Erica Wiebe is ready to go for gold, again
The Rio gold medalist explains why going for a second gold medal might be harder than winning the first one
At the Rio Olympic Games in 2016, Erica Wiebe won a gold medal in wrestling, becoming the third Canadian woman to medal in the sport.
In her episode of Inside an Athlete's Head, the Stittsville, Ont. native — now based in Calgary — talks about being an ambassador for the sport of women's wrestling, and the pressure that comes with winning gold.
Pressure is a constant for a high-level athlete. What do you off the mat to deal with that pressure?
One of the keys to me is balance. I try to focus on who I am outside of who I am as an athlete. I lean into the people around me, both in the sport community and outside of it. I think I said it perfectly at the end of the episode: "At the end of the day, I'm just trying to win a wrestling match." That helps me manage that pressure and deal with it, and kind of be OK running towards it.
Do you remember the first time you really felt pressure as an athlete?
I think the first time I felt pressure at a games was the 2014 Commonwealth Games. There were thousands of people in the stands, it was a really high-quality sporting environment, and it felt like a really big deal. It was so exhilarating and so scary. But that was that perfect place where I was like 'OK, showtime,' and I was so excited to put it on the line and compete.
Who is the person in your life you turn to when you feel like you need advice or find yourself struggling on the court?
I'm really fortunate to have a strong relationship with my coach, Paul Ragusa, he's always been the one that I go to when I have those fears and those doubts.He always knew the potential that I had. He believed in me way before I believed in what I was capable of. He has the best stories. He has a story about a mongoose, and a story about shattered pottery, and all these weird, twisted analogies that really make it real. Whenever I feel doubt or the fears that are associated with sport, I can go to him, and we can have an honest conversation and work through what we need to work through.
The history of women's sport is a history lesson on resilience, and I still don't think we're where we need to be...- Erica Wiebe
So, what are the options for wrestlers in terms of a career in the sport beyond the Olympics. You were involved with something called the Professional Wrestling League?
In 2017 I was looking into 'What can I do in wrestling beyond my pursuit as an Olympian?...' The Professional Wrestling League is a freestyle wrestling league in India. It's not what we think of as professional wrestling. That was a unique opportunity in our sport, there aren't a lot of opportunities to be in a wrestling league like that, especially for women. That was a really amazing cultural experience.
I also did go have a sort exploratory experience/tryout with the WWE, and that was a really cool opportunity. I did a tour of the facilities of with Paul Levesque — Triple H — and Steph McMahon, saw the culture there, tried some professional wrestling, which is very different. I have a lot of respect for what they're doing, especially in terms of challenging the landscape of women's sport.
In wrestling, you compete as an individual, but you train as a team. What's the bond like between wrestling teammates?
I see them five or six days a week, 50 weeks a year, because there is no off-season in wrestling. There's a huge cross-section of people: there's high schoolers, university athletes and senior athletes, from all walks of life, it's a safe space, where people can express themselves, can be challenged, and be extremely valuable, and pursue one goal together. In the sport of wrestling, in training, you need someone to wrestle. You need someone to wrestle you every day, and beat you down, but also help you get back up. Once you've wrestled, you have this family, this bond that's unbreakable. I was always be there for them. When it comes to game day, it's an individual sport, you have to kind of have your blinders on and only be emotionally invested about your own performance, but there's still this underlying bond of 'OK, we've trained, we've prepared for this, and we're ready to have our best performance together.'
What's it like to be part of the growth of women's wrestling in this country?
I started wrestling in Grade 9, I was 13, it was 2003, women had not yet competed in the Olympic Games. The following year was 2004, that was the first time women competed at the Olympic Games. And we had this really really strong team in Canada. Canadian women had demanded to enter the wrestling rooms during the '90s and demanded a league alongside the men, at the university level and the high school level. It makes me so proud to be Canadian.
I can't say enough about the love and respect I have for the women who created that path, and the allies — coaches, referees, administrators — who helped them. I'm now the third Canadian female to win an Olympic medal in wrestling. It's really amazing to just travel across Canada, do clinics, and see this whole group of young women, who are wrestlers, who look up to me, and don't question their ability to be in the sport of wrestling... The history of women's sport is a history lesson on resilience, and I still don't think we're where we need to be... That's why I do so much of the work that I do and support all the other women in Canada.
Tell us something we might not know about winning a gold medal.
I used to think the hardest thing I ever had to do was go to Rio and be ready to compete on that day. Now I think the hardest thing I've ever had to do was come back, and pursue doing it again. It's lonely, it's challenging, it's a whole new level of visibility and expectation and judgement. And in the midst of that, you just have to constantly remind yourself of who you are and what your values really are.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Season 2 of Inside an Athletes Head now streaming on CBC Gem.