Despite being in Gifu, Japan for the past week training with her fellow Canadian Olympians, it still hasn’t set in for Bracebridge native Natalia Hawthorn.

“It still feels surreal,” she tells the newsroom from the hotel room she’s been quarantined in since arriving in Gifu on July 18th. The hotel she’s staying at is about five hours away from where the Olympics are being held in Tokyo. Her hotel overlooks one of the two tracks that she’s been training on leading up to her first event on August 1st. “It hasn’t set in that I’m actually competing at the Olympics,” she says. “I think that will really set in when we travel to the Olympic village and are with the other countries and get to see the warm-up track, and maybe the stadium before competing.”

Since arriving in Japan for Team Canada’s training camp, what Hawthorn has been able to do has been restricted to training at the aforementioned track next to her hotel and taking an hour-long shuttle to a trail that’s also used to keep her in shape in advance of her event. “We’re pretty much restricted to the hotel,” she says, but adds the vibe in the hotel is pretty positive. “It’s been really exciting to get to know all the athletes on the team,” she goes on to say. Being that she’s a first-time Olympian, Hawthorn says she’s glad to be surrounded by other first-timers as well as people who have done this before. “We’re all in this together,” she says. 

“I think all of us are excited to hopefully have a little bit more access to Japanese cuisine in the Olympic village,” Hawthorn says optimistically. That being said, she adds she’s grateful for the reception Team Canada has received from Gifu locals since they arrived. “The group here has helped us be here in a way that respects the community,” she explains. Even though she hasn’t gotten the full experience, Hawthorn says the Japanese culture has been amazing to see. “I was joking the most we’ve seen is our 60-minute shuttle to the trail that we have access to,” she adds. “That has been our tour of Gifu thus far.”

Overall, 371 Canadian athletes are travelling to Tokyo, which is the most our country has ever sent, but because of COVID-19 protocols, not all of them were able to be in Tokyo for the opening ceremony last week. Hawthorn, unfortunately, was one of the athletes that didn’t make it. However, she says city officials in Gifu put on a mini-opening ceremony for the athletes with an impromptu fireworks display. “They have been super welcoming,” she says. Hudson’s Bay also sent everyone at the hotel Canada’s opening ceremony uniform, which Hawthorn says was a thrill to put on, even if she was only able to walk around her hotel room in it. 

Ahead of the Olympics starting, Japan put a multitude of COVID-19-related restrictions in place which, among other things, banned fans from attending any event and limited the movement of athletes. That includes limiting how many athletes are in the Olympic village in Tokyo at one time. Hawthorn explains they’re going in waves a few days before their events. Her first event is on Sunday, August 1st (Monday the 2nd in Tokyo) so she won’t be making the trip to Tokyo until it’s Wednesday in Tokyo.

This week marks the start of the athletics competitions, so she says a lot of excitement is starting to build with the first-time Olympians realizing they’re a few days away from competing on the biggest stage of their careers. “I’ll see how I feel when I get on that line,” she says. Over the past year, Hawthorn says she’s gotten used to competing without many fans in attendance but adds it will still be unique competing alongside the world’s best 1,500 metre runners with no one there to watch. “I think I know what to expect,” she says, adding she will miss the cheers but will be “ready to run fast.”

Hawthorn is one of 45 athletes competing in the 1,500-metre run. That includes Canadian sisters Gabriela Debues and Lucia Stafford. “We go back to competing in high school and (Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations),” she says.

This is how it will work: there will be three heats of 15 runners each. The top six runners from each heat and the next six fastest will advance to the semi-finals. The semi-finalists will be divided between two heats with the top five in each run and the next two fastest moving onto the final. 

Hawthorn’s best time this season was 4:04.20, which is exactly what the Olympic-standard qualifying time is. Since then she’s been able to consistently run at that pace. “I’m feeling confident in my fitness,” she says. “I’m the fittest I’ve ever been.”