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COVID-19 hurdles prove too much for athletes who didn't qualify for Tokyo

Canada named 371 athletes to its full Olympic team on Tuesday, the largest team since the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. But if not for the global pandemic, it would have been even bigger.

Canadian Olympic hopefuls fall though cracks amid global pandemic

Jacarra Winchester, from the United States, takes Canada's Samantha Stewart to the mat during the 2020 Pan-American Olympic qualifying tournament in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press )

Samantha Stewart has done more than 40 days of post-travel quarantining since the start of 2021.

The Canadian wrestler went the better part of a year without training against a human opponent. She wrestled at a last-chance Tokyo qualifying event in Europe without her coach in her corner because of COVID-19 restrictions.

And despite it all, Stewart came within seconds of realizing her lifelong dream, to compete in the Olympics.

But Romania's Andreea Beatrice Ana beat her with a desperation takeout with 10 seconds left in the semifinals of the world Olympic qualifiers in May.

Shocked and distraught, Stewart still had to compete for bronze the next day in a 53-kg match that suddenly meant next to nothing. She had to cut weight, and so took a cab back to her hotel in Sofia, Bulgaria to sweat it off in the sauna. She sat in the steam, rocking and sobbing.

"I don't know what's worse, going there and just being completely outmatched, or going there and literally being so close, 10 seconds away, and then not having it happen," Stewart said. "I was super upset afterwards, and what made it a million times worse was I feel like if I had had my coach [Don Ryan] there, it have turned out differently.

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"Talking to my coach on the phone afterwards, analyzing the match, he said he'd scouted this athlete and knew that she was going to take like last-ditch dive at my legs. Hearing him say that . . . made me feel that if he'd been there, if he had been in my corner and said something, it might have changed the ending."

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Canada named 371 athletes to its full Olympic team on Tuesday, the largest team since the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. But if not for the global pandemic, it would have been even bigger. There were athletes such as Stewart who fell through the cracks.

The 31-year-old from Fredericton fought back tears as she told her story. It was a losing battle.

Uncertainty was the biggest killer, because I couldn't plan.- Samantha Stewart

"When this has been your dream for as long as you can remember, and then there's all these things happening to prevent you from being able to prepare, and all the uncertainty and all the rule changes," she said. "Uncertainty was the biggest killer, because I couldn't plan. I had to stay away from home for long periods of time, which takes you outside of your safety net and your comfort zone.

"You don't have your support network, my coaches weren't travelling with me, I was traveling by myself. I did feel very alone and unsupported."

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Charles Philibert-Thiboutot chased the Olympic 1,500-metre standard for weeks but came up short. The Quebec City native and Rio Olympian said it was more due to an Achilles injury in the spring than the pandemic. He had a last chance to run the qualifying standard in Montreal before the qualifying window closed at the end of June, but the blustery weather conditions weren't conducive to fast times.

Like many Canadian athletes, Philibert-Thiboutot left the country in search of chances to qualify. It was risky and costly, and came with quarantines upon return.

'That's a big psychological strain to not be able to go home,' Charles Philibert-Thiboutot on the stresses of not being able to compete in Canada during the pandemic. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

"There were no races to qualify in Canada. So you had to plan at some point in your season to go either to the U.S. or Europe," he said. "I've talked to a lot of athletes who said 'I'm going to plan to just get out of the country for a long time.' And that's a big psychological strain to not be able to go home.

"Some athletes cope very well with it. But others, not being at home and training in an environment you know well . . . by the end of three or four or five week-stint outside of the country, where you're living in a suitcase, a lot of athletes were really borderline [on the verge] of a breakdown after that."

On top of normal travel expenses, athletes were shelling out for COVID tests that were required to compete - anywhere from $100 to $400 per test, Philibert-Thiboutot said.

"That's a big bill at the end," he said. "It's cost me a couple grand just to get tested for all my races."

Down to the wire

Regan Yee was more fortunate. The 26-year-old from South Hazelton, B.C., was among the last Canadians to qualify, hitting the standard - and shattering the Canadian record - in the women's 3,000-metre steeplechase on June 30, on the very last day.

"I hadn't raced at all this summer until around two weeks before the Tokyo qualifying window closed, so it was pretty nerve-racking," she said. "We didn't want to go down to the States for safety reasons, we just didn't feel comfortable without being double vaccinated, and with the quarantine restrictions upon arrival back into Canada. We'd been planning to race earlier in Ontario, but then they put in those inter-provincial restrictions.

"So, it was pretty nerve-wracking to leave it to that last little stretch, but I have a lot of faith in my coach [Mark Bomba]. He's never failed me before, and it all worked out."

Regan Yee, left, of Hazelton, B.C., was among the last Canadians to qualify for Tokyo, after shattering the Canadian record in the women's 3,000-metre steeplechase. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/File)

Because of Canada's travel restrictions and COVID-19 protocols, just qualifying for Tokyo was a tall task. Athletes had to navigate an ever-changing obstacle course of cancelled events, medical clearances, and facility closures, all the while not knowing when and if they'd compete again.

"It has been uniquely hard for athletes in the Americas to get to qualifying events, versus the other qualifying quadrants around the world," said Canada's chef de mission Marnie McBean, a three-time Olympic rowing gold medallist. "I always recognize the hardship. And I would say [to athletes who didn't qualify], 'I'm so sorry."'

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