Illini of the Decade: #3 Perdita Felicien

Perdita Felicien isn’t a prototypical hurdler.

She’s short and powerful, not long and lanky like many of the best in her event.

But Felicien’s 5-foot-5 frame is so quick and explosive that her shortcomings don’t matter — she was built to be a track and field athlete.

During her time at Illinois from 2000-2003, Felicien was a 10-time All-American, a three-time NCAA champion and broke collegiate records in the 60-meter and 100-meter hurdles.

Her success could be taken for granted — she could be seen as simply a talented athlete who, through grit and determination, became one of the best hurdlers in the world.

But Felicien’s story isn’t that simple.

Track beginnings

The year was 1999, and the phone at Felicien’s house in Pickering, Ontario, wouldn’t stop ringing.

The senior hurdler on the Pine Ridge Secondary School track team had become somewhat of a prized college recruit in the United States after a strong season and, with looser NCAA restrictions on recruiting than are now present, calls from coaches would not stop coming.

Felicien didn’t know what to think.

Track was never meant to be a profession.

It was simply something she did after school because her single mother worked late into the night as a nursing home attendant and Felicien didn’t want to stay home alone.

By her senior year, she had run track for only a few years and didn’t particularly like running the hurdles. When the event was called at meets she would do her best to hide and pretend she mistakenly missed it.

“I hated the hurdles,” the future world champion said with a laugh. “Looking back now, it’s the stupidest thing … I wasn’t pursuing track. I happened to be very talented, but I didn’t know. I kind of just did it.”

Despite her disdain for the event, her coach, Curtis Sahadath, pushed her to continue hurdling and scheduled her to run in several meets in the United States. Felicien and her mother, a native of the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, were tight on money, but Sahadath told her not to worry, he would drive her to these meets.

That is how then-Illinois head coach Gary Winckler discovered her, at a meet in Columbus, Ohio.

Still, she wasn’t interested in running collegiately — she wanted to be an actress.

So when Winckler called her and asked if she would be interested in going to University of Illinois on a full scholarship, Felicien said no.

“Please don’t call, I’m not sure if I want to go to school in the States,” she remembered saying.

Her mother had no opportunity to attend college, and Felicien didn’t place much value in receiving a top-notch education in the U.S.

“It was just very overwhelming,” she said. “It was like, ‘What? Leave my family? For what?’ It didn’t add up to me.”

Winckler backed off but left the door open.

“I told her I was interested if she changed her mind,” he said.

As time went on, though, Felicien began to realize she was being presented with a unique opportunity.

“Why am I turning down a full scholarship when I have teammates who can’t even get partial scholarships?” she said.

That summer, she called Winckler back and asked if he was still interested in having her run at Illinois — he was.

And so this runner from Canada, who began running track for no other reason than to pass time, came to be coached by one of the best hurdling coaches in the world at University of Illinois.

Still, Felicien didn’t have passion for track and field when she came to Illinois in January 2000.

“I never would ever say that I wanted to do this post-collegiately … I wasn’t lazy by any means, but I wasn’t driven,” she said.

“When (Winckler) turned his back, and he said to do 10 pull-ups, I would do three. That first year, I still got good results just because the level of training was better.”

Felicien improved almost a full second in the 100 hurdles during her freshman year, an unprecedented improvement in any sprint, and was named Big Ten Outdoor Freshman of the Year in 2000.

Her sophomore year brought more success and more notoriety. She became an All-American in the 100 hurdles and was named the U.S. Track Coaches Association National Female Outdoor Athlete of the Year, Big Ten Female Outdoor Athlete of the Year and University of Illinois Female Athlete of the Year.

But even as she qualified for the semifinals at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton, Alberta, Felicien knew she could give more.

“I thought, ‘My God, what’s going to happen if I dedicate myself to the sport and do everything I’m supposed to do and just give a lot of heart and passion?” she said. “That was the turning point for me.”

So Felicien fully dedicated herself to track and field at the end of 2001.

“I started to enjoy it and live for it … and really fall in love with the events,” she said. “I started to know my own worth at that point.”

Over the next two years, the invigorated Felicien began to realize her vast potential.

Her junior year, she won indoor and outdoor NCAA championships, becoming the first Illini to do so in the same year.

After winning Big Ten championships her senior year in both the 60 indoor hurdles and 100 outdoor hurdles, she won a world championship in Paris.

Felicien still had an indoor season’s eligibility left, but she decided instead to sign with an agent and turn pro in September.

Her Illini career was over, but she still trained on campus with Winckler, who helped her to another world championship, for about six years after her departure.

Last fall, Winckler retired from coaching and Felicien moved to Atlanta, where she trains with a group of professional track athletes.

Her storied career is back on track after suffering a few injuries that hampered her, and Felicien has her sights set on the 2012 Olympics and maybe even the 2016 Games.

Her career has been so accomplished that it’s easy to forget, if her mom hadn’t worked nights, if coach Sahadath hadn’t driven her to the United States and if coach Winckler hadn’t gone to that meet in Ohio, none of this may have happened.

She still remembers that first time coach Sahadath made her hurdle, and she couldn’t help but laugh.

“It was the most awkward feeling, I never wanted to do this again,” she said. “I guess he must have seen something in that because he said, ‘From now on, you are a hurdler’ … He just saw something.”