Canada's Erica Wiebe feeling good going into last-chance Olympic wrestling qualifier
Regardless of result, 2016 gold medallist says she is not defined by what happens on the mat
The last time many Canadians saw Olympic gold medallist Erica Wiebe was in a heartbreaking video from the 2019 world wrestling championships in Kazakhstan.
In obvious pain — both physical and mental — Wiebe bit her lip and choked back tears poured at the conclusion of a stunning 4-3 quarter-final defeat to Epp Maee of Estonia.
"It's not over," she vowed, with blood dripping out of her nose. "You always come back stronger."
Six months later — after time nurturing her soul in the Rocky Mountains and rebuilding her body at the Canadian Sports Institute Calgary — Wiebe says she feels stronger than ever heading into this weekend's Pan-American Olympic qualification tournament in Ottawa.
As of Friday morning, the event was scheduled to start despite the COVID-19 outbreak, but will be closed to spectators.
Wiebe told CBC Sports' Scott Russell via text message Friday that the athletes have been reassured that officials are monitoring the situation and safety is a priority.
"Everything is going forward," Wiebe told Russell. "The majority of teams have been here in Ottawa since last weekend and there has been a very low risk. [The] medical team is managing the situation and ensuring safety for all athletes, staff and fans.
"It's interesting to be in this situation but as an athlete I always just focus on what I can control."
Wiebe must finish first or second in the 76-kilogram weight class for the right to defend her Olympic title in Tokyo this summer.
"I'm health, and I'm happy, " said Wiebe, 30, in an interview earlier this week. "The most important thing to me is knowing that I'm not going to be defined by what happens on Saturday — just like I'm not defined by what happened on Aug. 18, 2016 in Rio.
"I'm defined by so much more."
Indeed. Back in Grade 9, Wiebe saw a sign on the wall at Sacred Heart High School in her hometown of Stittsville, Ont. asking students to join co-ed wrestling.
A standout soccer goalkeeper, Wiebe thought it would be incredible to "wrestle with boys and wear spandex."
Little did she know that would change the course of her life.
The National Wrestling Club product initially entertained the idea of playing NCAA soccer south of the border.
"I thought that would be a wonderful four-year journey," Wiebe said. "But I thought with wrestling that it could be so much more."
With the more in mind, Wiebe moved west to wrestle with the University of Calgary Dinos. She attended the 2012 London Games as a training partner for Leah Callahan. Between sessions, she walked over to the Olympic mats and experienced an epiphany.
The Olympic mats are the same as the mats she trains on every day. A competition is a competition.
At the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, she volunteered at Canada House, fiercely guarding figure skater Patrick Chan's silver medal one night while he played road hockey against the Americans.
So many athletes are psyched out and overwhelmed when they land at the Olympics. For Wiebe, the mystique was managed before she even set foot on the mats at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.
"What separates Erica is her positivity and her ability to really believe in herself," says retired Canadian wrestler Jasmine Mian. "Wrestling is, at the end of the day, a fight. You have to believe you can win in any position.
"It's far more mental, despite it being a physical sport. And I think that's where she really excels."
Not surprisingly, Wiebe also excels away from wrestling. Already holding bachelor degrees in sociology and kinesiology from the University of Calgary, she is now enrolled in Harvard University's Crossover into Business program.
"It's easy to be intimidated – to look around and think everyone is so much smarter than you or so much more than you," Wiebe says of the first time she walked into a Harvard classroom.
But it's like wrestling. she says. Even at the Olympics, the mats are the same.
Wiebe also works at Deloitte as a human capital consultant, and she's a dedicated volunteer for Fast and Female, a charity designed to keep young girls healthy, active and involved in sport.
"Erica really has such a great perspective on what's important in life," Mian says. "I think that balance has helped her weather the storm of rough times but really enjoy and relish the good times with the community that she has built around her.
"I really believe that she's ready to go."