The Gee-Gees cross country team will be represented by three student-athletes at the 2017 U SPORTS National Championships this weekend in Victoria, B.C. Keili Sheperd, Alex Berhe, and Ziyad El Hankouri earned their way to nationals with top 20 finishes at the RSEQ championships two weeks ago.
For Berhe, it will be the third appearance at the national championship event, having been Ottawa's top men's finisher at the 2015 and 2016 editions. The fifth-year social sciences student is coming into the event off a very strong tenth place finish at the RSEQ championship. "Being able to compete with last year's champions, Laval, and being with their top runners for most of the race gives me a lot of confidence for nationals," says Berhe. "I am looking for a great result and to put uOttawa cross country on the map."
Joining Berhe in the men's 10-kilometre event is Ziyad El Hankouri, a fourth-year biochemistry student who also competed at nationals last season. Originally from Rabat, Morocco, El Hankouri is looking to make a big move up from his result in 2016 to a top 40 finish.
"I am feeling much faster than last year. The races so far this season were good especially the Laval XC meet and RSEQ but I am still not very satisfied and feel like I can push much more and be much faster and I am planning giving my very best at Nationals," explains El Hankouri.
"For RSEQ, I was targeting qualifying for Nationals and was hoping to help the team make it like we did last year. After the race and when realized I came 17th and qualified, I was very excited," continues El Hankouri. "Maybe the team didn't make it this year but I will make sure I represent the team very well in the field."
It will be the first U SPORTS nationals appearance for Gee-Gees rookie Keili Shepherd, qualifying with a thirteenth place finish in the 8-kilometre event at the RSEQ championship. It was a technically demanding race for Shepherd, who says her desire to qualify for nationals pushed her through.
"I went out hard and tried to hold on to my position for the rest of the race; I pushed my comfort zone by going out faster than I would normally. A third of the way through the race I was thinking - 'What have I done? I shouldn't be up with these top girls' - but I held my position and had my best race of the season. The race taught me to not be afraid of going out hard, pushing my pace, and gave me confidence to do so at Nationals. I'm so excited to have the opportunity to race at such a high level, and I'm not going to be afraid of giving it my all."
All three athletes note that the strength of the team environment this season has been a key factor in their individual success.
"During one of the last workouts before nationals I was running with a pack of girls, we all chose a location on the loop where we would say something motivating," says Shepherd. "I think that part my success at RSEQ was having such a supportive group that made training fun, and pushed me to work hard."
"The team this year is amazing," adds El Hankouri. "This is my fourth year on the team and the team bonding this year is the best I've ever seen."
It will be the first time competing in Victoria for all three Gee-Gees athletes, giving them not just a great competitive opportunity but a chance to experience a new place. "As a foreign student from Morocco who came to Canada only for university, I've never been that far west in the globe ever before in my whole life," notes El Hankouri. "I love travelling and I feel this is going to be a great experience!"
The U SPORTS Cross Country National Championships will be run on Sunday, November 12. The women's race begins at 1 p.m. Pacific, 4 p.m. ET, and the men's event starts at 2 p.m. Pacific, 5 p.m. ET.
Results will be available at:
Overall - https://racedaytiming.ca/results/2017USPORTSXCMen#.WfnXNa3MylO
Team - https://racedaytiming.ca/results/2017USPORTSXCMen/team/results
Overall - https://racedaytiming.ca/results/2017USPORTSXCWomen#.WfnXma3MylM
Team - https://racedaytiming.ca/results/2017USPORTSXCWomen/team/results