This summer, millions tuned in on Tuesday nights to cheer on ten teams race across the country on Amazing Race Canada. Now in its seventh season, the challenges were as formidable as ever. And while 29-year-old Olympic hurdler Sarah Wells and her partner, sprinter Sam Effah, had the tools to deal with the task, it wasn’t their athleticism that made them amazing. “It was far more mental than physical—it parallels an Olympic race,” says Wells. “Knowing that this feels terrible, that I am depleted, but being prepared to rise above that physiological alert was a massive asset of oursas athletes: to know how to not give up.”
They would not give up. After weeks of sleep deprivation, inconsistent meals, tricky tasks, fierce competition and cameras in their face, these Team Canada athletes crossed the finish line with grace, taking second. “Sam and I planned to race with integrity and be ourselves and that took a lot of the pressure off trying to be something for TV,” she says. “I feel fortunate of the feedback we received.”
Wells and 30-year-old Effah (now training for the Tokyo Olympics) decided to join forces when they heard the audition call. “Sarah was good when it came to detailed, hands-on challenges, where I was a strength when we had challenges that needed you to analyze the big picture,” Effah says. “Our combination of strengths made us a strong, versatile team.” Sarah wasn’t always a world-class athlete. As a student at Unionville High School, she tried out for every single team possible—and got cut from all of them. “I was convinced I was the least athletic human on the planet,” she says. “Seriously, it was embarrassing.”
Everything changed when her gym teacher introduced her to track and field. This sounded terrible to 15-year-old Wells, who had a disdain for running. However, coach Dave Hunt, having trained varsity athletes at the University of Toronto, was an apt talent judge. Once Wells found the 400-metre hurdles, there was no turning back. “I started training with him and eight months later, we made the world youth team together.”
After high school, despite the plethora of U.S.universities offering scholarships, Wells decided to attend the only Canadian university she applied to—the University of Toronto. By staying in her hometown, she continued training under Hunt, with whom she had so much success. “We stayed together for the next eight years,”she says, “until we made the Olympics.” Getting there, however, took everything that she had. In 2011, a year before she made the Olympic Team, Wells endured a stress fracture in her femur. An injury that was supposed to take three months to heal took nine months (an eternity during the Olympic qualifying period). A hernia that Wells says “is a long story” was another setback. A growing disbelief in her began to spread.
“So few people thought I could do it that on my first day back to training, I got the word ‘Believe’ tattooed on my wrist, and I said when I go to the Games, I will put the Olympic rings underneath it.” Wells beat the odds and made it to the Olympics and competed in London and even reached the semi-finals. (To her father’s chagrin,Wells now has two wrist tattoos.) Armed with first-hand experience that believing in yourself actually worked, Wells found Believe Initiative (BelieveInitiative.com), where she inspires students to see “hurdles and not walls.” In the past 30 months, Wells has shared her story with over 45,000 students across North America.
“We go into schools and we have students pick a passion they have and a problem they want to solve,” she says. “They use that passion to solve that problem through self-belief—and action.” This call-to-action came into play when in the Northwest Territories, an Amazing Race challenge required Wells to dive into the record Great Slave Lake and swim under three feet of ice to retrieve a clue. “I can’t swim!” she says. “If you would have told me I had to do that challenge, I would have said no way. We will get kicked off on that episode.”
After suffering a panic attack, an emotional Wells found a way to get it done, exclaiming on TV: “I hated every minute of that!” Her teammate, Effah, remembers another occasion when her resilience allowed them to keep racing. “When we got lost in Quebec, we could have easily given up, but having the ‘persistence’ mentality kept us in the game,” he says. “Sarah sees a challenge, attempts it, and doesn’t let up until she’s successful—period.”
For Wells, she accomplished her running goal by competing in the Olympics. However, from a Games experience, the 2015 Pan Am Games was exceptional. Not only did she win a silver medal in the 400-metre hurdles and a bronze medal in the 4 x 400-metre relay, but she did it in Toronto, before her hometown crowd. “There’s a moment of taking a victory lap with your flag, which already feels great, and then there’s the moment doing a victory lap with your flag with your family in the stands. That’s a whole other level to share it in the city where everything started.”
With all of her accolades, her reality TV fame and her passion for inspiring Canadians to believe in themselves, Wells acknowledges that beating your own time is the greatest triumph for a runner. “I think the ultimate achievement is a personal best,” she says. “That feeling is the exact same feeling at the Olympic level as it is at any one of your races. That personal best feeling is equivalent. It’s the ultimate pursuit.”