Team Canada/Brock heads Down Under
Coaches and wrestlers left Thursday for the Commonwealth Games in Australia. Photo Special to BPSN.
Canada’s Commonwealth Games wrestling team has a distinct Brock Wrestling Club flavour to it.
Of the six men and six women representing Canada in Gold Coast Australia April 11-13, five are Brock wrestlers, including Jessie MacDonald (50 kilograms), Diana Weicker (53 kilograms), Emily Schaefer (50 kilograms), Michelle Fazzari (62 kilograms) and Jevon Balfour (74 kilograms).
The coaching ranks are also full of people with Brock connections. Head coach Tonya Verbeek is a former Brock wrestler who has two Olympic silver medals and one bronze to her credit. Assistant coach Marty Calder, a two-time Olympian, is the long-time coach of Brock’s wildly successful club and university wrestling programs. And assistant coach Paul Ragusa, a 1996 Olympian, also wrestled for Brock.
Verbeek, a 40-year-old Beamsville native who was hired as Wrestling Canada’s international coach in 2017, has been coaching internationally at the senior level for one year and for three years with younger athletes.
She was head coach of Canada’s team at the World University Games, but the Commonwealth Games is her biggest assignment to date.
“It’s definitely still newer than not,” she said. “It is a really cool, great experience and this is where I want to be in terms of my profession.
“I am looking forward to some great performances and obviously having a great experience with the athletes and the rest of Team Canada.”
Canada has won the most Commonwealth Games wrestling medals with 125 won since the Games started in 1930. At the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the team won seven gold, two silver and three bronze medals.
“We have a blended team,” Verbeek said. “We have experienced athletes and athletes who have yet to experience a Games.
“That balance is important to have and we have our veterans who are leading the way and we have others who are there to learn and hoping to have a great performance too.”
Canada’s wrestlers will have to wrestle smart and tough.
“We can’t take anyone lightly no matter what the country or who the competitor is,” she said.
For Verbeek, it is a much different feel being a coach compared to being an athlete.
“As an athlete, it is a lot more nerves,” she said. “As a coach, I take a lot of their highs and lows and try and stay constant.
“That is something that is really important.”
It is also important to support everyone and makes sure the nerves are about excitement and that the training that was done is translated into strong performances.
“It’s a different type of emotion,” she said. “It’s wanting them to be their best and to achieve that is very important.
“It’s our job to ensure they have a good experience all around and they walk away with some learning moments and a feeling of success.”
In her role as head coach, she oversees the entire team as well as getting involved with the coaching of individual matches.
“I will be working in partnership with the other coaches who have a lot of their athletes on the team, but I definitely have that responsibility to oversee the entire program and the ins and outs of keeping that team together and make sure we are doing the right things.
“It is honestly a team effort.”
As Canada’s most decorated wrestler, Verbeek has taken a number of things she learned from being an athlete into the coaching ranks.
“The one thing I try to do is relate to the athletes in the moment of stress but also in preparation and getting ready for tournaments,” she said. “I appreciated my coaches for knowing what I needed to be able to be prepared and it’s important for me to relate to the athletes as much as I can.”
She has also brought her love of the sport to coaching.
“My passion as an athlete has continued and I’m am still learning and striving to be driven to the limit in terms of what we are capable of doing.”
BELOW ARE THE PREVIOUS STORIES WRITTEN ABOUT BROCK WRESTLERS COMPETING AT THE COMMONWEALTH GAMES:
Heading into the Commonwealth Games trials in Burnaby, B.C., Brock wrestling coach Marty Calder wasn’t expecting five of his wrestlers to qualify for next year’s Games in Australia.
“I think I underestimated my team,” he said. “I heard that number from one of the coaches in a quiet conversation prior to the tournament and I thought no.”
What was most gratifying to Calder was that many of Brock Wrestling Club’s younger athletes had strong performances at the trials.
“That gives me confidence that we have time on our hands and the experiences are really going to help these young kids.”
One of those young kids, 21-year-old Sarnia native Emily Schaefer, ending up winning the 57-kilogram division, defeating teammate Hannah Taylor 1-1 in the final (the wrestler who scores last is awarded the win) after two victories by pins.
“She was awesome,” Calder said of Schaefer, who had been battling a back injury heading into the event.
“I told her she could win it and it ended up there were two kids, Emily and Hannah, in the final,” Calder said.
He saw development in her as the tournament progressed.
“I could almost see her game changing,” he said. “She’s a very cerebral and articulate kind of athlete and she really put it together.”
The two-time Canadian university champion and three-time Ontario university champion has represented Canada on several occasions already. She was on the world cadet squad in 2011 and 2013, represented Canada at the junior worlds in 2015, wore the red and white at the world university championships in 2016 and then won a bronze medal at the Francophone Games in 2017.
“Representing Canada is a really big honour because there’s a lot of amazing wrestlers in Canada,” Schaefer said. “To be among them is an incredible experience.”
Wearing Canadian colours will never grow old for any athlete who has that opportunity.
“It’s always a new and different experience,” she said.
Schaefer admits that it took a little while for it to sink in that she had just booked passage to the Commonwealth Games.
“I wasn’t expecting it,” she said. “Afterwards Marty said that he had told me I could do it and I know I should have listened to him.
“But I wasn’t sure and looking at all the accomplished people I am going with, it seems kind of crazy. It’s a little shocking.”
The Commonwealth Games will have a comfortable feel to it as she will be sharing the journey with fellow Brock wrestlers Jessie MacDonald (50 kilograms), Diana Weicker (53 kilograms), Michelle Fazzari (62 kilograms) and Jevon Balfour (74 kilograms).
“Every day I am in this room training and competing with my teammates so to be able to go with them brings a sense of normalcy that will help me stay calm on the day of,” she said. “I just have to look at it that we do it every day in practice and it doesn’t have to be any different because it’s a bigger venue.”
Schaefer normally wrestles the same 58-kilogram weight class as world bronze medalist Fazzari, but the Commonwealth Games trials used the United World Wrestling’s new Olympic weight classes. At this year’s nationals, Fazzari was first at 58 kilograms and Schaefer was third.
Schaefer laughed when it was suggested she might want to buy Fazzari plenty of chicken wings to help keep her at the 62-kilogram weight class.
‘Wherever she wants to be and be successful at, we’ll just keep training,” she said. “We take it one tournament and one year at a time.”
Schafer can’t wait for the Games.
“This is the biggest tournament I’ve ever been to and this is only my second year as a senior athlete,” Schaefer said. “It will be a lot higher competition, the opening and closing ceremonies will be really cool and it will be nice to watch other sports and Canadian athletes.”
Now in her fourth year in the ultra-competitive Brock wrestling room, Schaefer is a much different athlete from when she first arrived.
“If I hadn’t come to Brock, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” she said. “It’s the combination of high-calibre coaches and teammates. To be able to wrestle every day with Olympians and world champions, you learn so much, so fast and you are continually growing.”
She is mentally, physically and technically stronger, but she’s far from a finished product.
“It’s going to big tournaments like the Commonwealth Games that will be such learning experiences,” she said. “Obviously, I want to do well, but wrestling against high-level athletes is what I need to keep growing as a wrestler.”
Next year’s trip to Australia will help that process.
“Going to the Commonwealth Game is a big step up and it’s a huge opportunity for her,” Calder said.
Schaefer is aiming high Down Under.
“We go to win,” she said. “I want to go there and compete well. We train three times a day and I want to go with that under my belt. I’m not shying away from anything.”
Calder describes the Commonwealth Games as having more depth than the Pan Am Games, but missing the top wrestlers from Cuba and the United States. India and Nigeria have excellent wrestlers and other solid athletes can be found in England, Cypress and South Africa.
“It’s a top-level competition and it helps you prepare for the biggies like the Olympics and world championships,” Calder said.
Being a high-performance athlete is a full-time occupation in itself.
One can only imagine the schedule for Diana Weicker, the 2017 55-kilogram senior national wrestling champion and the recent 53-kilogram winner at the Commonwealth Games trials. Included in the daily routine of the 28-year-old native of Nova Scotia is being the mother of two boys under the age of three, Aiden and Oliver, and working part time on weekends and evenings as a registered nurse in paediatrics ward at the St. Catharines hospital.
“I don’t know,” she said, when asked how she juggles such a busy schedule.
She knows it wouldn’t be possible without the assistance of Ryan Weicker, a former high-calibre wrestler himself.
“Ryan is a big help,” she said. “He is an awesome dad and he comes home early every day to take the kids, sometimes having to go back to work after I get home from practice.”
Diana has a kindred spirit in fellow wrestling mom Jesse MacDonald.
“We’re the only ones that understand going home and not having that break or to sleep. Or to come in tired because somebody kept you up all night,” she said. “It’s those little things that people don’t necessarily get and it’s nice to have someone doing it with you.”
Brock wrestling coach Dave Collie describes Weicker as an inspiration.
“Any high-level athlete has to make sacrifices but she’s doing it with two young children and having a job,” Collie said. “Diane and Jesse MacDonald, who are both in the same situation, are role models for our next generation that they can balance all that out and still get the results that they do.”
Ryan, a professional firefighter in Thorold, is the perfect spouse for Diana.
“He completely understands when I am cutting weight, when I have to travel or the sacrifices that I have to make,” she said. “I don’t even have to explain it to him and I wouldn’t be able to do it without him.”
Even with Ryan’s help it isn’t easy.
“It’s exhausting but I just love it,” she said. “I wrestled a long time before I did it so I have a good groundwork underneath it.”
Having children has given Diana a new perspective on her wrestling career.
“It’s more fun because I get to enjoy what I am doing and appreciate it that much more,” she said. “After the time off when I had the kids, I had so much more desire to be there and I took it all for granted when I was there.”
She fondly recalls her days of being a varsity athlete where she has time to herself and had plenty of time to devote to the little things in life.
“Now I am down to a minute-by-minute schedule to make sure I can get everything that I can get done.”
That hectic schedule is driven by what lies ahead.
“It’s the Olympic dream and just to know I can do it. I really believe I can and I want to give it a real shot,” she said.
That dream was rekindled watching the 2016 Summer Olympics on TV.
“I felt like had to be there, I wanted to be there badly and I feel that it’s worth it.”
Weicker had previous junior nationals titles to her credit but this year’s senior title was her first.
“It was really cool,” she said. “It was at a non-Olympic weight which wasn’t as cool but it was definitely exciting.”
She followed up her Canadian championship by winning the trials to go to the world championship.
“It was my first senior world championships and it was an amazing experience,” she said.
The three-time Canadian university champion has a difficult time pinpointing why she has enjoyed so much success this year.
“I have no idea,” she said, with a laugh. “I think it’s because I appreciate it more and I have a healthier balance.
Wrestling isn’t the be all and end all in her life.
“I have kids and I’m happy every day no matter what,” she said. “Win or lose, I am enjoying doing it and I appreciate being able to do it that much more.”
Weicker was starting to come into her own before she had children and now she has stepped up her game even more, Collie said.
“A lot of it comes from maturity,” he said, “Everybody has to make sacrifices but the sacrifices she has had to make to be successful, you definitely have to be serious about it.
“It’s not like she just wants to be at the top of the country. She is putting the time in; the morning sessions and the weight sessions.”
While the 2020 Olympics are almost three years away, Weicker can hear the clock ticking.
“It seems so close,” she said. “Our trials are in December 2019 so if you look at it it’s almost 2018 and it feels really close.”
The Commonwealth Games will be her second major games featuring multiple sports. She represented Canada at the 2013 World University Games.
“I love the team environment and being part of Team Canada as a whole, seeing other sports you really feel like a community,” she said. “It’s such a cool feeling to be a part of something so big.”
As Michelle Fazzari gazes around during training, she sees a former vision of herself in some of her Brock Wrestling Club teammates.
“I can look around the room and pinpoint where I was on people’s faces,” the 2017 world bronze medalist said. “And it’s ‘Oh that sucks.’ You can see people who are so frustrated and caught up in tunnel vision.
“I am having way more fun.”
But it wasn’t always that way for the 2016 Olympian.
“I always put pressure on myself and it was bad pressure,” the Hamilton native said. “I just go out and have more fun now and before it was all about outcomes. As much as I tried to not focus on that, subconsciously I was.”
That new approach helped her win her first medal at the world championships — she was fifth in 2014 — and also paid dividends at last fall’s Canadian trials for the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia.
After winning her first two matches at the trials, the 30-year-old came up against an old nemesis, Braxton Papadopolos, in the 62-kilogram final. Fazzari has beaten Papadopolos in the past but had also lost two national finals to the Impact Wrestling Club athlete.
“All I could do was my best and I didn’t focus on thinking I had to win,” she said. “It wasn’t what if I lose this or lose that? Now it’s just go in and the only thing you can do is your best.”
Fazzari fell behind four points to Papadopolos early in the match but she rallied for a 10-5 victory.
“I knew I wasn’t the same wrestler I was a few years ago mentally and I think it was more the mental aspect why I wasn’t performing very well,” Fazzari said. “And it wasn’t just her. I wasn’t performing well against a lot of Canadians.”
Her new approach has also carried over to her training. She rests when she needs to after getting treatment on a micro tear in her achilles tendon and she doesn’t run to continue to allow the tendon to heal.
“When you are young, you are so eager and if you sprain your ankle or hurt yourself, you don’t want to take the time off,” she said. “You are so impatient because it is very hard to be far-sighted.”
With age comes wisdom.
“You become smarter in how you train and you realize the process of things,” Fazzari said.
Three-time Olympic medalist Tonya Verbeek, a national team coach based out of Brock, has seen Fazzari mature into a much better wrestler.
“Michelle is heading in a really great direction in terms of finding her groove as a wrestler,” Verbeek said. “Everything is coming together nicely for her and I knew that before Rio (2016 Olympics).
“She needed a little bit more time and the next year she gets a world medal. That made sense in her progression.”
Fazzari is excited about qualifying for the Commonwealth Games.
“It’s my first Commonwealth Games and I’ve never been to Australia so that’s also cool,” she said.
She loves the feel of competing at multi-sport events.
“You get to hang out with people who have the same aspirations as you,” she said. “When you get into the real world, you realize there is such a small group of people that are that ambitious and I get to hang out with the most ambitious people in the world.”
She had high goals for her first appearance at the Commonwealth Games, but is not consumed by them.
“You go there to be on top of the podium,” she said. “That’s my goal but it is much more for me now.
“I want to do what I have been practising; the techniques and the series of moves.”
For 2018, she wants to continue dominating the international circuit and trying the things she has been working on.
Fazzari lost her government funding last year but regained it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t resume until April and she has been staying afloat with plenty of high school supply teaching with the District School Board of Niagara.
“I would prefer part time. I don’t like working five days a week and training,” she said. “I feel my days are really long and I would like to focus on wrestling a little bit more right now. I probably only have two years left.”
While alluding to the 2020 Olympics as her wrestling swan song, it is not written in stone.
“I have tops two years left but who knows?” she said, with a laugh. “I think my goal is to go after 2020 but you don’t know.”
She admits wrestling can be a grind and after the 2020 Olympics, it might be time to focus on her career or something else.
“I don’t think this is highlight of my life; at least I hope not,” she said. “It’s one part and then I can accomplish other goals.”
And while she is an acknowledged veteran in Brock’s wrestling room, she doesn’t see herself at a role model.
“We are just one family in there,” she said. “There’s 10-12 years between some of us but it doesn’t feel like that because we are so connected through something we are so passionate about.”
Jessie MacDonald left no doubt that she was top wrestler in the women’s 50-kilogram division at the Canadian Commonwealth Game trials in November.
Competing at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., the Brock Wrestling Club member won all four of her matches by technical superiority (the matches were stopped with MacDonald ahead by a 10-0 score).
“Everybody steps on that mat to win, everybody is a threat and you step on that mat ready to wrestle for six minutes,” she said. “You are looking for your points and you are focused on grinding it out.”
Heading into the trials, MacDonald didn’t speculate how the event would go and was anything but overconfident.
“The goal was to win and I was nervous,” the three-time world medalist said. “It was a big trials and I have been looking forward to Commonwealth Games for a while now.
“For me, it was a big deal to go out there and show dominance.”
MacDonald is cautious at every Canadian event because, in the past, her international aspirations have been thwarted by a loss at the domestic level.
“I truly believe that I am the best in the nation and I don’t always show that,” she said. “For me to show what I am capable of is a good accomplishment and it gives me a little confidence to know that I am better than I was.”
She has made both mental and physical improvements.
“I have to keep improving on both,” she said.
MacDonald was fighting at 50 kilograms for the first time since the weight classes were changed for Olympic events. She won a world championship and two bronze medals at 51 kilograms and when she returned for wrestling after the birth of her daughter, she competed at 53 kilograms at this year’s world championships.
“In the end, 53 was too big for me,” she said. “It didn’t mean that it was impossible but I was definitely on the smaller end and you don’t have that confidence when you know you are smaller.”
At the last Olympic trials, she tried to qualify at 48 kilograms and that weight class was too small for her.
“It really is an ideal weight for me now in the middle of two categories,” she said. “I was either cutting too much weight or I was on the smaller end of the bigger category.”
After 17 years of wrestling, she is in an Olympic weight category that is ideal for her.
“You could call it a present from God. I don’t know,” she said, with a laugh.
She is already looking forward to the Commonwealth Games next April in Queensland, Australia.
“The Commonwealth Games never gets the prestige of the Olympic Games but I went to the 2010 Games in India,” she said. “I experienced those games with Evan (husband Evan MacDonald) and it was such a team-building experience with all the athletes in the village.”
That the 2018 Games are in Australia is an added bonus.
“I have never been there, it is an amazing place to go to and I am super-excited to go to a new country,” she said. “I know we travel to a lot of places but it’s always nice to go somewhere new and experience that.”
In 2010, she won a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games and the goal in 2018 is to upgrade to a gold. Her previous trip should help in that regard.
“Every experience helps and you learn something every time,” she said. “It is the only Games I have ever been to so I kind of know what to expect.”
For 2018, her training will culminate with the world championships in October.
“My goals is to just improve, make less mistakes, be less fearful in matches where I am taking more risks, and ultimately I want to make the world team again this year and be on the podium again at the world championships,” she said. “It is within my reach.”
Wrestling Canada coach Tony Verbeek won’t be betting against MacDonald.
“When Jessie decides what she wants, she is all in,” she said. “She does a good job of managing her family life and wrestling and you can tell she is focused on this season.
“She is a threat internationally at the new weight class because she is so disciplined with what she needs to do.”
MacDonald still enjoys what she is doing.
“The whole point on coming back (form childbirth) was to enjoy it,” she said. “I’m enjoying the chase and I still feel like I am getting better.
“When there’s room for improvement, in my mind it’s not a time to stop.”
She expects 2020 will be the end of her wrestling career.
“I am definitely going to be older and I am going to want a second child at that point,” she said. “I will be content to step away at that point regardless of the outcome.”
The next Olympic Games may seem far away but for all the top-level athletes in the Brock wrestling room, it’s coming up quickly.
“We are less than two years away and it is close,” MacDonald said. “I stepped on the mat a year ago after having the baby and a whole year has gone by in a blink of an eye.”
Jevon Balfour has made tremendous strides since arriving six years ago to train with the Brock Wrestling Club.
“I am more disciplined and Marty (Brock head coach Calder) has made me more well-rounded,” the 23-year-old Brampton native said. “I was a decent athlete coming in but he enhanced that athleticism and shaped it up properly.”
But even bigger than the physical and technical improvements are what has happened inside his head this year.
“Mentally, he feels like he belongs now,” Calder said. “It takes time for guys to realize they belong there and they can beat these guys.”
That realization wasn’t an epiphany.
“It’s more of a gradual thing where each world championship and each time I go down to the States and train against some of the best guys — the top four in the world — I know I can beat these guys,” Balfour said. “When I get a takedown, I am thinking that I just got a takedown against the best guy in the world.
“If I can do that against him, I can do that against anybody and I have to make sure I believe in that constantly.”
It is that confidence that is crucial for any high performance athlete to be successful in any sport.
On the technical side of wrestling, Calder wants Balfour to be more well-rounded.
“He has had a really good year but he needs to be more diversified and that’s going to take time for him, especially with the quality of opponents he is facing,” Calder said. “There’s different situations where he hasn’t been as strong as we would like him to be and you need to be that way at the world level. It’s investing time into those components.”
Balfour is working diligently on that part of his game.
“I have a lot of go to attacks and he wants me to stay away from those and get my opponents thinking about something else,” he said.
Balfour is having a great year so far, including earning a silver medal at the Spanish Grand Prix, losing to American wrestler Jordan Burroughs, the reigning world champion and 2012 Olympic champ.
“He gave Burroughs a way better match that he has in the past,” Calder said. “He is starting now to be competitive against all the best guys and that’s the key because you have consistency and you are not waiting on a good draw.
Balfour also went to the world championships and lost to a German in his first match on a tie (the wrestler who scores last gets the win).
“To be honest, he is what’s termed a next-gen athlete and while he has a good chance to make it to 2020 (Olympics) his performance path is Tokyo (2024) for medals and stuff,” Calder said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he was competitive in 2020.”
While still of junior age, Balfour won a silver medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland. He will be looking for a metallic upgrade next April in Australia as he was one of five Brock wrestlers who won the Commonwealth Games Trials. Balfour topped the 74-kilogram division.
“I’m super excited because I get a free trip to Australia and I get to try and bump my silver medal from four years ago to a gold medal,” he said. “I am looking forward to that opportunity.”
That previous experience at the Commonwealth Games should be a benefit to Balfour in 2018.
“Now I know what the competition is like,” he said. “When I was younger it was ‘Oh, it’s the Commonwealth Games.’ Now I know I can win this thing and I am looking for the competition and wrestling against the guy from India.
“He’s really good and we will see how that goes.”
This will be Balfour’s third time representing Canada at a multi-sports Games. He also competed for Canada at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto and has loved the previous two experiences.
‘When I was at the Commonwealth Games, I was cheering in the little Canadian athletes section and all of a sudden this girl comes ups to me and ask if I am Jevon,” he said. “Then I see her and it’s a girl from my high school.”
And not just any girl but Khamica Bingham, Canada’s 100-metre running champion who anchored Canada’s 4X100-metre relay team to a bronze medal at the Pan Am championships.
“Every time I’ve seen her we talked and it will be fun to see her at the Commonwealth Games,” he said.
He is looking forward to his first trip to Australia.
“That is probably the biggest thing,” he said.
Other Brock Wrestling Club members going to the Commonwealth Games are Jessie MacDonald (50 kilograms), Diana Weicker (53 kilograms), Emily Schaefer (57 kilograms) and Michelle Fazzari (62 kilograms).