Staying on Track
Feb. 23, 2008
Looking back, Perdita Felicien has a mother, a grade school teacher and a college coach to thank for her success as a track star. After all, it was never something Felicien was very serious about.
While at recess one afternoon in her hometown of Pickering, Ontario, a grade school teacher was amazed by the running ability Felicien had as a third grader. She stopped her and told her that she should go out for the track team when she reaches fourth grade.
The following year, that same teacher, Mrs. Arthurs, sought after Felicien and signed her up. She stayed active with track until she quit running competitively as a freshman in high school. Little did she know she was going to have hear about it from her “nagging” mother.
“My mother nagged me a lot because she enjoyed coming and watching me compete,” Felicien said. “So eventually she stopped nagging me and I went back out and earned a scholarship.”
Enter Gary Winckler of the University of Illinois.
“First time Gary called me, it was basically a cold call, and I was so overwhelmed I didn’t even know if I wanted to go to the states for college,” Felicien said. “I told him no thanks, but thanks for calling.”
That phone call took place in March of 1999 and for the next five months, Felicien had to deal with her friends’ disbelief that she would turn down a full scholarship.
“I had friends getting partial scholarships to the States and giving me heck for turning down a full one,” she said. “So one day in August, I emailed Gary out of the blue from a friend’s house and it was probably the most immature e-mail. I thought he would say no because I already rejected him once.”
But Winckler was indeed interested and invited the talented Canadian product to Champaign for a visit. Following that trip, Felicien felt that Illinois was the school for her, but she took some time and wanted to make sure it was in fact the school for her. Shockingly, Felicien was moving too slow for her mother and when Winckler called shortly thereafter to check up on his recruit, her mother committed for her.
Winckler took it in stride and later heard from Felicien herself with her official commitment. It would not be until her sophomore year at Illinois that she was told by Gary of her “initial” decision.
Once on campus, success came just as fast as she had become on the track. After redshirting her indoor season, Felicien placed runner-up at the Big Ten Championships in the 100-meter hurdles and then proceeded to post a time of 12.91 in the prelims of the NCAA Championships, which not only broke a four-year school record, but it was also the fastest time by a freshman in the history of the NCAAs. She would go on to finish sixth in the event and fifth in the 4x100 meter relay, earning All-America honors in both events. Later that season she captured the Canadian National Championship in the 100-meter hurdles, earning a trip to Sydney for the 2000 Olympic Games.
Shockingly, Felicien admits that she was naïve as a freshman and was often cutting corners in practice throughout the year.
“If Gary was watching, I’d do everything he asked of me,” she said. “But if he was working with the jumpers, I would only do one set of eight pull-ups instead of three.”
Soon Felicien began to realize her potential. She says that she didn’t know how good she was in the sport and if she had understood that earlier, she most likely would have never dropped out of the sport as a high school freshman.
The following year Felicien was ranked No. 1 in the 100-meter hurdles for the entire outdoor season. She competed in her first indoor campaign, where she was named the Big Ten’s Indoor Freshman of the Year and set the school record in the 60-meter hurdles with a time of 7.99. At NCAAs, she finished second in the event for All-America honors, concluding an indoor stretch where she finished no worse than second place in the event.
In the outdoor season, Felicien anchored the world-record setting 4x100 shuttle hurdle relay team at the Drake Relays and was later named the Big Ten Outdoor Athlete of the Year. She set the school record in the 100-meter hurdles with a time of 12.73 and was named the U.S. Track Coaches Association National Female Outdoor Athlete of the Year. She also earned the first of three straight Dike Eddleman Female Athlete of the Year awards from Illinois.
In 2002, she became the first indoor national champion in school history when she won the 60-meter hurdles in a time of 7.90 seconds, which bested the previous all-time NCAA record of 7.94. She then became the first Illinois athlete to win national championships in both the indoor and outdoor seasons when she captured the 100-meter hurdles title.
The 2003 season was a memorable one for the Felicien/Winckler team. Felicien raced a very limited schedule throughout the year as Winckler was preparing her for the 2003 World Championships in Paris. With the NCAA track season being so long in length, Winckler prepped his standout to peak in the postseason and also a second time at Worlds. An undefeated Felicien repeated at NCAAs with the 100-meter hurdle title and earned NCAA Female Track & Field Athlete of the Year honors as well. Looking to peak that second time, a strict training regiment and a few choice words was all she needed.
“There was one practice about a month before Paris and Gary leaned down and told me that if I run like I just did, I could be in the top three at Worlds,” she said. “Never before had I thought about making the finals, let alone the top three. Gary doesn’t pump you up, make predictions, or sell you on dreams. He trains you and lets you perform.”
Winckler recalls that practice and said it is a gratifying thing as a coach that she was really listening. He had thrown the gauntlet down and she had accepted it.
“We had worked so hard in the few years and that summer leading up to Paris, so I thought, here goes something, not nothing,” she said. “I ran like a woman possessed.”
“To me the 2003 Worlds is one of my proudest moments,” Winckler said. “She was thrown into the competition very early, but she went through some tough things with some false starts early on, but was mature how she dealt with it.”
Felicien took her world title and momentum to the 2004 IAAF World Indoor Championships in March of 2004, where she was to compete in a much-anticipated battle with hurdling great Gail Devers. In record fashion, Felicien topped Devers and posted six consecutive wins leading into the 2004 Summer Olympics. And with Devers on the sideline unable to compete with an injury, Felicien was the gold-medal favorite.
“I definitely thrive on expectations, she said. “It can be a lot running for a nation like mine. We don’t have a lot of track stars or heroines. I just took it all in stride.”
Felicien collided with the first hurdle in the finals and did not finish the race. It was a devastating moment for her, but one she has said she has made peace with today.
“Gary said do not let the Olympic Games define your career,” she said. “Some athletes that don’t make the Olympics feel like that haven’t accomplished anything. Being in Athens taught me if I work hard and don’t cut corners, together we can be there again.”
For Winckler, the 2004 Games still bother him to a degree.
“(Athens) is not something I care to talk about; it was the longest night of my life,” he said. “All the world’s eyes are on you and then not getting the chance to compete because you fell at the first hurdle is disappointing. I felt like this would be something that would make her stronger. She had a physical injury from the fall and with the mental scars as well, the next two years were tough for her to get over.”
Winckler says Felicien is making progress in her preparation for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing this summer. There are some things in her technique that he is still trying to change, but all the focus now is on rebounding and redemption.
For Felicien, the coming months will be tough for her as she will need to be “pretty selfish” and block out anything that is not related to running. That means family too, including her mother who raised Felicien along with four other siblings as a single parent. But Felicien knows that her mother will be busy too, making her customary T-shirts that read, “Go Perdita Go!”
What is most comforting is that Felicien has become a part of a family at Illinois. She has become a recognizable figure around the athletic department, campus and the Champaign community. And while she admits she is no longer a student-athlete, she is still welcomed as one. She has full use of Illinois’ facilities and has maintained the same locker she had back when she was in school.
She has certainly earned her right not to change lockers. The most decorated track athlete in Illini history left as a four-time Big Ten champion, three-time NCAA title winner and 10-time All-American.
Now Olympic gold is within Felicien’s reach and she knows cutting corners is no longer an option.
After all, her mother and coach have talked behind her back once before and all that “nagging” is just a phone call away.