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Canadian athletes still grappling to draw ‘different blueprints to gold’

canadian-athletes-still-grappling-to-draw-‘different-blueprints-to-gold’

That singular focus that, up until a year ago was zeroed in on July 2020, has been recalibrated, this time to hone in on July 23 when the Tokyo Olympics are scheduled to open.

Gold medallist Rosie MacLennan reacts after winning the women’s trampoline event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (David Ramos/Getty Images)

There’s finally a target within reach.

With 100 days to go to the Tokyo Games that tangible goal, a timeline that Olympic athletes so desperately crave, is seemingly within grasp.

And that singular focus that, up until a year ago was zeroed in on July 2020, has been recalibrated, this time to hone in on July 23 when the Olympics are scheduled to open.

It has been an emotional roller-coaster for Canadian athletes who since 2016 — and in many cases years before — had been training to peak at one specific time in late July or early August in 2020, only to have that dream ripped away by a pandemic.

There was the stress of uncertainty when the Canadian Olympic Committee first said they wouldn’t attend the Games should they go forward last March. Some of that anxiety was quelled when not long after the International Olympic Committee postponed the Games.

But what it did was put all athletes in the predicament of trying to determine how best to prepare and be in the best shape of their lives for a Games delayed and amid the restrictions brought on by the pandemic — and there has been a wide range of approaches by Canadian athletes on how to do it all over again.

Take for instance the story of two-time defending Olympic trampoline champion Rosie MacLennan; on two previous occasions she has figured out the path to the top of the podium, winning gold in both 2012 and 2016.

“Very different blueprints to gold,” she told CBC Sports. “I don’t think leading up to the last two Games I ever had that thought of where I needed to be. At 100 days, I’m focused on how can I be better. I don’t even think the day before a competition I’ve thought this is exactly where I need to be.”

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MacLennan is trying to secure an unprecedented three-peat. She’s faced a number of injuries along the way, so the pause and delay has actually been welcomed for the 32-year-old.

“The benefit of having the extra year was I was able to take extra time to recover,” she said. “Because I was able to take that time, I’ve been able to train smart. I feel pretty good.”

MacLennan said while there has been so much uncertainty this past year, it’s not unlike what she’s had to deal with in the past when preparing to compete in London and in Rio.

“There’s really two choices. You can put your attention and focus on the uncertainty and it’ll stress you out, or you can allow it to push your focus to what you can control,” she said.

There’s really two choices. You can put your attention and focus on the uncertainty and it’ll stress you out, or you can allow it to push your focus to what you can control.– Rosie MacLennan

That focus has become a common theme for many of the Canadian athletes as they continue their preparation to qualify for and compete at the Olympics. As of April 14 about three-quarters of the 35 Canadian sport organizations that will compete in Tokyo have yet to finalize their teams.

In many cases, qualifying is going to become increasingly more challenging and could force them to use other mechanisms to pick which athletes will compete. Canada’s swimming team, touted to be a powerhouse squad led by the women, has also faced adversity with ever-changing restrictions that forced them to move national trials from April into late May.

“I would say in Canada we’ve had more challenges than other nations. Other nations are racing. We have not had a race in Canada for more than 12 months. But our athletes are resilient,” said John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s high performance director.

In order to alleviate some of that uncertainty, Swimming Canada nominated six members to the Olympic team in January without having to compete in the trials: Penny Oleksiak, Kylie Masse, Taylor Ruck, Sydney Pickrem, Maggie MacNeil and Markus Thormeyer.

“I’m a planner. I like to be ahead of the game. But I have to keep changing things and make sure I’m communicating that to the athletes,” Atkinson said.

MacNeil, who is the world butterfly champion and recently set a new NCAA record, has been swimming and training in Michigan.

Canada’s Margaret MacNeil swims to victory in her heat of the women’s 100-metre butterfly during the 2020 US Open Championship. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

‘Uncertainty is growing’

“Things are getting a little more certain as the days progress. Training has been going well,” the 21-year-old from London, Ont., said. But living in the United States has complicated McNeil’s ability to get back and forth for potential national camps and trials as she’d have to build in two weeks to quarantine.

“This year has been so up and down. Everyone has had different access. Having the Olympics will be an accomplishment in itself,” McNeil said. “Everything is still uncertain to a degree. Things are changing day by day. I don’t want to get hung up on that.”

That’s exactly what Atkinson is trying to protect the athletes from.

“Right now there’s a sense that some of that uncertainty is growing. And some of the issues they have to face make it more uncertain for them,” he said. “There are great markers ahead for the athletes to look at, work toward and we’ll get the team nominated. We’ll get to Japan and give it our best shot.”

While that uncertainty exists for many of Canada’s athletes, for the country’s top beach volleyball team this past year has been restful and rejuvenating.

Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes are the 2019 world champions. They are also among the favourites to win gold in Tokyo. They also have the great luxury of having already qualified for the Games by virtue of winning their world title two years ago.

So instead of panicking this past year and trying to train in restricted and isolated conditions, they essentially took 12 months off.

We chose to see quarantine as an opportunity as some saw it as a setback. We took a step back. This can be a good thing.– Sarah Pavan

“We’ve been playing this sport for so long that all throughout quarantine it was like we were giving our souls a rest from beating up on ourselves and pushing for perfection for so long,” Pavan said. “We chose to see quarantine as an opportunity as some saw it as a setback. We took a step back. This can be a good thing.

“We’re going to rest our bodies and minds and spend time with loved ones and we’re still going to be good at volleyball.”

Pavan was in Los Angeles for most of the year, while Humana-Paredes was in Canada with her family and boyfriend.

“Initially it was difficult for me to reconcile what happened and to have sport taken away,” Humana-Paredes said. “I was grateful to be home with my family. But I had to deal with the idea of who I was without sports. What else was there beyond me being an athlete?

“It was an identity crisis. I was grappling with that. It took me a little bit but it was really rewarding. You don’t take it for granted anymore.”

Melissa Humana-Paredes, right, and Sarah Pavan compete in the final of the Wilson Cup in 2020. (Mpu Dinani/AVP via Getty Images)

Credit support team

The two flicked the switch back on again in January and have been training together in L.A. for the last four months. They recently travelled to Doha for an event at the last minute.

“We did that for a test to see where we were,” Pavan said. “We almost didn’t go because we didn’t think we were ready and we came in second. We were very pleased with how it went,” Pavan said, crediting the large support team they have and the plan that’s been set out for them.

“We have people we trust who are great at their jobs and have helped us reach a peaking periodization schedule in the past.”

“The things that have been prescribed to us by everyone, we’re believing in them 100 per cent.”

It’s that belief that is fuelling the fire for Humana-Paredes.

“It really is trusting the system. If we do what we’re supposed to do every day, we have a gold-medal performance plan,” she said. “If we follow it, it should result in that outcome.”

Gold is also the goal for the Canadian women’s softball team, which has gone to extraordinary measures to give themselves the best opportunity to achieve that result. The team gathered in Florida last month and have decided they will not be going home to family until after Tokyo.

Canada’s Larissa Franklin hits a solo home run during a playoff round match against Australia at the Women’s Softball World Championship in 2018. (Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)

‘Vibe is incredible’

“It is a sacrifice. It’s a third of a year,” said head coach Mark Smith. “This is a journey we started more than four years ago. We know what we want to accomplish.”

The team played some exhibition games, their first time together on the field since they clinched a spot in the Tokyo Games more than a year and a half ago.

“There were these moments of, wow, we’re on the field. And then there was this feeling, for me it felt like we never left,” said outfielder Larissa Franklin. “While we haven’t had feet on dirt, this whole time we’ve been preparing.”

They held virtual camps in the early days of the pandemic, then came together just outside Toronto for a three-week camp in January. Now they’re ready to spend the next four months together.

“The vibe is incredible. There’s so much trust. Let’s hope things stay that way because we’re spending four months together,” Franklin said. “There’s so much power in recognizing everyone is going to be on their own journey. Our situations are all different. We have two moms on the team. I can’t even understand what it’s like to leave that.”

Smith says with 100 days to go they’re trying to stay as present as possible and are trying to pace themselves to make sure they don’t burn out before the Games.

“The natural tendency when you’ve had something taken from you for that long is that you want to do too much, too quickly,” he said. “We’re trying to remind everyone that it is a marathon and not a sprint. Be present every day.”

Smith believes if the team can do that, stick to the plan he’s put in place from now until Tokyo, Canada can stand on top of the podium.

“I don’t believe for one second that any other country in the world has worked as hard as these women. I believe that to my core. I know what they’ve sacrificed,” he said.

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