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Felicien's memoir is about the lessons of resilience learned from her mom Cathy

TORONTO — The story of Perdita Felicien's devastating crash at the 2004 Athens Olympics is well-known, and was also one of the most difficult chapters of her book to write.

TORONTO — The story of Perdita Felicien's devastating crash at the 2004 Athens Olympics is well-known, and was also one of the most difficult chapters of her book to write. 

But the foot injury that kept her out of the Beijing Games four years later, and the disastrous human error behind it, was nearly as big of a blow to the 40-year-old from Pickering, Ont.

In her book "My Mother's Daughter: An Immigrant Family's Journey of Struggle, and Grit and Triumph," Felicien revealed that she fractured her foot at a practice in February of '08 because the hurdles were laid down on the wrong lines, barrelling full-speed into a hurdle that was too close.  

"I shot over the hurdle awkwardly and came down on the other side off balance, all the force of my 140-pound frame landing on the tips of my left toes," she wrote. "Pop. I never hit the ground, but it felt like someone had driven a burning stake through the top of my foot."

Felicien's dreams of finally winning the Olympic gold that escaped her in Athens were crushed in that moment.

"It's devastating, right? I never, never shared that," Felicien said in a phone interview. "I didn't want to embarrass, I didn't want to put shame on (her coaching team). So, I didn't tell anyone.  

"Athens was my own making, so you deal with that in a certain way. You're the author of it. But somebody else, by mere centimetres, putting the hurdle in the wrong spot, never ever done that before, is a whole different level of just being devastated."

Felicien's memoir, which launched last week, is "not a jock memoir." And it's much less about heartbreak than it is about triumph, and the resilience learned from her mother Cathy. 

Her mom was born and raised in St. Lucia, and came to Canada as a nanny to a wealthy Canadian family she met when they were vacationing on the Caribbean island.

In a story that reflects the life of so many new Canadians, Cathy's early life here was one of opportunity but also suffering, as Felicien would piece together through dozens of interviews for her book.

"I didn't have the full story (of her mother's life) growing up, but I had little parts," Felicien said.  

"Here's this woman who's telling me that she dropped out of school when she was like 11 and 12, sold (trinkets) on a beach, finds a way to Canada, and here I am an elite athlete? Like, how did we get here? How did I get here?"

Cathy spent her early years in Canada cooking, cleaning and caring for the children of several families. She had little independence or power. When Cathy was pregnant with Perdita, and felt the first stabbing pains of labour, her employer, she said her employer agreed to drive her to hospital, but not until Cathy had made tuna sandwiches for her and her husband.

Over the years that followed, Felicien and her mom would experience racism, domestic abuse and homelessness. Their first real feelings of independence came when Cathy left an abusive marriage to Bruce, who's not Felicien's biological father but the only dad she's ever known. Cathy fled to Auberge women's shelter in Oshawa — now known as Denise House - with Felicien, who was seven at the time, and her older sister Vonette. 

Cathy was pregnant with daughter Eda at the time. They would live at Auberge for several months before the shelter helped them move into a townhouse.

"My mother has overcome so many figurative hurdles in her life, and here I am literally going over hurdles and I'm one of the best to do them in the world. There's irony to me in that," Felicien said. "A lot of the reasons why I could get past Athens and still be whole and still have my self-esteem intact, and not let something like that cloud me is because of my mother. 

"Of course Athens is always going to be devastating, it's always going to be like, 'ugh, I messed that up.' But it was the start of my career really, it happened at the very beginning."

Indeed, Felicien is one of the most successful track and field athletes Canada has produced, capturing 10 Canadian titles. She's Canada's first female to capture gold at the world track and field championships (in 2003) and went on to win silver in 2007. She's also a gold and silver medallist at the world indoor championships.

Since her retirement from track, Felicien has worked as a broadcaster for CBC, and she recently finished filming Season 4 as host of the reality TV show "All-Round Champion".

A book had been in the back of her mind for years, but she finally "put pen to paper" in 2014 after getting the green light from her family.

"Every single one of my family members had said yes," Felicien said. "My mother was like: Tell the story and tell the full truth of it. Don't sanitize it. Don't neutralize it or make it look less messy than it is. Tell the truth. Because that is the only way you'll find your own story as a woman, right? 

"And so I think she was really trying to empower me, she knew I needed these answers."

Delayed a year due to COVID-19, last week's launch of the book she calls a love letter to her mom felt familiar, a lot like a race won.

"It caught me off-guard, like 'woah, I'm so euphoric.' It feels like the day after you race. You're excited, but there's a drainage to it. There's a 'woah, holy crap I did this,"' Felicien said. "Up until the moment the gun goes off and then you cross that line, you've just been preparing and being strong, and just head down to the grind to get it done. You don't have the chance to think 'Wow, this is amazing.'"

Felicien has another book in the works about her infertility struggles. She and her sports-journalist husband Morgan Campbell have a daughter Nova, who turns two later this month.

"I'm not going to be one-hit wonder. That's not my thing."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2021. 

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press