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She had made all the sacrifices.
She had made the team.
Danielle Lappage, full of pride, had made the trip to Rio de Janeiro to represent Canada on the wrestling mat at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
“It all felt like a really bad dream,” Lappage recalls now. “I hurt myself in my warm-up, 10 minutes before my first match in Rio. I went out and tried to complete the first match and couldn’t — I had to withdraw. I found out that I’d ruptured my hamstring, randomly, in my warm-up. So it was a very difficult time for me.
“I’ve been dreaming of this Tokyo moment ever since that happened, so it’s all been extra emotional — everything that has been happening — because of my past and all that I have been through to get here.”
Lappage, who was raised in Olds, Alta., wasn’t sure for those next few months if she could continue with the sport.
It wasn’t until she moved back from B.C., enrolling in law school at the University of Calgary and joining the same training group as golden girl Erica Wiebe, that a return to the five-ring circus seemed like a realistic goal.
“That’s when I started working wholeheartedly towards Tokyo 2020.”
For the 29-year-old, all that hard work has paid off — she’s already clinched a ticket to the next Summer Games, now postponed until July 23-Aug. 8, 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lappage certainly won’t be the only comeback story at what some are calling Tokyo 2020ne.
Calgary sprinter Sam Effah hopes to be there, too.
In the lead-up to the 2012 London Olympics, he suffered a torn quadriceps muscle.
He refocused on Rio, but needed surgery to repair labral tears in both hips. Already battling to be physically prepared for qualifying, he lost his father about a month before the national championships. He didn’t even advance to the final heat.
“Each and every year, I’ve built both in the weight-room and on the track,” said the 31-year-old Effah, thankful for the unwavering support of two locals sponsors — Shaganappi GM and Calgary Harley Davidson. “I’ve done what a lot of people didn’t think I’d be able to do, so 2020 was basically the time for me to really shine. I was at the Commonwealth Games in 2018, so that was my light on to say, ‘OK, I still have it.’ This summer was going to hopefully be when all the good work and hard work has come to mean something.”
Make that, next summer.
Track cyclist Georgia Simmerling has been there/done that and is anxious to experience it once more.
Originally from West Vancouver, B.C., and now living in Calgary, Simmerling made history in Rio as the first Canadian athlete to compete in a different sport at three separate Olympics. She marked the occasion by earning bronze on the velodrome in team pursuit.
Back on snow in the build towards Pyeongchang 2018, she was considered a favourite for a ski-cross medal before a devastating crash at the final World Cup race at Nakiska.
That wipeout left the multi-sport star — she competed in alpine at her hometown Olympics in 2010 — with broken bones in both legs. She needed four surgeries.
After a long road to recovery, she set a new national record in individual pursuit at the 2019 Pan American Track Championships.
“Tokyo and I think it was more cycling, in general, was 100% the light at the end of the tunnel for me,” said Simmerling, who has been self-isolating in Calgary with her girlfriend Stephanie Labbe, the goalkeeper for Canada’s national women’s soccer team. “That was a very challenging year-and-a-half of my life, overcoming those injuries. There were many, many tough, challenging, emotional days that I went through, but I always believed I could come out of those injuries stronger and truly a more resilient human being.
“I think it would have been really daunting to think about returning to ski racing and/or nothing. I can’t imagine … I really, truly can’t imagine putting the dedication and time that I put into my recovery if I didn’t have cycling. And I really think I came out of that time and rehabbing stronger because of cycling. It was always, you know, the carrot at the end of the stick for me.”
It will soon be the end of an era for Simmerling, now 31. Her fourth Olympics will be her final Olympics.
“I was planning on retiring after Tokyo,” she revealed. “I had a lot of plans, and I really, truly was excited for the next chapter of my life and it was daunting and scary to think about, but I was very excited for the challenge to take on for the next chapter of my life. A lot of people have said, ‘Are you still going to retire now?’ And I just can’t possibly imagine. It’s one more year, so of course I’m going to continue to compete. I worked so hard to continue to rebuild my body that I have to see it through. I have to give it that chance.
“I’ve lived my life as an athlete for so many years, decades really. So one more year? I think, 30 or 40 years down the road, I would highly regret not choosing to continue to fight and to continue to train as hard as I can, versus having one extra year to move on.”
Marathon runner Trevor Hofbauer, meanwhile, will have to wait a bit longer for his Olympic debut.
Back in 2015, the fleet-of-foot Calgarian set out an ambitious five-year plan.
“I was young and naïve and I wasn’t the best of runners at the time,” Hofbauer reminisced. “I’m not one of those guys that came through high school and university as a top-prospect runner or anything like that. I was just focused on improving and being better every single day. So I was really hungry. I had a lot of motivation flowing. That’s where I was then. I saw the Olympics five years down the road and thought, ‘I’m going to get there, no matter what. I’m going to devote my life to it and see if it happens. If it does, great. If it doesn’t, at least I gave it a shot.’ ”
At the Toronto Waterfront Marathon last October, Hofbauer shaved nearly seven minutes off his career-best, finishing the 42.2-km course in 2:09:51.
That superb time secured his spot in Tokyo.
Hofbauer, now 28, was back in Toronto a couple months later for interviews that would air during the live coverage on CBC.
“That was kind of the moment that it sunk in to me — like, ‘Wow, this is real.’ ”
It’s still real — the IOC has assured that qualified athletes won’t have to worry about losing their spots — but now feels far off again.
“With how crazy the last few weeks have been in the world, I can’t even see what tomorrow is going to look like, let alone the next year-and-a-half,” Hofbauer said.
For Tokyo 2020 hopefuls, whether they’re dreaming of a dazzling debut, of capping a heart-warming comeback story or maybe a combination of both, the consensus is it will absolutely be worth the wait.
“In the hard moments, I do think of that — ‘You want one more Olympic moment,’ ” Lappage said. “So Tokyo has been, when I sit down and think about it, a motivation for me. But I do just love to wrestle. The day-to-day training, I sincerely love that. I love to compete.
“I think I would still be wrestling if I was not going to Tokyo. It just makes my story and my experience in the sport that much sweeter, for sure.”
PAYDEN’S NEW PASSION
For Payden Olsen, the journey to Tokyo 2020 started in a bed at Foothills Hospital.
Olsen’s right leg had to be amputated below the knee after a life-changing lawnmower accident in May of 2018.
Then a member of the Lethbridge College Kodiaks women’s soccer team, she immediately wondered how she could remain involved in sport. She didn’t even know this one existed.
“When the accident happened, my first thought was, ‘How am I going to be able to keep doing soccer and different sports?’ Because that had always been my passion,” said Olsen, a 21-year-old from Cardston, Alta. “After my surgery, I had two girls — Shacarra Orr and Jenn Oakes — come into the hospital, and they both played on the sitting volleyball team. They came in to support me not only as a new amputee, but also to give me insight that there are still sports that I can do and that they’re part of this amazing team and that it’s a great thing to be a part of after something so traumatic has happened. That gave me more hope.
“Sitting volleyball was nothing I had even heard of before, so hearing about this new sport was definitely intriguing to me. I became very curious about it, I started to YouTube it and eventually I started to make connections with the coach. She let me come out for a training camp and I really figured this was something I could enjoy doing and something that would challenge me. It just took off from there.”
Next summer, Olsen and her teammates will be taking off for Tokyo. The 2020 Paralympic Games have been rescheduled for Aug. 24-Sept. 5, 2021.
The national sitting volleyball squad is based in Edmonton, but they haven’t been together since winning a last-chance qualifier in Halifax in late February.
“I, myself, am super excited to be able to attend the Paralympic Games and with it being pushed back, it gives me more time to train and to improve myself,” Olsen said. “For me, I think it’s just a huge accomplishment with everything that I’ve been through. I mean, I just became a Paralympic athlete almost a year ago and my personal accident happened almost two years ago now. So it’s just kind of a reward for myself.
“I’ve been practising hard and I’ve been able to keep pushing my body to accomplish things I didn’t know I was able to. Honestly, it’s just a dream come true. Every little kid, I’m sure, has always wished to attend either the Olympics or the Paralympics, so I’m happy that I can actually make it my reality now.”
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