Three-time Olympic medalist named to St. Catharines sports hall
Two Olympic silvers and one Olympic bronze medal would seem to be the obvious career highlights for wrestler Tonya Verbeek.
But the 2019 inductee into the St. Catharines Sports Hall of Fame points to making the Olympic team in 2004 as her No. 1 highlight.
“It was a really long battle for me to reach that goal. It was eight years,” the 42-year-old Grimsby native said.
Verbeek was injured prior to the Olympic trials and had to win twice in a wrestle-off against Jen Ryz.
“I had to beat an athlete who had been consistently beating me,” she said. “To have that moment and be on the first women’s Olympic wrestling team was pretty special.”
Verbeek would go on to become the most decorated Canadian wrestler of all-time with a silver at the Athens Games in 2004, a bronze in Beijing in 2008 and a silver again in London in 2012.
It was that final Olympics game that stands out as her second biggest highlight.
“That was an added bonus in my career to be able to go in and compete in one more Olympic Games because the year before I wasn’t 100 per cent certain that I would have it in me to be able to compete at my best.
“It all aligned and I still had that fire.”
She had a lot of friends and family who shared the London experience with her and she ended up really enjoying competing in her final Olympics.
“It wasn’t that many times I enjoyed competing as weird as that sounds,” she said. “It was just appreciating everything and everyone and being extremely grateful to be able to stand out there at 35 and share it with people who were with me my whole career.”
As for low points, the Pan American Games silver and bronze medalist said there were a few.
“I remember having a back injury in 2010, being off the mats and having to come back,” she said. “That was really hard because I was trying all these different things to get healthy.”
It wasn’t a good year for her and she came close to retiring after the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
“I was very frustrated and I wasn’t feeling the fire that I needed,” she said. “That was a pretty low point for me. You always have them.”
Thankfully for Verbeek, her low points, health-wise and wrestling-wise, always came a year before the Olympics while her high points were during Olympic years and the year after the Olympics at the world championships. She won one silver and two bronze medals at the worlds.
Through it all, it was a labour of love.
“It is the ultimate challenge that you can create for yourself,” the three-time Canadian university wrestling champion said. “It is also a very rewarding sport where you fail and have to rise up again and beat the odds. It’s always teaching you something about yourself and the character that you have.”
The former Ontario and St. Catharines athlete of the year got her start in Grade 11 at Beamsville and District Secondary School, thanks to the efforts of coach Dave Collie
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t have that opportunity in Grade 11,” she said. “If he wouldn’t have taken that risk, I wouldn’t have continued on and gone on to Brock University.
“Dave drove me up to Brock several times during my high school career to provide enhanced training and to see an environment that I could strive towards.”
Brock coaches Richard DesChatelets and Bill Smith played big roles in her developing career before Marty Calder added the finishing touches.
“Marty was my toughest coach and gave me the drive to be the best I could be,” she said. “There was a mindset to get better every day and want to get to the top.
“He was that person if I failed he was right there to say ‘Let’s go.’ There was no wasting time and I had to keep pushing.”
Those expectations and accountability were exactly what Verbeek needed.
“It was a special environment created at Brock and it was led by Marty,” she said.
Verbeek has been retired from wrestling since 2013 and she had transitioned into the coaching ranks. She started as a talent identification (Next generation) coach and became the international coach after the 2016 Olympics. She is now the head coach of the men’s and women’s senior wrestling programs and she’s in charge of Canada’s push towards medals in 2020 at the Tokyo Games.
“We have some work to do as a program and as a team because we haven’t qualified anyone after this past world championships,” she said. “I anticipate a strong finish and I believe in our athletes and our coaching that they will drive us to qualify.”
She knows it won’t be easy.
“It never is but that’s what makes high performance sport so amazing,” Verbeek said. “It challenges you in every capacity.”
Verbeek feels the attributes she had as an athlete have transferred well to her coaching duties.
“As an athlete, I was always full of passion and that has remained consistent because of my love of the sport and me really wanting to make an impact on the people I am surrounded by,” Verbeek said.
She describes herself as a straight forward leader.
“At the same time, I am compassionate and ensuring that I am meeting all the needs of the group and that is not easy in an individual sport,” she said. “It’s important to allow people and programs to do what they do best and when it comes to a Team Canada event, I really try to bring the team together to make sure we are working together in the best possible way.”
She feels fortunate to have been able to make a career out of the sport after her wrestling days were over.
“When politics are taking more of your energy and time, you take a step back and ask yourself why you are doing it,” she said. “I love the uniqueness of it and the people I am surrounded with. That nine to five job, that typical schedule, is really not for me.”
She is looking forward to Wednesday’s induction ceremony.
“I am definitely honoured to be recognized amongst the awesome and amazing athletes who have been inducted before me.”
Also being inducted into the hall are Wanita Dykstra-May, Bill Schenck, Ron (Swede) Burak and Ellard (Obie) O’Brien.
The 2019 Sports Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will be held Wednesday, Nov. 20, at 5:30 p.m. at the Meridian Centre in St. Catharines. Doors will open at 5 p.m. and following the induction ceremony, there will be a reception which will include hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar.
BPSN’s coverage of the St. Catharines Sports Hall of Fame is brought to you by Peter Partridge of Partridge Wealth Management of RBC Dominion Securities (www.peterpartridge.com).