Sage Watson will walk into Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday morning as the 400-meter hurdles Canadian and Pan American Games champion.
And, according to her coach Fred Harvey, Watson will end up in the finals at the World Athletics Championships with a shot at another major title this season.
For many who watched Watson as a Wildcat — an NCAA and Pac-12 champion — this is exactly what they’d expect her professional career to look like.
However, this season almost didn’t happen. And that might just be what makes it even sweeter for Watson, especially if she ends up on the top step on the podium.
“I thought my season was over. I wasn’t sure if I could race this year or compete at the highest level and win championships,” said Watson. “I’m happy with my season, but more thankful just because I wasn’t healthy. Hopefully, I will get a new personal best in the 400 and if that happens I will be happy with my season. Right now I’m just thankful.”
Watson has a lot to be thankful for as everything has turned around for her.
She was battling a foot injury — bone chips and a fracture — since July of 2018.
“Structurally, my foot wasn’t good. The second metatarsal was taking all the pressure the big toe should have had,” said Watson.
Watson talked to many doctors last fall about surgery, but decided against it. Watson and Harvey couldn’t see how she could run effectively again with the surgery that was recommended. The doctors just didn’t understand Watson’s sport and how she uses her foot to run — accelerate and slow down — and lift herself over the hurdle and land on the other side.
Watson decided to wait it out and deal with the pain. For someone whose livelihood entails running, experiencing pain every time she takes a step, is not good. But, Watson has a much higher pain tolerance than most.
“The great thing about Sage is she’s a rancher, she’s a rancher’s daughter. Her mom was a forensics scientist in Medicine Hat (Alberta). So her core toughness is so much different than a lot of people,” said Harvey.
But that doesn’t mean it was easy.
“There was one moment where her foot was hurting, her knee was hurting and we were in the weight room — and Sage doesn’t cry, she doesn’t cry — and she had an emotional breakdown,” said Harvey. “It was like ‘OK, let’s sit and evaluate what we are doing.’ That was the tipping point. She handled that as well as possible and she’s ready to perform now.”
Watson has thrived under the watchful eye of Harvey since she transferred to Arizona midway through her college career. In her senior year she kept putting up better times, including the fastest time in the nation in the NCAA Championship and the eighth-best time in the world.
At meets Harvey helps her in warm ups, is a calming factor, motivates her to do her best and makes it feel like it’s just the two of them at practice — even though she is on the biggest stages in the world.
This past year, as he adjusted her training to work around her injury, the two have grown even closer.
“Her ability to be able to process and have faith in others — our relationship is such that she knows I am going to go to every length to make sure she has the best opportunity,” said Harvey. “It’s going to be OK, but we’re going to have to trust each other, we’re going to have to navigate through this because we’re now going through uncharted territory with her foot.”
In May her foot still wasn’t improving. Watson turned to “corrective therapy” with Kacey Pedersen of Bodies Organized, who along with her husband, Jason — a massage therapist — works with the Wildcats track and field team, as well as other UA athletes.
“It was a process,” Watson said. “It was very technical exercises for foot mobility, corrective maneuvering and soft tissue work. We had to help align the foot. It finally got sorted out.”
Fortunately for Watson the schedule fell in her favor. This season World Championships are late, giving Watson time to get back to the level she wanted to race. It wasn’t easy at first as she finished seventh in a race in London. She needed patience and to trust the process.
“I ran a season’s best in the U.K. It was progress, but I wasn’t where I was last year,” she said. “So it was frustrating, but I was just coming back from the injury. I won the Canadian Championships by two seconds. In the Diamond League it’s very fast and very competitive. You always want to do your best — I wasn’t happy with my seventh-place finish. But, I was healthy and happy with my season’s best.”
In August she was very happy with her performance at the Pan American Games. She won — well, she did, then she didn’t, then she did again.
“There were really a lot of emotions in that moment,” said Watson. “After winning I went back to the warm-up area and they said ‘you’ve been disqualified.’ They thought I stepped on the line. We appealed it and our video footage showed I didn’t and they reinstated my gold.
“It took almost 30 minutes, it was a long time. In that moment I was upset, but I didn’t think I did anything wrong. I was confident I would be reinstated. So, I was happy, then worrying. But, in my mind I knew I won.”
There was a lot of detailed training that Watson had to squeeze into a short period of time to get ready for the World Championships. She added three races in Italy (bronze), Switzerland (silver), and Belgium (gold) to get more competition in.
How good does Watson look right now?
“She is very much ready,” said Harvey. “I think she is ready to run a personal best.”