Wrestling

Canada's Erica Wiebe optimistic about wrestling future following hard journey to Tokyo Games

Having entered Tokyo 2020 as a reigning Olympic champion, Erica Wiebe's first-round loss to Epp Mäe of Estonia was an obvious disappointment — one the Canadian is already focused on bouncing back from.

'It's never the end of the story, so I'm excited for what's to come,' says Wiebe

Erica Wiebe, left, and Estonia's Epp Mäe compete during their women's 76kg Freestyle wrestling match at the Tokyo Olympics. (Aaron Favila/The Associated Press)

Just two days after suffering Olympic defeat, Canada's Erica Wiebe had to make an immediate decision about her wrestling future.

With the Canadian trials for the world championships in Norway just a few weeks away, Wiebe found herself facing a registration deadline while still processing a crushing loss on the biggest stage.

"I had to quickly look in the mirror and say, 'Am I done with this sport? Would I be ready to compete in a trials in five weeks?' The answer was yes," Wiebe told CBC Sports.

Having entered Tokyo 2020 as reigning Olympic champion, her first-round loss to Epp Mäe of Estonia was an obvious disappointment — one she is already focused on bouncing back from.

The world championships in October present the perfect starting point for the freestyle wrestler. "I'm hoping to compete and be my best; I left a lot on the table here in Tokyo," Wiebe said.

The Stittsville, Ont., native took home gold during her Olympic debut in 2016, joining Tonya Verbeek and Carol Huynh as Canada's only female Olympic wrestling medallists.

The 32-year-old exemplifies the mental fortitude it takes to compete as a wrestler at the highest level, possessing all the tools needed to begin writing the next chapter.

"Sport can be cruel, but the best part is in sport — and in life — you always get a second chance. It's never the end of the story, so I'm excited for what's to come," Wiebe said.

"I always live by the mantra that you need to do something that scares you every single day, but also you have to take that step forward and say yes to the opportunity as it presents itself."

WATCH | Wiebe falls in opening match at Tokyo Olympics:

Erica Wiebe books her ticket to Tokyo Olympics

2 years ago
Duration 2:29
Erica Wiebe of Stittsville, Ont., secures the right to defend her Olympic title with a semifinal win in the 76-kilogram weight class at the 2020 Pan-American Olympic Wrestling Qualification Tournament. 

Wrestling during a pandemic

In a sport where contact is everything, finding ways to navigate around physical distancing restrictions while preparing for one of the biggest competitions of her life was a tall task.

Pandemic restrictions limited Wiebe's ability to physically practice her discipline. While all Canadian Olympic athletes faced unprecedented training challenges on the road to Tokyo, close-contact sports like wrestling were completely handcuffed for large stretches.

When the team finally started to get back together in May 2020, they were only able to conduct individual "shadow" wrestling drills, outside in small groups with no contact — a simulated version of the real thing.

"You're on your own in your wrestling stance and you're kind of visualizing the movements and the attacks and defences, trying to simulate the movements of wrestling without an opponent," Wiebe said.

"We were wrestling outside and trying to make the best of the challenging conditions."

Wiebe also battled injuries on her road to Tokyo, but she said it was all about having the right coach to guide her — Paul Ragusa.

"It's definitely been a crazy journey," Wiebe said. "But it's a testament to my coach. [Ragusa is] an absolute gem, and he can always find a way to win and create the optimal conditions for performance.

"I attribute my success in Rio to being fully prepared when I stepped onto the mats to wrestle the best, and over the last 18 months he has really done every single thing possible given the circumstances to make us as prepared as possible."

Wiebe had already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics by finishing atop the 76-kilogram weight class at the Pan American Olympic qualifier last year in Ottawa, right before the sports world shut down.

WATCH | Wiebe secures Olympic spot at Pan American qualifier:

Even after the team was able to shift training into an indoor facility, Wiebe still had to find a way to stay mentally dialled in while adjusting to the realities of competing during a pandemic.

"We were able to prepare for a competition in December of 2020 [the Individual Wrestling World Cup], and every single day in the weeks leading to it, it's like, 'Will I test positive? Will the travel restrictions change?" Wiebe said.

"I spent Christmas in quarantine because I decided to compete in Serbia and needed to prepare for the Olympic Games in Tokyo."

Wiebe also had to accept the reality that her international competition undoubtedly had more freedom to properly practice the sport throughout the pandemic.

"We were going to these competitions and seeing and hearing about the training camps these teams are doing," Wiebe said. "We know that they have full exemptions to do whatever they want."

'I was still really optimistic'

But Wiebe made it clear she was still ready to take on Tokyo, regardless of the obstacles. She won gold at the Matteo Pellicone ranking series in Rome last March, and bronze at the Poland Open in June.

"Canada does the best in the world in terms of sport sciences, in terms of athlete preparation. I knew that I had the ability to be peaked for competition regardless of the circumstances," Wiebe said.

"I was still really optimistic, and I was still really well prepared despite all the challenges."

WATCH | Wiebe discusses the highs and lows of her Olympic journey:

Wiebe said she still felt the full love and support of family and friends despite restrictions prohibiting them from cheering her on in person.

After having an ideal Olympic experience in Rio where her closest supporters were there to witness, that same group still managed to empower Wiebe in Tokyo.

"Over the last couple of months, more than ever, I've felt so much buoyancy and so much love from my wrestling community, from my friends and family. They've put together videos, notes, letters and emails," Wiebe said.

"Everybody knew we wouldn't have that in-person experience, and so they really reached out in amazing and extremely caring ways to showcase their support."

Role model

As one of the most accomplished wrestlers in Canadian history, Wiebe hopes to inspire future generations of female athletes to also dream big and embrace their full potential.

"My message is to be unapologetic about who you are, live fearlessly and have the courage to take really big risks. If your dreams don't scare you, they're not big enough," Wiebe said.

Wiebe is part of the latest era of Canadian female excellence in Olympic sport, and she looks forward to seeing the future remain bright for years to come.

"There's a whole generation of pioneers that came before me that gave me the opportunities that I have. Young girls today should continue to fight the fight, they should continue to be proud of who they are and push the boundaries of what they're capable of."

Finding herself in an accelerated three-year Olympic cycle, Wiebe has another big decision approaching with the Paris Olympics just around the corner in 2024.

And while the Olympic champion said she is currently taking it day by day, she can't help but feel motivated by the performances on display in Tokyo.

"It's crazy to sit down and think about it being three years out," Wiebe said.

"Every fibre of my being is curious and inspired by excellence, and that's the embodiment of the Olympic games. It's hard not to leave here inspired and motivated."

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