Montreal

Quebec's would-be Olympians optimistic, with the path to Tokyo now clear

On Monday, the International Olympic Committee announced the new dates for Tokyo 2020. The games will be held starting on July 23, 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Athletes are breathing a sigh of relief to know they won't have to re-qualify, but it's no cakewalk to 2021

Joëlle Békhazi, 32, is keeping her Olympic dream alive despite the postponement of the 2020 games. (GETTY IMAGES / ADAM PRETTY)

Joëlle Békhazi had a plan.

The 15-year veteran of the Canadian women's water polo team was going to compete in her first Olympic Games, and in 2021, she was going to start a family.

"I was supposed to retire after these games," said the 32-year-old competitor.

On Monday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced the new dates for Tokyo 2020. The games will be held starting on July 23, 2021.

Békhazi is relieved the COVID-19 outbreak didn't entirely dash her Olympic dreams, but pushing it back a year is an adjustment.

"It's another year that I have to keep my body healthy and keep myself at the top of my game," she said. "I am getting a little bit older. My husband is very supportive."

Békhazi made Canada's national team back in 2005, and it's been a journey filled with ups and downs, including failed attempts to reach the Olympics in 2008, 2012 and 2016.

The 2012 games were particularly heartbreaking — Team Canada narrowly missed out after an epic dual with Russia for the final spot in the Olympic tournament, in a game that was decided in a shoot out.

"I was the one who missed the last shot," she said. "It's still been haunting me."

When Canada earned a berth in Tokyo at the Pan-Am Games in Peru last summer, she thought her wait was over, until the COVID-19 pandemic threw everything into doubt.

It's been a rollercoaster of emotions since.

"I love this sport so much. I was starting to have those nerves, and the fear that this was the end of my career."

New timeline to transition out of fencing

Joseph Polossifakis, 29, has a tough conversation coming up with his employer.

Joseph Polossifakis has been balancing his full-time job and training for qualifiers for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Now, he says, there are a lot of 'what ifs.' (Simon Martel/CBC)

For the past year, he's been juggling his duties working full time with his efforts to qualify for fencing in Tokyo.

"I had a specific timeline in mind, and then I was going to slowly transition to something else," he said. "Now I have to get back into it."

With the games now pushed back an entire year, he's hoping to know more before going to his boss and asking for another year of scheduling flexibility.

Joseph Polossifakis at the World Championships in 2015. Joseph just missed qualifying for the Olympics in London 2012. ( Courtesy of Devin Manky)

Polossifakis competed for Canada at the 2016 games in Brazil but had yet to qualify for Tokyo.

Even though the dates for the Olympics are now set, he's not sure when the sport will get back to competition.

"I guess this could be a blessing in disguise," he said. "I've had injuries for a while and it's harder to come back from injuries when you're also working full time."

Qualified athletes will keep their spot

Gymnast René Cournoyer narrowly missed out on reaching the 2016 Olympics, and last October, he earned a spot in Tokyo.

This weekend he learned his qualification will still be valid, even though the games won't be held until 2021.

"It's a relief. It's something that I was not too worried about, but deep down I still was," Cournoyer said.

He said in gymnastics, so much changes from year to year that he wouldn't be surprised if he was told he'd have to qualify again.

Gymnast René Cournoyer earned a spot in Tokyo 2020, but now the games will be held a year later in 2021. He's relieved he won't lose his spot. (Mory Gash/The Associated Press)

"To assume that the 90 athletes already qualified would remain the best 90 a year later was something that was worrying me," he said.

"They could have made us re-qualify, to make sure that you are still the best. But it also wouldn't be fair to deny someone who qualified the year before. It was a hard decision."

Each Olympics is special in its own way, but there is a consensus that the Tokyo Games will be especially memorable, because they've been postponed due to an unprecedented situation.

"The pandemic will be behind us and the whole world will be united," said Counoyer. "It's going to be great, and to be part of it will be amazing."

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