After being in the limelight for just over a decade, two-time world 100-metre hurdles champion Perdita Felicien has changed roles from being the story to storyteller.
In announcing her retirement last week at a Toronto elementary school, Felicien said she’s excited to be joining Hamilton-based CHCH TV next month as a videographer. The 33-year-old recently completed a broadcast journalism certificate program at Seneca College.
“John McKenna (the network’s executive producer for the past 15 years) gave me an opportunity and I can’t wait to get to work,” she said. “There is a lot I can bring to the table and I am so excited he provided me with my first job outside track and field.”
A 10-time national champion, Felicien said she fell in love with broadcasting while working as a guest analyst for CBC during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She missed the Games because of a serious foot injury that threated to curtail her career.
“I realized then that I like this profession even though it’s hard work,” she said. “It gave me the same high as when I competed…I didn’t just want to cover sports and be seen as a jock. I want to be a well-rounded on-air personality who is able to dissect and tell stories. That really interests me. My mother says I am nosy and that might serve me well in my new role.”
Felicien, who represented Canada at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, said she made the decision to retire a few months ago.
“I didn’t want to go on another four-year Olympic cycle, so I gave up my $18,000 carding earlier this year in order for another athlete to use it,” she said. “I am a cerebral person and I have thought this through. This is the right move for me at this time and a new life beckons. Of course, I am disappointed I didn’t win an Olympic medal, but on any given day, I was one of the best. To be among the top five or six hurdlers for almost 10 years is quite an achievement. I don’t have any regrets. I sleep well at nights knowing that I gave everything I had every time I went on the track.”
Last March, Felicien’s long-time manager Renaldo Nehemiah told Share she considered quitting the sport last year after another injury-plagued season and the disappointment of failing to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics.
“Throughout last year during the rehab of her Achilles, she continued to ponder retirement,” he said a few hours after Felicien announced she was retiring. “Then she took a trip to Australia where she had a chance to revisit the Sydney Olympic stadium. There, she apparently was rejuvenated and realized she still had a passion for running. I do believe had she not continued to have issues with her Achilles, she would still be competing.”
Felicien, however, said injuries did not play a part in her decision to retire.
“As you get older, it becomes increasingly harder to do the things you want to do with your body,” said Oshawa-born Felicien who spent three years in St. Lucia with relatives before being re-united with her mother when she was four years old. “Physically, I can still do a lot of things and technically I am still one of the best in the world. It’s more psychological and emotional. I have done a lot, won a lot and seen a lot and now it’s time to just live a different life.”
Felicien won the 1998 Ontario Secondary Schools’ 100-metre hurdles and 200-metre final and became the national junior champion in the hurdles the following season while attending Pine Ridge Secondary School where she captured the Athlete of the Year award in her final year.
She was offered a scholarship to attend the University of Illinois after women’s track and field Gary Winckler saw her in action in a meet in the United States in her senior year in high school.
The third of five children, who began hurdling in Grade Eight at Glengrove Public School in Pickering after then school coach Curtis Sahadath spotted her talent, did not disappoint.
She broke a four-year-old school record in her freshman year, was named Big Ten Female Outdoor Athlete of the Year in her sophomore season and became the first national champion in Illinois history when she won the 60-metre hurdles in 7.90 secs. during an undefeated season in which she was ranked the top collegiate hurdler in 2002.
Felicien was also the leading national 100-metre hurdler in 2003 with a time of 12.88 secs. at the Big Ten championship and she made history at the 94th Drake Relays becoming the first athlete to claim titles in the university and invitation sections at the same event.
Despite her collegiate success and a personal best 12.67 secs. set at a meet in Zurich two weeks before the Paris championships, she was the underdog going into the outdoor world competition.
Defending champion Anjanette Kirkland was eliminated in the opening heat while three-time world champion Gail Devers failed to make it out of her semi-final round. Felicien, who won both her heats, suddenly found herself challenging Jamaican Brigitte Foster who beat her at the Pan American Games in Santo Domingo that preceded the World Championships.
The second fastest out of the blocks, Felicien – the youngest competitor in the finals – fended off a strong headwind and the surging Foster to avenge her Pan Am Games defeat and secure Canada’s first gold medal at the World Championships since the men’s 4 x 100-metre relay team victory in Athens in 1997.
“Paris was my biggest moment,” she said. “My body was clicking and everything was right that day.”
The following year, Felicien set a new record in upsetting Devers in the 60-metre final at the World Indoor championships in Budapest.
With six more victories and Devers out with injury, Felicien was the overwhelming favourite to clinch the gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Greece. She comfortably qualified in two rounds leading up to the final and appeared set to break her Canadian record of 12.46 secs. To the utter dismay of Canadians with high expectations, she clipped the first hurdle and the dream was shattered.
“I was ready for that moment that I had worked so hard for,” she said. “When I fell, I felt devastated, sad and embarrassed. But instead of crying and feeling bad for myself, I decided I was going to use that moment for something good. I felt it was necessary to face the media while I was having a real bad day just like I had done a year earlier when I was waving to the crowd while holding up a Canadian flag and doing my victory lap. I still wanted to be the girl who could talk to you when I was having a real bad bay. I stood in front of the cameras that day and told them exactly how I was feeling. That day was not going to define me.”
Nehemiah, the world’s number one ranked sprint hurdler for four straight years, said Felicien is leaving the sport with a solid legacy.
“I believe she inspired many of Canada’s hurdlers that have followed in her footsteps, including Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, Angela Whyte, Phylicia George and Nikkita Holder,” he said. “My favourite moments working with her were our many philosophical talks about life, family and goals. As great an athlete as she was, Perdita was extremely bright and I enjoyed talking to her about everything. Most importantly, she enjoyed working with after-school programs and being an inspiration to young girls.
“In the end, I believe Perdita learned that some failures are part of life and are not to be feared. Recognizing the worst that can happen and forging ahead full steam, she personified professionalism at its highest level and she did it with integrity. Those are wonderful character traits to possess.”
Felicien explained why she announced her retirement in front of a few hundred Toronto elementary schoolchildren.
“Instead of doing a press release, I wanted to leave a legacy,” she said. “I feel there are so many lessons I can share and I did it at a school because I want kids to know that though I am leaving the sport as a competitor, I will always be accessible and willing to share my journey. I chose George Webster school because it’s a model inner city institution and there are a lot of things they do for young people that resonate with me.”
Felicien’s mother, Cathy “Eno” Moe, who was at the school with other family members, supports her daughter’s decision.
“This is the beginning of a new chapter and I am very proud of her,” she said. “I know she will do a wonderful job in her next career.”
On her way out of a Chinese restaurant while in high school, Felicien was given a Fortune cookie which had the words, “You are destined to become Famous”, inscribed on a tiny piece of paper.
She certainly lived up to that prophecy, making her family and Canada extremely proud.