How Canadian athletes rose to showcase resilience at unique Olympics, Paralympics

The warm glow of the cauldron has been extinguished to end Tokyo 2020, but as Devin Heroux writes, champions — new and old — emerged in a Games collectively marked by resilience and courageousness.

Summer Games a reminder of what it's like to experience something collectively

Fireworks illuminate the Tokyo sky at the conclusion of a vibrant and resilient instalment of the Summer Games, often thought to be improbable due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images)

There are no more races to run, goals to be scored or medals to be won.

The warm glow of the cauldron has been extinguished to end Tokyo 2020.

How do you even begin to describe what it was like to cover an Olympics and Paralympics in the midst of a pandemic, for 50 days, mostly locked down in Tokyo?

There really isn't enough time or words to do it proper justice.

But let me try to sum up what I saw, felt, experienced and lived for the past seven weeks.

WATCH | All of Canada's 24 Olympic medal moments from Tokyo: 

There were a million different unforgettable moments at empty venues across the city and other regions provided by athletes that inspired, made people cry, scream at their TVs, pace across their living rooms and have their sleep patterns completely thrown out of whack.

United by Emotion was the slogan for Tokyo 2020 — a rallying cry by the organizing committee with a focus on celebrating diversity while showcasing the power of sport and its innate ability to bring together communities and countries.

And we saw that in Canada, most recently during the Paralympics, with athletes pouring their hearts into competition and leading to emotional and inspiring results.

One hundred and twenty-eight Canadians competed in 18 of the 22 sports over the past 12 days in Tokyo, winning 21 medals at the Games.

Swimming superstar Aurélie Rivard was a powerhouse, capturing five medals, including two golds — she set a world record in both of her golden performances and has 10 career medals.

Canada's closing ceremony flag-bearer, Brent Lakatos, won four silver medals in his fifth Paralympics. He now has 11 career medals. He told CBC Sports after one of his races that his plan was to retire after 2008. All these years later, he's still here competing for his country on the grandest athletic stage.

Emergence of new champions

And new champions emerged.

Greg Stewart, 35, of Kamloops, B.C., won gold in shot put in his Paralympic debut, setting a Paralympic record in the process. It was a journey 20 years in the making that spanned basketball and volleyball courts, finally landing him at the Paralympics.

Danielle Dorris, a swimming sensation from Moncton, N.B., set a world record while swimming to gold in the S7 50m butterfly. She made her debut five years ago at the age of 13.

"I'm just so happy," she said, beaming after the race.

WATCH | Danielle Dorris emotional, happy after world-record gold: 

And Nate Riech, 26, of Victoria set a Paralympic record in his Games debut in the T38 1500m on the penultimate night of competition, leaving nothing to doubt and finishing nearly five seconds ahead of the second-place competitor.

There was an unforgettable performance by Stefan Daniel of Calgary, who captured bronze in the PTS5 triathlon on a sweltering morning in Tokyo. He collapsed as he crossed the finish line, needing medical attention after finishing the race. That's how bad he wanted that medal.

"That was the toughest race of my career," he told CBC Sports after the race.

"I hope I inspired Canadians to go for a jog or ride a bike."

WATCH | Stefan Daniel collapses after gritty bronze-winning triathlon: 

Canada's chef de mission, Stephanie Dixon, who won 19 Paralympic medals, promised gutsy, gritty and inspiring performances ahead of the Games.

"You see the human spirit at its greatest, especially in these times of COVID. I think that when we watch Paralympic athletes compete, and the heart and bravery and the courage, it makes everyone else want to be brave and courageous as well," Dixon said.

The Canadians did not disappoint.

Resilience and courageousness

But these Games were never just about winning medals and standing on the podium.

Take, for instance, the arrival of Afghan athletes Zakia Khodadadi and Hossain Rasouli.

Following a harrowing, dangerous and complex international operation, the two not only arrived in Tokyo for the Paralympics but also competed. Rasouli took part in the long jump competition, while Khodadadi competed in taekwondo.

Their participation was a reminder of the resilience and courageousness Dixon was talking about.

Afghanistan's Hossain Rasouli competes in the men's T47 long jump during the Tokyo Paralympics. (Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

Here's what struck me about witnessing moments of glory and triumph as well as heartbreak and defeat throughout the Paralympics.

The success of one, the anguish of one, was the success and anguish of others. On so many occasions, opponents and competitors celebrated and also comforted one another after a swim or race or game — they understood what it took just to get to these Games.

For the 16 months leading up to Tokyo 2020, I reported almost weekly on the concerns around COVID-19 and the Games taking place safely. Poll after poll showed an overwhelming majority of people in Japan didn't want the Games to go on — there was skepticism, fear and concern about them even happening.

And with good reason. With COVID-19 cases spiking in Tokyo, and thousands of people arriving in Japan from around the world, caution and care were needed.

Against the backdrop of all of that were the athletes, Olympians and Paralympians, who did their level best to remain motivated and focused while aware that more important things were happening around them.

But when it finally became their moment in the spotlight, they broke records, competed faster, higher and stronger — and brought us together through their athletic greatness.

And haven't we been missing that? Isolated and confined to small bubbles for a seemingly unending amount of time, we've all been wanting to feel something again.

Like the way we felt when the Canadian women's soccer team won gold on that memorable night against Sweden. Penny Oleksiak and the Canadian swimming women had fans swelling with pride.

Canadian women made history at every turn in Tokyo.

WATCH | Canadian women's soccer team wins historic gold at Tokyo Olympics: 

Andre De Grasse, Damian Warner and Evan Dunfee had hearts racing. Millions of Canadians were jumping up and down as the athletes headed to their respective finish lines.

United by emotion and sport, to be sure.

This has been a career highlight for me, my journey mostly fuelled by nightly dinner trips to 7-Eleven, which quickly became national news across Japan. In the wake of all of the reports, I've received dozens of packages of gifts and letters.

These letters are laced with notes of gratitude and pride, personal stories of their connection to the Games without being able to attend.

And Japan should be proud.

These circumstances, at this time we find ourselves in, made for an incredibly challenging situation.

I've had so many interactions and conversations with volunteers, organizers, officials, security guards and citizens of Japan who admitted they were unsure how to feel about the Olympics and Paralympics before the cauldrons were lit.

And then the Games began and people were reminded of their own dreams, goals and aspirations. They were reminded of what it's like to experience something collectively — to me, that's what this has always been about and why it's a great honour and pleasure to share these stories.

Sport has always brought, and will continue to bring, people together.

A photo I captured one morning will always stick with me.

A father and son wave at athletes and media entering the Tokyo Aquatics Centre during Tokyo 2020. The pair display a sign that reads, 'Good luck.' (Devin Heroux/CBC)

I was on my way to the Tokyo Aquatics Centre to cover the early days of swimming competition, and as our media bus was making the last turn before the venue, a father and his young son were standing on the street corner.

They carried an Olympics sign and were waving at athletes and media as they passed by.

"Good Luck," the sign said.

That moment between a father and son, in my opinion, is what the Games are really about. Who knows what it could spark within that young child, who one day might grow up to be an athlete at the Games.

It was their small way of feeling part of something, now connected to Games they'll never forget.

Neither will I.


Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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