Simmerling, Labbé keep each other going after Tokyo 2020 (and retirement) is delayed

Stephanie Labbé, goalkeeper for the Canada's soccer team, and her long-time girlfriend Georgia Simmerling, a vital member for Canada's team pursuit in track cycling, have already qualified for the Tokyo Games. But the COVID-19 lockdown measures have rocked them. This Olympic couple had planned to retire. Now, instead of facing four months until retirement they face 16 months.

Olympic couple find strength in numbers, meditation, and virtual racing 'til you puke

Olympic athletes Stephanie Labbé, top, and Georgia Simmerling have been training together at their home in Calgary during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Kelly VanderBeek for CBC Sports)

Not many people may realize it, but athletes often avoid walking, like it's the plague. But what happens when avoiding the plague (in this case, COVID-19) leads to more walking?

That's been the case for Canada's only three-sport Olympian, Georgia Simmerling.

"It sounds hilarious, but I've been walking more," she says from her home in Calgary. "As a cyclist, walking takes away from your training."

In lockdown, this isn't the only surprising thing that's changed for both Simmerling and her girlfriend of three-and-a-half years, fellow Olympic bronze medallist in soccer, Stephanie Labbé. For one thing, they now know what their backyard looks like without snow.

"It's been a shock. I'm usually gone from end of February until mid-November. So, yeah, this is different, but I think we're embracing it and really enjoying the time," Labbé says. "We were supposed to spend four days together in four months, now we've been together for six weeks."

Georgia Simmerling, left, is a member of the Canadian women's team pursuit track cycling team, while her partner Stephanie Labbé, background, is a goalkeeper for the Canadian women's soccer team. (Kelly VanderBeek for CBC Sports)

That officially makes this their longest stretch of living together. Simmerling, with her hand lovingly on Labbé's shoulder, jokingly says, "We're past the honeymoon phase."

Timelines disrupted

Labbé is the goalkeeper for the Canada's soccer team and Simmerling is a vital member for Canada's team pursuit in track cycling. Thankfully, their respective teams have already qualified for the Tokyo Games. However, the COVID-19 lockdown measures have rocked them. This Olympic couple had planned to retire.

Now, instead of four months until retirement, they face 16 months. A daunting task.

"It was a hard pill to swallow," Simmerling says. "As a cyclist, you push yourself to get these base miles in. Then, I was like, 'oh my gosh, I need to do that all again.' I've accepted it, but that grind…you can't fake that."

Georgia Simmerling has kept her competitive spirit strong during the quarantine measures - regularly racing against her coach, who's in New Zealand. (Kelly VanderBeek for CBC Sports)

After weeks of emotional ups and downs, Labbé cautiously says they've just gotten to a place of acceptance.

However, getting to this point hasn't been without effort.They set up a little Zen area and would spend roughly 30 minutes meditating every other day.

"During our most vulnerable phase post-announcement [of the Tokyo 2020 delay] we began doing a lot of meditation together in the basement," she says. "That was definitely helping."

An unexpected training gap

Returning home from Germany and France respectively in early March, Simmerling and Labbé assumed the physical distancing measures would be short lived.

"You just kinda think you're grinding it out at home for a week or two, but then everything changes," Labbé says.

One challenging element was unexpected. Injuries sustained by Simmerling over her career to her jaw, wrist, and leg, she has 34 pieces of metal holding her together, and that takes help.

Injuries sustained by Georgia Simmerling over her skiing career has resulted in 34 pieces of metal holding her together. But with lockdown measures, she has no access to physiotherapy. (Kelly VanderBeek for CBC Sports)

"Six weeks with no physio/treatment," Simmerling says with exasperation. "It's one of the hardest things for athletes, especially for older athletes. To be expected to keep training just as hard but without any treatment."

She and Labbé describe how different their isolated training regimes are, adding to the stress on their bodies. Simmerling's adjusted by doing, "majorly long warm-ups" before her daily traning regimen.

Labbé feels they've now found a happy medium in their training.

"[We're] pushing at times, but then if we need a day off, we take it."

Another key component for their training is remembering to get outside. Training in the basement or garage wasn't enough to sustain their spirits.

In recent years, Stephanie Labbé has begun to open up about her struggles with depression throughout her professional career. (Kelly VanderBeek for CBC Sports)

However, in the midst of change some things remain the same. For Simmerling, that's her competitive spirit. Through virtual races, she's competing against her coach Matt Shallcrass, who lives in New Zealand. Simmerling doesn't like to lose.

"There's no way in hell I'm letting my coach beat me," she says.

After one race, she had pushed so hard she was puking afterwards…but she'd won. Labbé piped in saying she too works hard on the bike trainer, but she hasn't puked. 

Simmerling happily admits, "Everyone, I guess, beats to their own drum."

Strength in numbers

In recent years, Labbé has begun to open up about her struggles with depression throughout her professional career.

"I used to isolate a lot, but now I've been reaching out and leaning on other people."

"Like me," Simmerling jumped in, happy to be someone Labbé leans on.

As athletes that thrive on a structured environment, Simmerling and Labbé have had to lean on one another during a time of extreme upheaval. (Kelly VanderBeek for CBC Sports)

Thankfully, a shared sponsor (B2ten) stepped in to help athletes connect in a virtual house party. Athletes like Erica Wiebe, Melissa Bishop and Rosie MacLennan, were in attendance, to name a few.

"It was just so cool to connect with a bunch of these women and of course, they're going through the exact same things we are. But you wouldn't know until you reach out," Simmerling says.

She's has also faced her own struggles in adapting to a less structured life.

"As athletes, we're so goal driving, we live in this structured environment, and we actually thrive on that. So, when that's taken away from you, there are just so many question marks. It's been a bit challenging."

Thankfully, there's strength in numbers.

"It helps having someone in the same house that's going through the same thing, that understands everything,"  Labbé says. "You don't really have to talk about it, because we both kinda know exactly what's going on."

"Also, having [our dog] Rio brightens our day," she says, with genuine love in her voice. "Dogs help so much."

Simmerling and Labbé's dog, Rio, has also helped comfort the two atheltes during the pandemic. (Kelly VanderBeek for CBC Sports)

What's next?

Roughly 48 hours before the Tokyo Games were officially cancelled, Simmerling and Labbé had an important conversation. They asked each other, if the Olympics were postponed, would the other keep going?

Their answers came almost immediately.

"Yeah, of course we'd keep going," Labbé said. "We were both excited about that [retirement], but at the same time, excited to push ourselves for this year…for what it is."

With nothing left to prove in their respective careers, the road ahead is still unclear yet daunting with retirement so close, yet so far. Simmerling eloquently sums up their current state of mind.

"We've done a really good job at focusing on what we can control, and right now, that's tomorrow."

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