 - Athlete Bio : Alex Witmer: On Wanderlust, Echochambers, and Comebacks

Words by : Grace Annear

For Alex Witmer, two things have always drawn him to sport: his love of travel, and the intense focus fostered by high performance. In 2011, he was the high jump silver medalist at the Canadian Senior Championships, but shortly after that career-high, life guided him towards other pursuits. After five years away, however, those two loves drew him back to sport.

 

A Kitchner native, Alex won the highly regarded OFSAA title in grade twelve and qualified for the PanAm Junior team, which took him to Sau Paulo, Brazil. When it came time to pick a university, he eyed a map of the world and almost went elsewhere.

 

“I had a pretty big case of wanderlust,” he says. “I was serious about academics and athletics, but I had a strong urge to travel.” As it turned out, jumping at a collegiate level allowed him to merge all three.

 

A dedicated student, Alex transferred from Western to University of Toronto in search of a valuable and competitive degree. Though he managed multiple injuries -- he managed chronic patellar tendinopathy in his right jumper’s knee, and once competed at the CIS Championship with a hairline fracture in his tibia – he represented Canada at the 2011 World University Championships, known as FISU, in China. After the competition, he and a friend extended their plane tickets and went backpacking. 

In 2012 he took a stab at competing indoors, but was so burnt out he ended up telling his coach that he needed a break. The break turned into retirement.

“I was nearing the end of school, and was worried about graduating, about not having an income. My head moved on to things beyond track, and when it came to CIS or to elite athletics, my heart wasn’t in it anymore.”

Alex immersed himself with work, relationships, and all the changes that come with post-collegiate adulthood. His degree in cognitive science didn’t offer many job prospects, so he followed a line into corporate sales, and ended up loving it. He met a girl from the east coast, and when a position opened up in Moncton, they decided to move to the Maritimes. Four years had passed since he last called himself an athlete.

Then, exactly one year out of JDLF, Alex’s friend, the one he’d gone backpacking with in China, messaged him over Facebook. He mentioned that the Games would take place on the Ivory Coast, and suggested they both start training again, to qualify for the team together.

Alex took September and October to condition. In December he jumped 2.10m. In case you’re wondering, that’s just 9 cm off his personal best, the mark set at the 2011 Canadian Championships. It also qualified him for Franco.

In his interview, Alex was hesitant to speak the decision to return to sport. In a hard, dissenting sort of way, he spoke of injuries, of retirement. He spoke of sacrifices he made in university, of having maybe pushed himself too hard. He made it seem like elite athletics were a business situation he exited and re-entered.

But no one returns to track if there isn’t something pulling them there.

I kept asking questions, and Alex kept talking. The more he talked, the more his cadence quickened, the more his voice changed.

“With track,” he says, “you’re in your own echochamber. No one’s talking to you. You’re staring at the bar, completely on your own, knowing you have a certain amount of time to achieve whatever’s possible.” His voice thickened and quickened. “All the responsibility falls on you.”

“But, I can never conjure a top performance on just any day. Maybe some athletes, like runners, can perform at their best in a workout. Even when I was younger, I was never capable of jumping high bars in practice – instead, I’d do lifting or technical work. Then, in competition, I’d bring it up on the day.”

“High levels of sport push you further mentally than anything I’ve ever experienced.” By this point, it was impossible to interject, and equally impossible to stop listening.

“Needing to ‘bring it up’ trained me in a level of focus that you don’t get from much else. Some people say that the flow state, the state where you’re so absorbed that you lose a sense of time and place, is something that happens to you. But when you get to a high level of athletics, you learn how to do it on command, how to wield it. That’s probably one of the best things about this sport, in my experience.”

“At this games, I got to test what my body was able to do after taking this amount of time off. I wasn’t unhappy with my performance, and it was good to kinda know that I’ve still somewhat got it.” Alex finished fifth, with a jump of 2.08m.  

“And, of course,” he says. “The experience was incredible. I got to go to West Africa, of all places, and see a part of the world I wouldn’t normally have visited. Going there as a part of team NB was amazing.”

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