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Philibert-Thiboutot, Mitton claim Canada's first track and field gold at Pan Am Games

SANTIAGO — Charles Philibert-Thiboutot dived for a finish line for the first time in his career to gain a Pan American Games gold medal Thursday.
Canada's Robert Joseph Heppenstall, centre, embraces teammate Charles Philibert-Thiboutot during the men's 1500m final at the Pan American Games, in Santiago, Chile, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

SANTIAGO — Charles Philibert-Thiboutot dived for a finish line for the first time in his career to gain a Pan American Games gold medal Thursday.

The Quebec City runner tumbled onto the Estadio Nacional track while crossing the finish line just two hundredths of a second faster than teammate Rob Heppenstall of Hamilton in the men's 1,500 metres.

"I saw that Rob was leading and I had a moment of 'Yes, we're going to go one-two' and then I remembered, 'I really want this damn gold. I really want it so bad,'" Philibert-Thiboutot said. 

"So I just dove at the line. I never had before."

The 32-year-old captured Canada's first track and field gold medal at these Games although Sarah Mitton of Brooklyn, N.S., followed minutes later with her victory in women's shot put.

Philibert-Thiboutot also earned men's 5,000-metre silver earlier in the week. He'd crossed the line third, but was upgraded when Mexico's Fernando Martinez, who crossed the line first, was disqualified for obstruction and jostling.

Julie-Anne Staehli of Lucknow, Ont., was a bronze medallist in the women's 5,000 metres to make it a four-medal Thursday for Canada's track team.

Philibert-Thiboutot and Mitton also gave the Canadian team its 36th and 37th gold medals overall, surpassing Canada's total of 35 won at the 2019 Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru.

Heppenstall surged from mid-pack to front-runner over the final 150 metres of the 1,500 with a crush of competitors on his heels. 

"It's been a super-hard year for me. I went through this whole year without any sponsorship," Heppenstall said. "Kind of living paycheque to paycheque really within the sport.

"To be able to end off 2023 on such a high note, probably the highest one of my career, I couldn't ask for a better finish. To be behind one of the Canadian legends, I couldn't ask for a better finish."

Mitton dominated women's shot put from the outset with a throw of 18.90 metres in the first round. The 27-year-old upgraded to 19.19 in the fifth and sixth rounds, while none of her competitors threw over 18.

The Pan Am Games come at the end of a long season for Mitton, who earned world championship silver and finished second in the international Diamond League series. Early November would normally be the off-season for the thrower.

"The Pan American Games, I had an experience in Peru in 2019 and did OK for my first Games, but I really wanted to come and earn that for my country," Mitton said. "It means a lot to be able to come here and compete again for my country."

Mitton acknowledged she lacked the "quick-pop fire" she had in the summer when she threw 20.08 metres to get on the world podium in Budapest, Hungary.

"The consistency and that bottom level for me, I was very happy with the 18.90 to start, (it gave me) confidence," she said. "To be able to open with that and build on it through the competition was really cool."

Philibert-Thiboutot didn't compete in Lima or Tokyo's Olympic Games in 2021 because of a run of injuries between 2018 and 2020 — Achilles tendon, foot stress fracture, calf muscle tear.

"I had a rough three or four years there," he said. "I decided to make a move to spend most of my time in Vancouver with my physiotherapist.

"I do physio at least twice a week to maintain my biomechanics, to maintain my good posture. I've modified training. I'm getting older. I can train hard, but I need more rest. It's paying off because I'm healthy."

His time of three minutes 32.94 at a French meet in June put him under the Olympic qualifying standard for the 1,500 and made him the second-fastest Canadian all-time in that distance. 

So Philibert-Thiboutot has all but punched his Olympic ticket to Paris next year.

"We can feel confident I can just prepare for Paris," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2023.

This is a corrected story. An earlier version of this story had Rob Heppenstall's name spelled incorrectly.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: An earlier version of this story had Rob Heppenstall's name spelled incorrectly.

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