Summer Sports·CBC SPORTS IN TOKYO

Olympic moments bittersweet for Canadian athletes in Tokyo as families forced to watch from afar

If you want to make a Canadian Olympic athlete cry in Tokyo, just ask about the family they've had to leave behind due to COVID-19 rules. The biggest moments in their athletic careers are happening without those who've supported them along the way, making these Olympics bittersweet.

COVID-19 restrictions mean athletes' support networks remain in Canada

Boxer Mandy Bujold is surprised by her daughter and husband during interview

2 months ago
7:02
The Canadian boxer was unexpectedly joined by her husband Reid and daughter Kate Olivia "KO" during an interview with CBC's Andrew Chang. 7:02

If you want to make a Canadian athlete cry at the Olympics, just ask them about the family they have left behind in Canada.

In the bowels of Tokyo's Kokugikan Arena, moments after the final bout of her boxing career, an emotional Mandy Bujold made a heart shape with her hands. It was a message to her two-year-old daughter, Kate, who was thousands of miles away in Kitchener, Ont.

A day before stepping into the ring, Bujold started to cry when asked about being separated from her family.

"Kate is obviously my motivation," Bujold said, through tears. "My husband sent a video of her with all of this cheering stuff, so it's nice. I'm hoping he takes lots of pictures and videos when she's watching so that it's something we can show her later."

One of the many rules of these Olympics — dictated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — is that athletes have had to travel to Tokyo without their families.

'Your support system is everything'

For most Canadian athletes competing in Tokyo, making it to the world's biggest athletic stage without the help and support of their families was unthinkable.

Family members are the ones who drove athletes to early practices, lifted them up when they thought about quitting and have been with them from the very beginning of their athletic journey.

"It's challenging. Your support system is everything, the friends and family that have helped you since you were young," said swimmer Kylie Masse, moments after winning a silver medal.

"It's sad to not have them here. My parents have been able to come to every international competition. I am fortunate they have been able to make that journey and this year, not having them here is tough."

WATCH | Kylie Masse wins silver in 100m backstroke:

Canada's Kylie Masse earns Olympic silver medal in 100m backstroke

2 months ago
5:49
Australia's Kaylee McKeown set an Olympic record with a time of 57.47 seconds, while two-time reigning world champion Kylie Masse of LaSalle, Ont., finished in second place with a time of 57.72 in the women's Olympic 100-metre backstroke. 5:49

Canoeist Haley Daniels says having her family by her side was always what she thought her Olympic experience would look like.

"I had always envisioned being able to look up in the stands and see my family. Today, I looked up at the start line to empty stands," she said. "I think that you work so hard to get here and, although it's something you achieve, there are so many people who help us get here."

Medal moments bittersweet without families

Being unable to share the moment with family has been especially difficult for athletes who've won medals in Tokyo. It is not just their medal, they feel, but the culmination of years of family sacrifice and dedication. Even as the Canadian flag is raised while they stand on the podium, their minds wander back home.

"I just would like my family to be here. It would be a way for me to thank them for what they have done for me," said weightlifter Maude Charron, who won gold on Tuesday.

WATCH | Maude Charron captures gold in weightlifting:

Canadian Maude Charron wins weightlifting gold

2 months ago
5:03
Charron won the women's 64-kilogram competition to give Canada its second gold medal at Tokyo 2020. 5:03

Charron spent much of the past year training in her family's garage.

"I'm happy but disappointed. They are always there, they always have the right word."

After Montreal's Catherine Beauchemin-Pinard captured a bronze medal in judo, there were tears as she talked about getting home quickly to celebrate with her dad, who suffered a stroke two years ago.

"I am so happy to be able to come home with a medal and show him that I did it," said Beauchemin-Pinard, who says her father is her biggest fan.

"He was sad that he couldn't come and I wanted him to be here. I can't wait to see him and give him a big hug."

Months of separation

Many athletes competing in Tokyo haven't seen their families for months. For some, it has been more than a year as COVID-19 restrictions in Canada forced them to travel abroad to train and compete ahead of these Games.

The bronze-medal winning softball team relocated to Florida in January to train. The virtual connection they've had with loved ones back home continued overseas.

The family of Jenna Caira says they screamed and hugged one another after she and the rest of the Canadian women's softball team made history Tuesday by winning the country's first Olympic medal in the sport. (Tina Mackenzie/CBC)

Pitcher Jenna Caira's family gathered around the television to watch her play. Before the pandemic, they had planned to be in Japan with her.

"Everyone just jumped up, we were all sitting downstairs in our family room and we all just jumped up, and we're screaming," her mother, Helan Caira, told CBC. 

Jenna, who said she's been carrying her family with her for the entire journey, called her parents shortly after the final.

"It was just really great to have them a part of it and to watch and celebrate with me."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC

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