My success, my setbacks, and no need for sympathy.

My success, my setbacks, and no need for sympathy.


'If people watching me on TV knew the details...pride would override any disappointment'

By Danielle Lappage for CBC Sports
December 5, 2021
 

“The last five years have been the most difficult years of my life but I am so thankful for them.”

I repeat this to myself over and over.  Returning home from the Tokyo Olympic Games presented a natural time to evaluate where I have been, where I am, and where I want to go.

The end of the Games left me with complicated and complex emotions, and  uncomfortable feelings surrounding my uncertain future in sport.

Danielle Lappage,  and Russian Olympic Committee's Khanum Velieva during the women's 68kg freestyle wrestling match at the 2020 Summer Olympics (Aaron Favila/Associated Press) Danielle Lappage, and Russian Olympic Committee's Khanum Velieva during the women's 68kg freestyle wrestling match at the 2020 Summer Olympics (Aaron Favila/Associated Press)
 

I have been wrestling on the Canadian national team for 15 years. It has been my number one priority for as long as I can remember. I experienced failures and triumphs - such is the inevitability of sport participation. These experiences usually happened behind closed doors. So when I failed or stumbled, the world has generally never known. But on an Olympic stage the whole world is watching and so, when I stumbled in Tokyo, I gained nationwide sympathy.

 

This outpouring of sympathy felt misplaced to me. I was of course disappointed that my result did not reflect my lifelong dream or the years of hard work I poured into my craft. But more than that, I felt proud. Proud for how I carried myself and proud for everything I had overcome to make it back onto the Olympic stage. If only the people watching me on TV knew the details of what I had been through,  everything I had experienced, thought, and felt, particularly over the last 5 years. Because, if they did, surely pride would override the disappointment they felt for me after my performance.

In August 2016, at the Rio Olympic Games,  I ruptured my hamstring 10 minutes before my first match. I tried to wrestle but had to withdraw due to my injury. That was devastating. I did not know if I would be able to continue to wrestle. As I healed mentally and physically over the next year, I realized I still had passion for the sport. I continued to wrestle.

Teammate Erica Wiebe trained and tangled with Danielle Lappage during the months leading up to the Tokyo Olympics. (Submitted by Danielle Lappage) Teammate Erica Wiebe trained and tangled with Danielle Lappage during the months leading up to the Tokyo Olympics. (Submitted by Danielle Lappage)

I faced minor setbacks and disappointments in the three years after my injury, but I was wrestling well and having the best time with my team. In March 2020, I won the Pan American Olympic qualifying tournament, which meant that I officially qualified for Tokyo. And then the world shut down. But as the rest of the world slowly opened up again, Canada remained locked down. It was hard to find training or competition opportunities. It was hard to find training partners or facilities. We saw our competitors going “back to normal” and it felt as though we were falling behind.

We waited and we adapted. We did the best we could to continue training, while at the same time following public health guidelines.  When our governments okayed a return to training, options were still very limited. We asked every possible training partner across the country to help us prepare.  Most declined the invitation. The only two women qualified for the Olympics in wrestling were from Calgary, and it felt as if we were on our own (with our personal coach) for 18 months, and expected to “make it work.” It was very lonely and very hard.

Partners in training: Coach Paul Ragusa,left, Danielle Lappage, centre, and Erica Wiebe, right. (Photo by Maria Kilk) Partners in training: Coach Paul Ragusa,left, Danielle Lappage, centre, and Erica Wiebe, right. (Photo by Maria Kilk)
 

There has been a cultural transition within Canada wrestling. My perception is that there has been a deterioration of trust, and hostility and blame being directed at certain clubs and individuals after the December 2018 release of The Bennett Report. This followed an independent review into coaching culture in Canadian wrestling. Negative and extreme emotions arose among both athletes and coaches, fuelled by allegations within the report. Certain athletes have since been unwilling to train with other athletes or at certain clubs, and certain coaches have been unwilling or hesitant to help other athletes or clubs. There has been a lack of cooperation, collaboration, and professionalism among both coaches and athletes. A more egotistical and divisive Canadian wrestling has been the result. Legal proceedings are ongoing, which perpetuates these grievances. This “new” culture also contributed to an isolating and difficult Olympic preparation.

A torn ACL in 2020 delayed Danielle Lappage's Olympic preparations but not her drive to compete.  (Submitted by Danielle Lappage) A torn ACL in 2020 delayed Danielle Lappage's Olympic preparations but not her drive to compete. (Submitted by Danielle Lappage)

On top of these structural difficulties, I suffered a major personal setback. In August 2020, less than a year before the Games, I tore my ACL. This happened at the first nearly “normal” practice after a turbulent and uncertain summer. When I got the diagnosis, I was devastated .  “Why me? Why again? Why can’t I catch a break?” Up to that point, I had been assuming that everything I had been through was setting the scene for an epic, storybook ending. The injury threw a wrench in that assumption.

I was proud of my rehab and recovery following the ACL reconstruction.  I was proud of how, even on the hardest days, I was meticulous in “doing it right”. I was proud that I asked for help when I was at my lowest, when I did not want to talk to anyone or even get out of bed. I was proud that I sought professional help. I was proud that I did not skip any steps or give up, even when I really, really wanted to.

 

In January, I began to feel like myself again. I remember getting back on the wrestling mat  and feeling so optimistic for the year. With ACL rehab, you have to be patient; you need to give your knee enough time to heal. Holding myself back was the hardest part. In May, I attended a training camp in Estonia, my first in 15 months. I had my first “live” wrestling matches post-surgery, without restrictions or modifications. I celebrated many firsts since surgery. “That was the first time someone bent leg rode me, the first time I defended a laced ankle, the first time I defended a standing single!” It was one of the best training camps I have ever had, especially because our small team was all so supportive of one another.

We went to Poland for a competition. My first since the pandemic.  I placed fifth and I was proud of that result. I fought through so many nerves and doubts. I came back to Canada hopeful that I would continue to improve in the few weeks before my Olympic competition. But my improvement was not as quick as I hoped. My knee was healthy but I was not able to get my “wrestling feel” back fast enough. My wrestling was good, not great. My secondary attacks were lacking and I was hesitating on my offence. When the Olympics arrived, I was not the wrestler I had been at the Pan Am qualifier in March 2020. The reality is, I wasn’t the wrestler I needed to be to earn an Olympic medal. I just needed a little more time. There was nothing else I could have done to change my Olympic result. Knowing that makes me proud and gives me peace.

Ian Holloway, Dean of University of Calgary law school, celebrates at a mid term event with Danielle Lappage. (Submitted by Danielle Lappage) Ian Holloway, Dean of University of Calgary law school, celebrates at a mid term event with Danielle Lappage. (Submitted by Danielle Lappage)

Although the perfect ending did not happen, what I experienced was more than I hoped for. By following my passion and striving for excellence every day for five years, I gained so much more than any result or medal. None of it would have been possible, if I hadn’t committed to move to Calgary and continue wrestling after the Rio Olympics.  Calgary is where I got a law school education. It’s where my future outside of sport went from dreams to practical reality, where I built life-changing connections, where my wrestling team became my family.

Calgary is where I gained lifelong role models in my Coach Paul Ragusa and Olympic teammate Erica Wiebe.  They showed me how to live each moment, on and off the wrestling mats, with integrity and excellence. They made me a better person. Through my experiences over these last five years, I have become more empathetic, patient, self-caring, and resilient. It is these experiences, relationships, and character building that I am the most thankful for. These are things that I cherish.

 

And so, if you watched me in Tokyo or became aware of my “disappointing result” afterwards, I hope you no longer feel sympathy or disappointment for me. I hope you can appreciate what I have been through, what I overcame, and what I have achieved. I hope you evaluate my wrestling career as a sum of everything I have experienced over these last 15 years. All of who I am, and not just my result at the Olympics. I hope you now think of my story as a success story. I sure do.

(Top large image by Alastair Grant/Associated Press)

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