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Like everyone connected with the Canadian Olympic team, John Tait was being pulled in a hundred different directions Monday.
There were phone calls with the other coaches discussing what comes next, even if they had no idea what comes next. There was concern for his players — how are they handling the news? How will Rugby Canada get them home? There was concern for his program. And his staff. And everyone and everything connected with the national women’s rugby sevens team.
And now he was being asked to articulate his thoughts about the Canadian Olympic Committee’s (COC) decision to pull out of this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
“I still feel a little shocked, even though it was a good decision,” said Tait, the coach of the decorated women’s sevens squad. “I don’t know. It’s hard to say it’s a good decision when it feels this bad.”
There was a lot of that going around with our country’s Olympians in the aftermath of the COC’s announcement late Sunday; a lot of conflicting emotions.
There was pride that Canada had been the first country to announce they weren’t going to participate in the lunacy of an Olympics in July while the world battles the COVID-19 crisis. There was relief that there was some clarity about their immediate future. There was confusion and, yes, fear, over what lies ahead. And there was crushing disappointment that almost four years of training and preparation was suddenly in limbo.
The IOC has said it will take four weeks to consider all possible scenarios with the Tokyo Olympics and, somehow, they’re still clinging to the fantasy that the Games might start July 24 as scheduled.
But no one in their right mind believes that’s possible. Instead, the belief is the Games will be pushed back until much later in 2020 or, more likely, postponed for a full year until summer 2021. (Eds. note: That’s what the IOC announced Tuesday .) That plan makes the most sense, but if you believe the athletes are comforted by that possibility, we invite you to think again.
“That’s a simple reaction to a complex situation,” said rower Will Crothers from Victoria.
“I’m relieved they made the call,” said Hillary Janssens, Crothers’ teammate. “We were all getting uncomfortable training with this hanging over our heads. This allows us to recalibrate, but there are still a lot of questions. We’re waiting for more information.”
And in that wait lies more uncertainty.
Four days ago, Crothers, Janssens and the rest of the national rowing team were on the water at Victoria’s Elk Lake, fully consumed with preparing for the Olympics. On Monday, after the COC’s announcement and the closing of the Elk Lake centre, they were preparing to hunker down at home with indoor rowing machines, stationary bicycles and whatever weights they could scrounge.
Last year, Janssens and Caileigh Filmer won bronze at the 2019 world rowing championships in pairs, and are considered medal threats in Tokyo. Her partner, Conlin McCabe, rows with Kai Langerfeld in a men’s pairing that’s qualified for the Summer Games. Last week, they were in full-on training mode for the Olympics, trying to peak for late July.
“You go from having such a structured life,” says McCabe. “You wake up. You go to work. You have a routine. I have to build a new routine.”
Liz Gleadle, for one, can officially relate. The two-time Olympian in the javelin was also gearing her workouts to achieve maximum performance in four months. Then came the COC’s announcement. Then came some form of clarity, although she’s still a) looking for a squat rack and b) figuring out a way to get it in her place.
“We saw this coming, but it’s still a lot to take in,” Gleadle says from her Vancouver home. “It’s difficult to train when you don’t know what it’s going to be. Should I do yoga? Should I do heavy lifting? Should I throw? There’s a new series of questions but it’s a little more targeted now.”
Gleadle, in fact, sounds like a lot of Canadians as she tries to adjust to working from home.
“I try to keep things separate,” she says. “I’m working out here. I’m stretching there.”
She also has a bachelor’s of science degree in the kinesiology department, which gives her a unique perspective on training under stressful conditions.
“When you’re under stress it affects you physiologically,” Gleadle says. “The best choice is yoga and stretching; gentle and slower exercise. That goes for everyone.”
The javelin, however, is an individual sport. Team sports, like rugby, present their own issues.
In 2016, the women’s sevens won bronze in Rio in the first Olympic tournament in the event. Much of that team has since been turned over and Tait now boasts a younger, more athletic squad with some of the holdovers from Rio.
Ghislaine Landry is one of those players. On Monday she posted this on Twitter:
“I’m not going to lie. This is tough. Doing the right thing can hurt like hell. I am so privileged to have been to the Olympics and even stand on the podium. I know what it feels like.
“But this is so much bigger than sport and so much bigger than us. Lives are being lost, humanity is in crisis.”
Tait has built a successful program because it’s produced some great athletes. Turns out it’s produced some outstanding citizens as well.
“I’m sad for them and worried,” he says. “They’ve been going at it for so long. Another year is a big commitment.
“But once everything settles and they can look forward to a schedule, I think they’ll be back. We have some dedicated athletes.”
And one day we’ll be able to cheer for them again.
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