Charles Philibert-Thiboutot stands proudly on the podium at the Santiago 2023 Pan Am Games with his gold medal. He is wearing a maroon Team Canada jacket.Photo by Thomas Skrlj/COC
Photo by Thomas Skrlj/COC

Charles Philibert-Thiboutot: From the toughest of times to running back to the top  

For Canadian fans watching the Santiago 2023 Pan Am Games, the men’s 1500m final was something pretty magical.

Rounding the last bend, it looked like Team Canada would be in tough for a medal, let alone a win. Charles Philibert-Thiboutot was boxed in by three competitors in front and beside him, and his compatriot Robert Heppenstall was behind him. Heppenstall made a huge move into the final straightaway, going wide for a hard-charging sprint that saw him overtake all four athletes in front. But Philibert-Thiboutot somehow found another gear, going even wider out on the track than Heppenstall to pass one, two, three athletes before throwing himself over the line in a dive as Heppenstall raised his fist in celebration.

The final verdict: gold to Philibert-Thiboutot, silver to Heppenstall, and bronze to Casey Comber of the United States. Hollywood couldn’t have scripted a more exciting finish for Team Canada fans. And it was clear in the immediate aftermath that this win meant something really special to the 33-year-old from Quebec City. 

Philibert-Thiboutot already had a silver medal in the 5000m to his name from Santiago, but the gold–and sharing the podium with a teammate–was that much sweeter.

“I think being a bit older now, I don’t take those moments for granted,” Philibert-Thiboutot said, reflecting on the Pan Am Games a couple months later. “When you’re young and things go your way and you’ve never really had any struggles, you take those breakthrough moments a bit for granted. Now I know that they come and go and there’s not going to be a lot of them. So I really made sure to soak in the moment.”

Not an easy journey

A successful U Sports (then called CIS) athlete for Laval University, Philibert-Thiboutot really started to establish himself as one of Canada’s top middle distance athletes in 2015 when he made his debut at the World Athletics Championships and won bronze in the 1500m at the Pan Am Games in Toronto. He progressed to make his Olympic debut at Rio 2016, advancing to the 1500m semifinals.

A group of male runners on a track
Charles Philibert-Thiboutot competes in the men’s 1500m heat at the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Tuesday, August 16, 2016. Photo by Mark Blinch/COC

But then came the difficulties that, unfortunately, taught Philibert-Thiboutot not to take those breakout performances for granted. The next few years featured a string of injuries, including Achilles tendon issues in 2017 and 2018, a stress fracture in 2019, and a calf tear in 2020.

“For me, 2020 was a blessing in disguise because when everything got shut down, I could really stop running after results and just concentrate on rehab. So 2020 was a big year of rebuilding, far away from competition. And then in 2021 I was back healthy and fit,” Philibert-Thiboutot said.

But Lady Luck was not quite ready to smile upon him yet.

“I got extremely unlucky before the Tokyo 2020 qualifying period. I got spiked in the Achilles tendon by a competitor in a race a month before the qualifying window and that really slowed me down,” he explained. “And then trying to qualify at nationals on the very last day, there were 70 kilometre per hour winds, so I couldn’t run a fast time.”

To add insult to injury, he ran the Olympic entry standard three weeks after the qualifying window closed, proving that the fitness was, in fact, there.

“It was a bit of a crushing experience. But I did have my health and I was running better than ever. Since then I’ve been building on that momentum.”

Charles Philibert-Thiboutot runs at the front of a pack of athletes
Charles Philibert-Thiboutot of Canada competes in the Men’s 5000m finals during the Santiago 2023 Pan Am Games. Photo by Thomas Skrlj/COC

Such momentum included his first new 1500m personal best in eight years in the summer of 2023, as well as reaching the semifinals at the World Athletics Championships.

In the tough stretch of injuries, Philibert-Thiboutot held onto the memories of some of his favourite moments from early in his career, including the Pan Am bronze and his first time running the Olympic standard.

“These moments were so strong in emotions that I knew it was worth it to really dig deep and stay motivated, because if I get to live any of those moments again, I’ll be as happy as I can get.”

And since then, he’s been able to add a few more moments to the highlight reel, with the hopes that the best is yet to come at Paris 2024.

The way forward

Unlike the last Olympic cycle, when he was under the gun to run the entry standard, this time Philibert-Thiboutot achieved the standard early within the qualifying window.

“That means I don’t have to race every other weekend to try to run a really fast time. I can just concentrate on training and some key races that will prepare me best for Paris.”

A key focus is on refining his racing tactics.

  • Charles Philibert-Thiboutot smiles and looks at the crowd while holding a Canadian flag above his shoulders.
  • Charles Philibert-Thiboutot pumps his fist at the finish line of the men's 1500m at the Santiago Pan Am Games while wearing a red, black and white team Canada speed suit.

“Pan Ams was a race where we anticipated that I wasn’t going to be at my best fitness, but we wanted to get there and be competitive and be tactically sound,” Philibert-Thiboutot explained.

The goal is to do the same thing at the upcoming 2024 World Athletics Indoor Championships, taking place March 1-3 in Glasgow, Scotland. In preparation, Philbert-Thiboutot has left several Quebec records in his wake, including the outdoor mile and the indoor 3000m. But he has Paris firmly in his sights. 

“The goal is to show up at the Canadian Trials in Montreal at the end of June and win, and then show up in Paris ready to run a personal best, a Canadian record, whatever it takes for me to make it to the final,” Philibert-Thiboutot said.

And at the final?

“I’ll run as fast as I can.”