Jessica Furlan knows all too well that the road to the Olympics can be long and grueling.
Furlan, 29, grew up in Regina, where she discovered her love for running. Originally a basketball player, she took up cross country training as a way to get in extra conditioning but quickly discovered her true passion — steeplechase.
After high school, she took her talents south of the border to run steeplechase for the University of Nebraska, a NCAA division one school.
Fast forward to 2015, Furlan was competing in her first race of the season at Stanford University. During the final laps she felt a funny feeling in her foot after landing one of the water jumps, but her high pain tolerance and adrenaline were enough to push her through the finish line.
This race would end up being her fastest opener, with an Olympic and world championship-qualifying time.
After she had gotten out of her post-race daze, she noticed an excruciating pain in her foot. “I tried to cool down and jog,” she said. “I couldn’t really walk without pain.”
A CT scan showed that she had a stress fracture in her heel. She rested six to eight weeks before resuming her training in Phoenix, Arizona.
For a while her foot felt better, but then the pain returned and suddenly worsened.
“The stress fracture was back,” she said. “It probably never healed because I had some tissue between two bones in my foot that didn’t let them move past each other properly,” It turned out that she had a congenital stress fracture where two bones in her foot would keep hitting each other until they fractured.
“This is something that I couldn’t have prevented. The tissue from those two bones would’ve been there … since I was born, just building up over the years. It just happened that the fracture happened at a very inopportune time.”
With the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro around the corner, the injury ultimately caused her to miss the Games.
It was heartbreaking for her to accept that she wasn’t going to be able to reach her Olympic goal that season. “It was straight-up bad luck,” said Furlan.
In the fall of 2016, she got surgery on her foot in hopes of fully recovering to give the 2020 Olympics a shot. “I had surgery because I wanted to make this Olympics team. I felt like I still had goals, achievements and times that I hadn’t hit yet and that I was still capable of hitting. Without surgery that was an option,” she explained.
Doctors shaved down both bones and took out the irritating tissue in Furlan’s foot. Two screws were then placed in her foot to anchor and prevent the tissue from growing back.
She was back at ground zero but it an opportunity for a fresh start.
“Her body was adapting to these new movement patterns. She’s been moving that way her whole life, compensating for how that foot was used,” said Wynn Gmitroski, her track coach and physiotherapist. “She’s probably one of the more relaxed athletes that I’ve seen. She has a very positive attitude, very upbeat, even at times of set back.”
Her father, Mark Furlan, said “she got over feeling sorry for herself in a big hurry. She watched all her friends at the Olympics, she said whether it’s a tragedy, injury or whatever it is. Everybody has got a story.”
Furlan’s story would become one of redemption. She slowly started building up her strength and endurance; finding the balance between patience, preparation, and persistence.
“She has to cut a few seconds of her personal best time, which was set in 2014,” said Gmitroski. “I believe it’s possible and the more important thing is she believes it’s possible or else she wouldn’t be pursuing it here … six years later.”
Furlan plans on competing at the Canadian National Track and Field Championship in Montreal this June.
“There have been little doubts for sure, but I love it,” she said. “I absolutely believe that I can make this next Olympics team.”