Hayley Warren has almost mastered the art of the comeback.
The Varsity Blues hurdler has spent most of her career overcoming obstacles — and they haven’t been limited to the track.
A nationally ranked gymnast as a pre-teen, Warren began to look for another outlet for her athleticism after repeated injuries.
The minute Warren set foot on the track, her mother Wendy said she knew her daughter would one day achieve big things. “Her first race out she won,” Wendy remembered. “She just won [from] there.”
Warren set a slew of hurdling records across the province before entering high school. In the ninth grade, however, she began to falter. The track program at Warren’s local high school was less-than-stellar, the club she had spent her career with underwent a coaching turnover, and she was dealing with nagging back pain.
By the end of the grade ten, she was losing interest in hurdles.
When Warren’s family moved from Beaverton to Orillia that summer, it made her question her priorities. “It really made me realize you’re the only person who’s going to be there for you. Sports are something that you can control. You might be best friends with someone one day and then they’re gone the next,” Warren said. “I matured a lot more. I realized what I wanted to do and who I wanted to [be].”
Warren began to work with trainer Mike Torkoff soon after and with his help she began to turn things around.
“When she [would] say ‘I can’t do this’ I’d say ‘Yes, you can’ and I’d help her through it,” Torkoff said.
A partial track scholarship to McGill University in 2009 proved to Warren that she’d finally gotten her head in the game.
“I think the hardest thing for an athlete isn’t what goes on with other people around you, but what goes on in your head,” Warren says. “If you’re not in it mentally, what’s the point? You’re never going to get to where you want to be.”
At McGill, Warren trained harder than she ever had before. Her improvement was so drastic that she placed third in the national 100-m outdoor hurdles, ending the school’s near decade-long medal drought in women’s track.
Despite her success, however, Warren said she felt the track program wasn’t as serious as she thought it would be.
“She was an unhappy girl because she loved McGill, but she knew it wasn’t the right choice for her athletic career,” Wendy said.
The summer after her first year, Warren decided to transfer to the University of Toronto, a school known for its thriving track program.
“I wanted somewhere I could nurture my skills,” Warren said. “I wanted to be surrounded [by] elite athletes that wanted more than just to go to CIS. They want to go to the Olympics.
“That’s the kind of athletes I needed to train with. They have the same kind of goals I do.”
It seemed Warren finally had all her ducks in a row. She had found the track program she’d been looking for since day one, and her training and results improved dramatically.
This year was supposed to belong to Warren. In January, at one of her first meets as a Varsity Blue, she qualified for the nationals right out of the gate.
But less than a month later, Warren received some devastating news. Injury had been dogging her for a while and after coming off a hurdle awkwardly at a meet in Ottawa, the two-to-three-year-old tear in her meniscus got bigger. After going to the doctor, Warren found out that her problem wasn’t going to be solved easily.
Tests showed Warren had a rare meniscus deformity, and she was going to need surgery.
“The scary part was before the surgery, my surgeon said ‘I’m going to be 100 per cent honest with you, you may never run the same after the surgery or you may run better,” Warren said. “He didn’t know what it would be like until he got in there and did the scope.”
Warren’s season came to an abrupt halt, and at the beginning of April, she went under the knife.
“I couldn’t believe it happened when it did,” Wendy said. “I just wanted it to hurry get better faster.”
Fortunately, barely six months later, Warren is back out on the track doing full workouts.
“It’s going take a while to get back in. After [the surgery] I was like ‘I’m never going to be able to walk again! This is horrible!’ I was so dramatic,” Warren laughed. “It just takes time. That’s all it takes.”
And with a strong support team backing her, Warren knows that she’s going to make her grand comeback.
“I think being an athlete, once you’ve overcome something once, you know you can overcome other negatives,” Torkoff said.
Warren said she’s focusing on her track career more than ever before.
“I know what I want to do, I know who I want to be as an athlete,” Warren said. “I’m putting the effort, the hours, and the work into being that person that I imagine myself being.”