Forged in failure and rebuilt with resilience, Canada's Olympic teams are stronger than ever

In 2019, a series of meetings between Canada's top athletes charted the course for a record Olympics. The result is Canada is sending one of its largest representations in teams sports to Tokyo

8 teams headed to Tokyo marks record for non-hosted, non-boycotted Games

Water polo captain Monika Eggens, whose team hadn't qualified for the Olympics since 2004, says insight from other Canadian team leaders was valuable for her team's own success. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Welcome to the Captain's Club.

In 2019, a series of meetings between Canada's top athletes charted the course for a record Olympics. Organized by the Canadian Olympic Committee, leadership from multiple national teams began a series of meetings that has resulted in Canada is sending a record eight teams to a non-hosted, non-boycotted Olympics.

Five women's teams — basketball, soccer, rugby sevens, softball and water polo — will compete alongside three men's squads — rugby sevens, field hockey and indoor volleyball.

"Part of the work we did together was just, who are we? We all know who we are as individual teams. But who are we as a bigger Team Canada?" said softball captain Victoria Hayward, whose sport was last on the Olympic program in 2008. The 29-year-old from Toronto will be making her Games debut.

"And words like resilient, words like strong, playing off of our national anthem — our true north, just following the right path, doing what is right, doing what is required."

For water polo captain Monika Eggens, whose team hadn't qualified for the Olympics since 2004, it was insightful to learn from some more experienced leaders, like soccer star Desiree Scott and rugby sevens' Ghislaine Landry.

"It was just interesting to hear the kind of things that work for them, but also the struggles they went through but still came out on top," Eggens said.

The Tokyo Games mark the second straight jump in the number of teams after a valley of just two at London 2012. Canada sent five teams to Rio in 2016.

Those seven squads combined for three medals, all bronze, won by women's soccer at both Games and women's sevens in 2016.

The hope is to match that number in Japan, with those two teams plus women's basketball and softball entering as podium contenders. Meanwhile, the men's sevens teams placed third at its most recent World Cup in Vancouver in 2019.

"There was a little bit more confidence, a little bit more swagger with Team Canada than I think there has been in the past, and a true belief that that we're not only meant to be there, but we're there to win gold medals and to be on top of the podium," Hayward said.

Softball's Victoria Hayward, celebrating a home run at the 2018 softball world championship, says it was important for all the teams to understand their role as part of a bigger Canadian team. (Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)

'It takes a critical mass'

As of April, Gracenote, a data company whose statistical model gives a decent layout of favourites in each event, projected only the women's rugby sevens squad to land on the podium.

But unlike individual events, where a Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt can consistently dominate, more variables in team sports can lead to more unpredictable results, said women's basketball head coach Lisa Thomaidis.

"To achieve at the top level internationally in a team sport, it takes a critical mass," she said. "It takes so many high achievers that are at the top of their game and putting them all together. And working towards that goal is really, really difficult. And so I think when you have multiple teams doing that, it's pretty inspirational."

While athletes from different sports may mingle at centralized training facilities throughout the year, Thomaidis said there's very little connection between coaches.

That's why a program called Canada Coach, a four-part series that began 2018 which brought national-team coaches together, was so eye-opening.

"It's not technical tactical. It's all about the other pillars," she said. "There's so few of us as national-team coaches, and so when you do get to connect and share stories and best practices, it's just so beneficial."

It's those other pillars — chemistry, teamwork, leadership — that makes team sports appealing both to athletes and viewers.

The COC does not have an official definition for team sports, but the general acceptance is one in which groups of more than two players compete directly against one another, with the ability to attack and defend. Thus, swimming relays, beach volleyball and others alike don't count despite still requiring teamwork.

Canada's women's basketball team gained inspiration from the efforts of other teams. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Social aspect appealing

Lizanne Murphy, a former national basketball team member who now works for the COC, said she was drawn in by the social aspect of team sports.

"It was just the dynamic of team sport that you had an instant group of friends that you both competed against and competed with. And I thought that was so cool. And it just grew with me," she said.

Eggens said she was inspired by the bronze won by the women's soccer team in London.

"Just the excitement of that and just knowing we had missed out on that, but [I] knew how much I wanted that for our team to get there too," she said.

For Hayward, it's about all the little things in a softball game that make up the competition.

"Just that shared experience, that shared emotion, 10, 15 people on the field with feelings. Just that kind of ability to contribute to that and share that with the people that you work hard with has been always what has drawn me to team sport," she said.

That connection can also drive athletes to push their limits even further, knowing their ability is directly tied to the success of teammates.

Canadian players celebrate their bronze-medal victory over France at the 2012 London Olympics. (Getty Images)

Fueling the fire

And it can make failure that much more motivating, said Murphy.

"It's only through not qualifying that you realize how badly you want it. And I think on all of the teams that have qualified, there is a lot of veteran athletes who've been around or have just narrowly missed out on the Games."

By Paris 2024, there may be even more teams. Canada had four opportunities, all among men, to match or exceed the 1976 Montreal record of nine teams at a Games, but fell short each time.

The soccer team punted on Olympic qualifying to focus on the 2022 World Cup. Baseball was eliminated after a strange home run and consequent half-hour review put the U.S. ahead. The 3x3 basketball team was knocked out on a tiebreaker. The basketball team nearly pulled off a miracle comeback, only to be sent packing by the Czech Republic in the semifinal of a must-win tournament in B.C. last month.

Fuel, meet fire.

"There's a million avenues you could go down. But at this point now where we are, I'm going into the mode of, 'OK, what do we have to do to get ready for the next opportunity to qualify and get us into the Olympic Games?'" basketball assistant coach Michael Meeks said one day after that loss.

Unique Olympic village

Those who are in Tokyo will get to experience the Olympic village, a once-every-four-years mingling of the country's top athletes. 

Murphy, who will act as a village concierge and athlete mentor, said there's an immediate camaraderie among Canadian athletes, especially since many may have trained together previously. Canada is sending a contingent of 371 athletes to Tokyo, its largest since 1984.

The athletes-only lounge typically operates as the centre of socialization, providing the opportunity to connect outside of the gym. 

"I know walking through the village, when you saw another Team Canada shirt, you may have not known the person, but you're saying like, 'Hey, good luck today,'" Murphy recalled from her experiences in London and Rio.

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The pandemic necessitates that the athletes' village in Tokyo will be unique. There will be no lounge, just as the coaches' lounge of Games previous was also nixed. Clear panes divide each seat in the dining room, which will operate at two-thirds capacity. 

Though some specifics still needed to be worked out, Murphy anticipated there would at least be a common space with a message board for athletes to connect with each other.

The softball team, ranked third in the world, is taking that limited interaction as just one more reason to focus on climbing the podium.

"What really stuck out to our team was there's a difference between the Olympic experience and the Olympic competition. And I think with the pandemic hitting and everything being different than it's ever been, I think it just really put the focus on the Olympic competition," Hayward said.

Training in a pandemic

More than the village, the pandemic negatively affected team sports by severely limiting group training over the past 17 months.

The women's basketball team qualified for the Olympics in February 2019 and then wasn't completely together again until 13 days before its first game.

In between, the team held regular video-call meetings and even conducted a fully virtual training camp.

"The very crux of team sport is that you're working together in the same place," Thomaidis said. "And to have that completely eliminated from training has been so, so, so hard. And so, yeah, I'd say it's been way more difficult for team sports. No question about it."

Moreover, Canada's 14-day quarantine law and separate provincial restrictions meant athletes couldn't freely travel across the border and, in come cases, were outlawed from practising outside their homes at all.

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Thomaidis' squad suddenly went from nothing to all in May, when non-WNBA players centralized in Tampa, Fla. They won't return home to Canada until after the Olympics.

The softball team was out of the country even longer, centralizing in March in Fort Myers, Fla., with only two one-week breaks in which the American residents on the team could visit family.

"We've been together for so long. We've been on this journey for some of us 13 years together, and we're really just taking the time to enjoy the moments we have, whether it's a practice or a game or just little moments we have on the bus," Hayward said. 

"[It] really feels like the work is done and we just are patiently waiting to be able to show everybody what we've been able to become."

The water polo team left Canada in May, but was able to meet previously during the summer of 2020. 

"For our team, it was really beneficial to have extra time together and centralize. And we came together a lot in the last year and I'm feeling a lot more confident going into 2021 with this group," Eggens said.

It was a longer road to Tokyo 2020 than any other Olympics, but team-sport athletes are built to work through adversity together. It's the nature of the beast.

"You're not necessarily 100 per cent control in control of your fate, because that notion of there's one team vs. you," Murphy said. "You could be the best team on paper, you could be the most skilled, the fastest, the most athletic. But that doesn't guarantee you a win."

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