Wrestling hopes dashed in Bulgaria
There was nothing but heartbreak for Canadian athletes attending the final Olympic freestyle wrestling qualifier in Bulgaria.
Sam Stewart came the closest to qualifying when she was taken down with under five seconds to go in her 53-kilogram semifinal match.
Also failing to qualify for Canada were Jessie MacDonald, Jessica Brouillette, Linda Morais, Dillon Williams, Jasmit Phulka and Alex Moore.
MacDonald, a Brock Wrestling Club member back on the mats 12 weeks after giving birth to her son via a C-section, lost her opening match to Sweden’s Emma Malmgren in the 50-kilogram division.
Brouillette, a Brock Wrestling Club member who was filling in for injured Michelle Fazzari, lost her opening match in the 62-kilogram division to Germany’s Luisa Niemesch, who represented her country at the 2016 Rio Games.
Olympic qualifier head coach Tonya Verbeek felt for all the wrestlers who failed to advance to Tokyo.
“It is important to put things into perspective during these times and champions endure a lot along the way in their careers,” she said. “To me, this is a hard lesson but it will be a lesson on being able to move forward and having the resiliency to know that if they can wrestle through these times and put themselves out there, they can do anything when they are good and ready. There will be no other year like this moving forward.”
Verbeek feels especially bad for those athletes looking to cap their careers with an Olympic appearance.
“I really admire the athletes who were looking at 2020 as their last Olympics and the end of their careers and then having to stay on for another year,” she said. “It has been drawn out and you feel for those who have put years and years of dedication in.
“It’s important for them to note that it isn’t just that one competition but it’s always the accomplishments, the memories along the way and what they have learned about themselves as an athlete. They have made such a big contribution to our wrestling community and I commend them for being able to find a way and put it all out there the best way they can. I think they all did that.”
Wrestlers and indeed all high-performance athletes are loathe to make excuses when the results don’t go their way but the COVID-19 pandemic threw a gigantic wrench into training.
“It has been a long and very unpredictable year,” Verbeek said. “The ons and offs of restrictions and having the ability to train the way we need to for that calibre of tournament was definitely not there. I think a lot of athletes made the best of it and they did the best they could under the circumstances but it was a challenge to be ready.”
Many countries trained and competed right through the pandemic. Some Canadian provinces allowed high performance athletes to train while in Ontario, top wrestlers were only allowed to return to the mats in November.
“They weren’t on the mats from March until November and that is a huge amount of time away. It also puts athletes and coaches in difficult positions in regards of what steps they had to take to train,” Verbeek said.
And when Canadians went to International meets, they had to quarantine for two weeks when they returned.
“Taking two weeks of training off is not ideal and it’s not how we can prepare our athletes the best way we can,” Verbeek said. “You try to become creative and do what you can but some of the athletes hadn’t competed in a year, some athletes had two tournaments under their belt and if you look at a whole season, it’s not even close to what we would have done to prepare for a peak event.”
Canada will have four freestyle wrestlers representing the country in Tokyo. Erica Wiebe (76 kilograms), Danielle Lappage (68 kilograms), Amar Dhesi (125 kilograms) and Jordie Steen (97 kilograms) earned their spots at the Pan-American Olympic Qualification Tournament in Ottawa in March 2020.
The four wrestlers represents the country’s smallest contingent since Canada sent four wrestlers to the 2000 Sydney Games. The Sydney Games was also the last time the Brock Wrestling Club didn’t have an athlete qualifying in the Olympics. Brock had sent athletes to six of the last seven Summer Games.
“There are definitely quality athletes who are going to be going and I think given the circumstances would we want and expect more? Of course,” Verbeek said. “But we also have a young group and a large number of those athletes will be continuing on and that is always a positive situation for us.”
Like everyone, Verbeek is hoping for the pandemic appearing in the rearview mirror and life and sport returning to normal.
“We have a world championships coming up in October so we are hoping we can have a selection event and a team earning their spots for Canada,” she said. “That is exciting because I do think we need a reset button to kickstart moving forward.”
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