‘I’m running for all of them’: Borden hurdler Savannah Sutherland is an NCAA champ, with a boost from her small town

Saskatoon Star Phoenix Logo, Submitted.

by Kevin Mitchell

Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Borden’s fastest woman went down to Texas last week, and won the biggest event of her life.

Savannah Sutherland — whose Saskatchewan town had 287 people at the last census — is the NCAA women’s 400-m hurdles champion after turning in a stunner of a showing this past weekend for the Michigan Wolverines.

Her hand went to her mouth at the finish line. Then she crouched on the track, and let what had just happened roll through her brain.

“I was in the hotel room on Friday, watching the live-stream of the guys, and I was ‘This is so cool — they’re on TV right now!’ ” Sutherland, a sophomore, said Tuesday. “And then I realized, ‘Hey; that was me yesterday, and that’s going to be me tomorrow.’

“I don’t think it’s fully sunk in that I was one of those people, on the TV, winning the race, doing all that. It feels like something that happens to somebody else on TV — not me.”

Sutherland, 19, was a prolific runner during her high-school years, competing at the provincial, national and world levels. She placed third in the 400-m hurdles at the 2021 world athletics u-20 championships, and joined the University of Michigan in 2021 after graduating from high school.

Last year, as a freshman, she watched the NCAA championships at home, on TV, wishing she could be there.

The talk heading into Saturday’s final centred around favourites Britton Wilson from Arkansas and Massai Russell from Kentucky. But Sutherland hung near the front. On the broadcast, her name was mentioned for the first time at the three-quarter mark, just as she launched a kick that propelled her past the field.

Then she cleared the last hurdle, and it was a race to the finish line.

“That is very scary, coming off that last hurdle and knowing there is such a talented field of athletes behind me, that are still coming after me,” Sutherland said. “The race isn’t over quite yet. It’s thrilling, and also a little bit terrifying. I tried to give it all I had in that last 35, 40 metres going to the finish line, wanting to leave it all out on the track and have no regrets once I crossed that line.”

Sutherland’s time was 54.45 seconds, nearly a full second faster than her previous personal best. That time set a school record, the Canadian U23 record, and slid into the world’s top 10 times this year.

Back home in Borden, people cheered.

“People have never heard of Borden before,” she said. “A lot of people haven’t even heard of Saskatchewan. Being able to go and put that name out there really means a lot to me.

“People from Borden are the first to reach out and say ‘good luck at the meet’ before I’ve even posted anything, before a lot of people are even aware I’m competing this weekend. They already know. They’re always up-to-date on my meets, my results, everything. Having that support is so special to me — and knowing that I’m not just running for myself, if that makes sense.

“Track is usually seen as such an individual sport. At the end of the day, you’re out on the track by yourself, pushing yourself. But having that whole community behind me reminds me that I’m running for all of them.”

And now she’s a national champion, with two more years of collegiate running ahead of her. That personal-best clocking on the weekend hit the Olympic qualifying time, though the window for that won’t open until July 1.

Sutherland was asked if what she’s done at Michigan, straight from Borden, could send a message to other small-town athletes in the province about dreams and possibilities. She nodded.

“Anything is possible, if you set your mind to a goal — if you’re consistent at it, and consistently work hard at it,” she said. “What might seem like huge, big dreams are definitely achievable. Even last year when I was a freshman, I was sitting at home on the couch, watching a live stream of NCAAs, saying ‘Wow; I wish I was there.’ And then this year, I was there, and I was on the track, and I won the race.

“Things like that, if you set your mind to it and commit to it in every aspect, are definitely achievable, no matter where you’re from. No matter anything.”