Nicole Ostertag competes in the heptathlon at the 2023 Bell Canadian Track & Field Championships in Langley, B.C. Photos by Mundo Sports Images.

Nicole Ostertag on injury, recovery and chasing big dreams

When Nicole Ostertag was young, she dreamt of being a professional ballerina.

She was so committed to the dream that, as a teenager, she travelled to study at various ballet schools in Calgary, New York, Philadelphia and Toronto. But as she finished Gr. 11, her passion for ballet fizzled and Ostertag moved back home to Saskatoon.

“I didn’t know what to do next,” she recalls. “But both my parents had done track and field so I was like ‘I’ll give it a try.'”

Ostertag’s parents rang up Ivan Tam, a family friend and track and field coach. He invited Ostertag to a practice and began teaching her how to hurdle. Later, he introduced her to the high jump. Ostertag loved both events and — inspired by her dad who had competed in the decathlon — became fascinated with the heptathlon. The combined event sees athletes tackle the 100-metre hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200-metre dash, long jump, javelin and 800-metre run over the course of two days.

Ostertag trained and competed in sprints, hurdles and jumps throughout her Gr. 12 year and lined up at her first heptathlon in the summer of 2018, just weeks before starting her kinesiology degree at the University of Saskatchewan.

Nicole Ostertag.
Nicole Ostertag competes at the 2022 North American, Central American and Caribbean Athletics Association (NACAC) Combined Events Championship. Photo by Mundo Sports Images.

“It was awful. I did not know what I was doing and I struggled through the events,” Ostertag recalls. “It wasn’t pretty, but I still really enjoyed it. I liked the fact that so much can happen in a heptathlon. It’s not just one race and then you’re done. If one event doesn’t go well, you can always make it up in another event. And usually it doesn’t go the way you expect it to. You kind of have to just keep going and see what happens — which I love.”

In her rookie season with the Huskies, Ostertag took home bronze at the USports indoor track and field championship in the pentathlon (a five-event competition that excludes the javelin and 200m sprint). That summer, she became the U20 national champion in the heptathlon, racking up almost 1,400 more points than she had after her “awful” heptathlon a year earlier. In her second year as a Huskie, she took home USports silver in the pentathlon during the indoor season, breaking the U of S record that had stood since 1984.

She was named to her first national team last year and travelled to Ottawa to compete at the North American, Central American and Caribbean Athletics Association (NACAC) Combined Events Championship, where she finished second in the heptathlon.

Ostertag graduated from the U of S this past spring and, despite her successes, says her university track and field career was filled with challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic cost her a year of competition. And she spent a year and a half struggling with plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of tissue in the bottom of her foot that caused severe heel pain.

Three months after her NACAC silver, Ostertag flew to Niagara to compete in the 2022 Canada Summer Games. While competing in the 100-metre hurdles — the first event of the heptathlon — she heard a pop in her foot.

“I crossed the line and I was like, ‘OK, something’s really not right here,'” she recalls. She had to drop out of the competition and eventually learned she had ruptured her plantar fascia. She was fitted for a non-weight-bearing boot and embarked on months of physiotherapy.

“We just kind of went from ground zero and I relearned all the proper mechanics for everything. I got really strong and I got fit on the bike and found different ways to do things,” she says.

After months of focusing on the basics, Ostertag felt strong at the beginning of the 2023 outdoor season, but was worried that months of rehabilitation for her ruptured plantar fascia had done little to improve the pain she’d been experiencing in her right shin for more than a year. Still, she trained as best she could.

“We’ve just been trying to piece things together and do things in a less conventional way, but a way that allows my body to be as healthy as it can,” she says. That meant not doing as much running training as she would have liked.

In June, she travelled to Sweden where she won the Sweden Combined Events Challenge with personal best scores in the high jump, long jump and 800 metres. It brought her to a personal best score of 6,005 points — the first time she’d broken the 6,000-point barrier.

“It’s a pretty big milestone,” Ostertag says. “I didn’t expect to break 6,000 there just because we’d been running against some very strong headwinds so some of the events I would typically score higher in, I had lower scores because I was fighting the wind … I knew I was capable of going over 6,000 points, but after the first day I was a little skeptical that I was going to be able to pull it off.”

The next big competition on the books was the 2023 Bell Canadian Track & Field Championships in Langley, B.C. Ostertag had dropped out of the 2022 national championships after pulling her hamstring in the 200-metre dash and was keen to compete for her first national title. In the weeks leading up to this year’s championships, she and coach Jason Reindl managed her shin pain so she could execute some of her first big running workouts of the season.

Ostertag led the field from the first event, aided by a personal best in the 200 metres. But she struggled in the second last event, the javelin, and was leading by only 18 points going into the 800 metres. To take her first national title, she would need to run within two seconds of the second-place competitor, Olympic heptathlete Georgia Ellenwood who was competing in her first major competition since rupturing her Achilles tendon last year.

“Her personal best in the 800 was five or six seconds faster than mine. So that was scary,” Ostertag says. “But I also knew that I was fitter than I’ve ever been. And I was quite certain I’d be able to tough it out and pull it off … It really came down to the last 100 meters of that 800.”

Ostertag finished just 0.01 seconds after Ellenwood in a personal best time of 2:13.84 to net 6,019 points and take her first national title — a moment of both disbelief and relief. “I was so excited,” Ostertag says.

Unfortunately, the incredible high was followed by an incredible low. After nationals, Ostertag had an MRI done of her tibia and learned she was dangerously close to a stress fracture. So she slipped back into her non-weight-bearing boot and returned to the familiar routine of rehab.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that she caught the hot spot before it became a stress fracture. And Ostertag is the first to point out she has a wealth of experience to draw on when it comes to making the most of injury.

“It’s about staying positive and optimistic and focusing on the things that you can do instead of the things that you can’t. You can still make progress on the little details that you otherwise probably wouldn’t have time to work on,” she says.

“I’m going to be in this sport, hopefully, for a long time. I have my sights set on the 2024 Olympics in Paris and I definitely think it’s within reach — getting myself healthy is going to be a big part of that.”