Road To The Olympic Games

Summer Sports

Gaming, throwing dummies, H-O-R-S-E: How 5 Canadian Olympians are passing time in shutdown

Swimmer Kylie Masse says training without access to a pool during the coronavirus pandemic has been "a big adjustment." But she and some other Canadian athletes believe they might benefit from such challenges when they return to competition.

'Feeling of competition keeps us going in training,' shot putter Brittany Crew says

Wrestler Erica Wiebe, like many of her fellow Canadian Olympians, has had to adapt to a different training routine during the COVID-19 pandemic. For fun, she'll work on some moves with a throwing dummy she brought home from the Calgary Dinos Wrestling Club. (Twitter/@ericawiebe)

More than ever, Kylie Masse realizes she loves swimming and being in the water.

The two-time world champion has been without pool access during the COVID-19 pandemic and while she does dryland training and home workouts to stay fit, nothing can simulate a swim stroke in the water.

"You don't realize how much it means to you until it's taken away," Masse said from her family home in LaSalle, Ont., near Windsor. "I feel I'll be more appreciative for going to practice when we get back than I was before."

Earlier this week, Swimming Canada unveiled its plan for the return of aquatic sports and said a return to pools for a small group of top athletes, including the 24-year-old Masse, would be a phased approach.

"I'm trying to think positively and this break will have been wonderful for my body, both physically and mentally, and I'll be able to grow personally," said Masse, who understands there will be a period of adjustment upon her return to the pool. "It'll take a bit of time but I've been swimming for such a long time my body's not going to forget what to do."

CBC Sports spoke with four other Canadian athletes – Brittany Crew (shot put), Jay Blankenau (volleyball), Mike Mason (high jump) and Erica Wiebe (wrestling) – about how their training has been impacted with the sports world on pause and how their performance might be affected in 2021 after a long layoff.

For Masse, having a pre-pandemic routine that often featured two-a-day practices also forced her to be disciplined outside of the water, so she would eat meals at certain times and be in bed by 9:15 p.m. She is trying to maintain a routine these days but pointed to having "days and weeks when I've been more relaxed."

Masse working toward kinesiology degree

Masse's goal to build leg strength during this pause could lead to improved strokes for the backstroke specialist. However, she admitted to not being the best at slowing down and practising swimming-specific yoga, meditation and mindfulness.

"They're so important to help the mental game," she said. "Those are things during the year that are so easy for me to push aside. I need to get myself comfortable and confident doing those things so I can schedule them into my daily routine when we get back."

WATCH | Masse relieved by Olympic postponement:

The Canadian Olympic swimmer told CBC Sports' Andi Petrillo that she feels even more appreciation for the sport now that she's physically not able to swim. 2:24

Masse, who is looking to complete a degree in kinesiology in December, envisions a future in healthcare, especially after developing a greater respect for front-line workers the past few months.

"I know a number of nurses working in hospitals and one who was living in an RV in her driveway. I think the entire world has recognized [what they're doing for us]," Masse said. "It'll be wonderful to see people, hopefully, be a bit nicer to health-care professionals, nurses and people doing their jobs to help them."

Crew using makeshift home facilities

Shortly after her Canadian record-breaking performance on Feb. 8 at the Ontario Indoor Championships, Crew moved from Toronto to a farmhouse in Breslau, Ont., near Kitchener, where she lives with her uncle, aunt and two cousins.

With facilities closed, Crew's uncle built a shot put circle on his big property for her to practice and work toward her second Olympics next summer in Tokyo.

"There's enough room for me to throw and not be disturbed," she said. "I got the idea from my training partner, Sarah Mitton, whose dad built a circle in their garage for throwing into a tarp."

Crew, 26, has also turned her family's living room into a small gym, complete with dumbbells her uncle had in the basement and weightlifting plates she borrowed from a former high school teacher.

"I haven't had any interruptions in my training," said the 2019 Pan Am silver medallist, who plays guitar and video games with her 12-year-old cousin when not throwing. "I've been able to do everything to train. I'm only missing my teammates and coach [Richard Parkinson]. I try to send videos to him for feedback and talk with him every few days to stay on course."

Diamond League meets continue to be dropped from the summer schedule, with the first event provisionally set for Aug. 14 in Monaco.

"We all miss it. The feeling of competition keeps us going in our training," said Crew, who is confident a long layoff won't disrupt her progress. "The worst part is the uncertainty. I don't know how it's going to affect the sport, sponsorship, the Olympics, anything."

Blankenau's mental strength tested

A veteran setter for the Canadian men's volleyball team, Blankenau has been living at his parents' cabin on McGregor Lake, 170 kilometres south of Calgary, since arriving home in late March from a season with his Turkish pro club Arkas Sport.

The 30-year-old native of Sherwood Park, Alta., has enjoyed some down time – his first off-season in eight years – using the break to add strength and return to peak level after playing the pro season at less than 100 per cent following back surgery last August.

"At the same time, I was geared up and ready to go this summer for the Olympics," said Blankenau, a member of the 2016 Olympic squad that placed fifth in Rio. "We have big goals and I was looking forward to working through the pressure and stress with the guys."

Blankenau and his teammates, who are ranked 10th in the world, recently began a muscle mass/strength program outlined by Mike Cook, the national team's strength and condition coach. When Blankenau first returned from Turkey, he spent a month using elastic resistance bands and doing bodyweight exercises to get his nervous system working but not stress his body.

"They set us up on an app so we can all log our weights, workload and time of workout," said Blankenau, who trains in the basement of the cabin. "It's a life-saver.

"Our mental [performance] coach, Kyle Paquette, is constantly sending us videos to watch and things to follow, down to our nutrition guide. Having that structure and planning helps."

The hardest part, he added, is staying mentally strong. Blankenau has found games, such as playing H-O-R-S-E with some setters from his former Mouth Royal University team in Calgary, to be good for mental training (see below).

"It took 40 to 50 tries," conceded a laughing Blankenau of the almond-in-the-mouth trick. "Your brain doesn't get turned on like it would in game-training but I liked the challenge of this.

"When things open up, I'm going to keep my skills. Those are ingrained in us after such a long playing career. It'll just take a few days to get up to game speed."

Mason can do everything at home... except jump

The 33-year-old high jumper hasn't struggled to train during the pandemic since the majority of his workouts the past two years originated from his childhood home on Vancouver Island in Nanoose Bay, B.C., where he lives with his wife and parents.

"I have a gym with all of my weights and enough space that I can pretty much do everything I need to, except jumping," said Mason, who's hoping to compete at his fourth Olympics next summer.

He'll lift weights three days a week, work on speed endurance for two days and do short sprints and longer runs another day. Mason will also spend time doing plyometric hurdles, other jump exercises, core work and stretching.

WATCH | Mike Mason finishes 7th at 2019 track and field worlds:

Mike Mason of Nanoose Bay, B.C. finished in 7th place after clearing 2.30 metres in the high jump at the world track and field championships in Doha. 1:17

Should the potential for a Diamond League competition arise later this summer or early in the fall, he pointed out coach Jeff Huntoon has a plan in place that would have the 2019 Pan Am silver medallist ready in six to eight weeks.

"I would take at least a few weeks to get into a good routine for jumping," he said, "but as long as I get on a track [in the near future] I'm not concerned. My body knows what to do technique-wise right now and I feel confident."

Ranked fourth in the world, Mason is coming off the most successful season of his career with seven top-two finishes in 11 events, including his fifth Canadian title. He jumped a season-best 2.31 metres following "not many" jump practices after hurting his back early in 2019.

Wiebe excited by challenge of uncertainty

The 2016 Olympic champion has just finished a Zoom call with an Arkansas-based high school wrestling squad, one of several chats Wiebe has had with teams across North America during the pandemic.

"I'm training full-time, sharing my sport experiences and hopefully encouraging people to stay motivated and excited about sports," said the Calgary resident.

Every second day, she talks and does an exercise on FaceTime with the nine-year-old granddaughter of her former high school coach. And once a week, Wiebe and Calgary Dinos Wrestling Club coach Paul Ragusa host online practices in which they do video analysis and break down matches from a technical perspective.

With more free time off the mat than she's had in 15 years, the 30-year-old can juggle riding a spin bike in her apartment or take to the road. She also enjoys reading fantasy fiction and memoirs. Sometimes, Wiebe will do alternative training and practice her moves on a throwing dummy she brought home from the club or take up other challenges from friends (see below).

"I'm used to wrestling eight to 10 hours a week at high intensity," said the Stittsville, Ont., native and two-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist. "It's been such a big change in my day-to-day life not to get on the mat and wrestle."

One night, she sat down to watch the first episode of The Last Dance, the 10-part documentary on NBA legend Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls teams of the 1980s and '90s.

"I didn't realize how hungry I am to compete," she said. "I don't know if Tokyo will be my last dance but it really put things into a different perspective for me.

"It's a new gift we have and new challenge [to better ourselves in insolation]. It's exciting for me to figure out how to be optimal when it matters most, despite all these uncertain circumstances."

About the Author

Doug Harrison has covered the professional and amateur scene as a senior writer for CBC Sports since 2003. Previously, the Burlington, Ont., native covered the NHL and other leagues for Faceoff.com. Follow the award-winning journalist @harrisoncbc

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