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Alysha Newman was a few weeks removed from a devastating Tokyo Olympic performance when the severity of her concussion hit home.

The specialist she’d visited at a California hospital was showing her pictures of animals. She knew what they were, but the names for some were lost in her jumbled brain.

“It was on the tip of my tongue but I couldn’t say the word,” Newman said. “I looked at my mom and I started crying and she just held me and said ‘It’s OK, this is why we’re here, we’re going to get help.'”

The Canadian record-holder and reigning Commonwealth Games champion in the pole vault had suffered a concussion in April when she fell in a hotel room bathroom. She’d had her sights set on the medal podium in Tokyo, but missed all three of her attempts.

That moment in the hospital was about more than just pole vault. She thought about the future, about wanting to be a healthy mom for her future kids. 

“I just wanted to get my brain back,” she said. 

The 27-year-old from London, Ont., was instructed to stop pole vaulting for six months and focus on healing. As part of her treatment, she spent time in a hyperbaric chamber. Since being out in the sun exacerbated her headaches, she was prescribed tinted contact lenses to protect her blue eyes. 

Newman was a hurdler in high school and in her first year at the University of Miami, and so she went back to hurdling to keep fit. And then at a spring camp in Florida, she started training with multi-event athletes Georgia Ellenwood and Pierce LePage. She and her longtime coaches Doug Wood and Zeke Krykorka thought that maybe training for a heptathlon was the way back to top form in pole vault.

“I wanted to push my athletic ability a little more, and by adding the (heptathlon’s) 200 metres, hurdles, throwing, long jump and 800 metres, you’re tapping into so many different athletic systems, that it pushes you,” she said. 

“My coaches Doug and Zeke were like ‘We thought you were in great shape in 2020 and 2021. But you are fast, you’re putting up better numbers in the weight room, we didn’t realize you could get even more fit.’ We were completely surprised by what it did for me.”  

The seven-event heptathlon was also a welcome change from pole vault, which is unforgiving even on good days. Pole vault, Newman pointed out, always ends with the athlete failing to clear a height. 

“People underestimate high jumpers and pole vaulters, because we end on failure every time — unless you break a world record,” Newman said.

“It’s a positive and a negative because you’re pushing yourself to the absolute limit that day . . . but you don’t end on: ‘Yeah, that’s awesome.’ You end on: ‘Oh, that was so close.’ So, when I’m doing these heptathlon events, and I see even a millisecond faster in the hurdles, or a centimetre further in the shot put or javelin, it’s very rewarding.”

Newman scored 5,021 to finish fourth in her heptathlon debut at the NACAC area championships last month in Ottawa. She ran an impressive 13.46 seconds in the hurdles. And then she cleared 4.70 metres in pole vault two weeks ago in London, Ont., to qualify for the world championships next month in Eugene, Ore. It was the closest she’d come to her Canadian record of 4.82, set in 2019, in three years.

“WORLD STANDARD,” she posted on Instagram, with a teary-eyed emoji — the athlete and model has over 600,000 followers. “I’m ready to be back out there with the best in the world. To prove to myself that, no matter what kind of injury I may face, I am stronger than it.”   

Newman will aim for her fifth Canadian pole vault title at the national track and field championships that begin Wednesday in Langley, B.C. But it might not be her only event. She planned to pack all of her heptathlon gear, including throwing shoes, a javelin and a shot put, with tentative plans to do the heptathlon as well.

“We’re still training the hep, because I would love to do another one, we’re excited to see where it could go,” Newman said.

Depending on her progression, she said she’d even be interested in doing both at the 2024 Paris Olympics, depending on the schedule. The individual hurdles are another option. Her team believes if she can shave a half a second off her time from last month, she would be competitive enough to race internationally. 

The Canadian championships run through Sunday. It’s the first time the event will be held in front of fans since 2019, due to COVID-19.  

The event has had some high-profile withdrawals. Olympic decathlon champion Damian Warner and six-time Olympic sprint medallist Andre De Grasse have pulled out, along with distance stars Moh Ahmed, Justyn Knight and Gabriela DeBues-Stafford. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 21, 2022. 

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press