Canadian athletes forced to adapt training

Canada's Olympic athletes face a harsh and unprecedented reality of having nowhere to train just four months ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.

Just 4 months away from Games, competitors struggle to find places to workout

Canada's Charles Philibert-Thiboutot competes in the men's 1500-metre during the NACAC Championships in 2018. In the absence of an available weight room, Canadian middle-distance runner Charles Philibert-Thiboutot has been squatting his wife. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

In the absence of an available weight room, Canadian middle-distance runner Charles Philibert-Thiboutot has been squatting his wife.

At 120 pounds, Beatrice is half the weight Philibert-Thiboutot would normally lift. So instead of eight reps, Canada's fastest 1,500-metre runner did 20.

"You adapt, right? She just attached herself like a monkey would do on my back, and I squatted her a bunch of times," he said, with a laugh.

While COVID-19 has forced Canada's Olympic athletes to get creative with their workouts, they face a harsh and unprecedented reality of having nowhere to train just four months ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.

Reality began sinking in for Aaron Brown on Tuesday when the shell-shocked sprinter learned his training facility — the track and weight room in Clermont, Fla. — had shut down.

"Trying to figure out the next move, what's the next domino to fall," Brown said.

"Up until now, I read about it and I knew it was a definitely sticky situation with meets getting cancelled and all that, but it hadn't fully registered how bad it is until we couldn't actually go to the track, and now we have to figure out a plan B, and it's like 'Oh wow.' It's really, really crazy."

Sports facilities across Canada and the U.S. have shuttered in rapid succession, including universities and Canada's National Sport Institutes in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Victoria, where many of the country's elite athletes are based.

The list has gone from what's closed to what's still open?

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When Laval University closed its indoor facilities, Philibert-Thiboutot and about 20 other runners shovelled one lane on the outdoor track.

"It was one heck of a job," he said.

They'd been shovelling the deep snow for about four hours when campus security kicked them off.

Their coaches cleared and salted a one-kilometre loop through nearby suburban roads, but Quebec City was then pummelled with more than a foot of snow.

"There are sports that are definitely worse than running . . . it must be quite a struggle," Philibert-Thiboutot said.

Sport high performance director Clive Brewer once compared elite athletes to F-14 fighter jets.

"They'll fly right at the edge of physics," said Brewer, who recently left the Toronto Blue Jays for Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew.

"They'll do things that are incredibly agile and they'll twist and they'll turn. But if one thing goes wrong with them, they crash and burn."

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Plenty in the sports world is going wrong at the moment. It has virtually screeched to a halt.

"There is the anxiety of: 'If I'm not working, am I going to lose fitness?' Especially endurance sports, they're brutal," Brewer said.

"It's one of those where you get as fit as you've ever been and it just takes two weeks off the rails to throw you completely off."

Canadians directed to come home

Compounding problems is the federal government's directive to Canadians to return home ASAP.

Any athlete arriving from outside the country is going into 14 days of self-isolation.

For 400-metre hurdler Sage Watson, who flew from Phoenix, Ariz., to be with her family in Medicine Hat, Alta., that means doing sprint workouts on the ice-covered gravel road that leads to their cattle ranch in temperatures of -7 C.

"I think it's fine until it hits about -15 is when I notice it affects my breathing," she said.

Watson bought an Olympic lifting set — barbell, plates and medicine ball — and was thankful to have the space on her ranch.

Alternative workout methods

After returning to Toronto from a beach volleyball tournament in Doha, Qatar, Samuel Pedlow began heaving kettle bells and working with resistance bands and a TRX suspension system.

"Trying to create a home training camp," Pedlow said.

Toronto Raptors player Serge Ibaka inspired Pedlow to also share his workouts on social media.

"In the volleyball world, I'm kind of known as the fitness guy," Pedlow said. "I was like, 'you know what? Maybe that's something I can do?'

"I'm going to start a home workout challenge for volleyball fans around the world. If they tag me in their home workouts, then I'll tag them in mine.

"I'm also a registered physiotherapist. Rather than just working out at home, I kind of know the science behind how can I actually optimize what I'm doing here so when I can get back on the court, I'm not taking a step back."

Better climate, more opportunity

Water polo player Reuel D'Souza is in isolation in his parents' apartment in Vancouver after flying home from Greece.

D'Souza went running at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday, and was thankful for the sunny weather.

"Other than that, I have like a little corner set up in my bedroom where I do some bodyweight stuff and core work, just simple things," he said.

The water polo team was scheduled to compete for a Tokyo Olympic berth in Rotterdam, Netherlands next week. The tournament has been postponed to the end of May in a location to be determined.

In the meantime, Water Polo Canada plans to develop individual workout plans for each player.

"They just want to see the situation everybody's in and what our resources are," D'Souza said.

Canadian field hockey captain Scott Tupper was also praising Vancouver's sunny skies.

Kicked off their home field hockey pitch in West Vancouver, B.C., a couple of days ago, the players have been prescribed running workouts. Tuesday's was a 10 km run.

"Vancouver, we're lucky we have the Seawall and forests and stuff, so it's pretty easy to get out and get a good run in," he said.

"I've also got a yoga mat, and then some very light dumbbells which I can figure out ways to use them. A couple of bands, a skipping rope and then the one store I've been to the last four days was to go buy a medicine ball."

Montreal diver Meaghan Benfeito says she's using a mattress off her own bed to practice flips, in addition to working out with weights at home.

'This could all very well be for nothing'

Married couple Caroline and Taylor Ehrhardt have been sneaking onto a school track in London, Ont.

But the jumping pit overgrown with weeds and stones wasn't usable to Caroline, a triple jumper.

Taylor is a decathlete. Training for 10 events right now is impossible. He was thankful for an old set of scissor hurdles that Caroline has had since she was a kid.

The Ehrhardts and countless other Canadian athletes would have normally been training and competing right now in the U.S. and elsewhere in the quest for warm weather.

Canadian triple jumper Caroline Ehrhardt, above, and her decathlete husband Taylor Ehrhardt worked out at a high school track near London, Ont., on Monday. The triple jump pit - with huge rocks and overgrown with grass - wasn't usable. Instead they did a speed workout on the hard second-rate surface. (Dan Riedlhuber/The Canadian Press)

But global travel bans and event cancellations — the entire spring track and field season alone is a wash — has made that impossible.

Focus didn't come easy for Caroline Ehrhardt on Tuesday.

"I did find myself kind of struggling to find motivation because it's like almost like 'OK, this could all very well be for nothing,"' Caroline said.

"But you never know how quickly things can turn around. And you just need to keep doing what you can, and controlling what you can so that when you are given the opportunity to showcase what you've been working on, you're ready."

That's the sentiment of many Canadian athletes.

Brown said the International Olympic Committee's statement Tuesday that the Tokyo Olympics are still a go gave him hope.

"At least give us some light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "I'm remaining optimistic that hopefully we'll have this cleared up by the time May comes around and then everything will start to open back up," he said.

"I'm not sure that's realistic or not, but I'm still going to try and prepare, try to stay fit . . . So stay positive and also be healthy. And just I hope everybody can stay safe during these times."