By Dan Plouffe
3 MRIs. 7 x-rays. 6 stitches. And 5 defeats in 2019 (more in 1 season than the previous 4 years combined).
Erica Wiebe’s road to the 2020 Pan-American Olympic Wrestling Qualification Tournament featured some big bumps along the way, but the defending Olympic champion now says the tough trek to get to Tokyo 2020 has only made her stronger.
The Stittsville native has the once-in-a-lifetime chance to clinch an Olympic berth in her hometown as she prepares to star at the Mar. 13-15 event at the Shaw Centre.
Despite the special opportunity, it wasn’t Wiebe’s Plan A to be here. She came up just short in her first shot at Olympic qualification at last September’s 2019 World Championships with a last-second defeat.
The loss punctuated a difficult 2019 overall. Within 2 weeks of the worlds, Wiebe got her forehead stitched up, separated her shoulder, and was in a walking cast until the day before she left for Kazakhstan.
“I had a lot of challenges,” recounts the University of Calgary-based athlete. “I was trying to get my body ready to go, and you know what, on the day I competed, I felt really ready and good, surprisingly.”
Wiebe won her first 2 contests and was leading 3-1 in the match that would have sent her to the Olympics until her Estonian opponent produced a miracle score with 1 second left in the final period.
“It still haunts me to this day actually,” says the National Capital Wrestling Club product. “But, it really made me reflect on what I wanted from this sport and why I’m doing it, and it made me really hungry for more.”
On top of the pile of injuries and the missed Olympic berth, Wiebe wasn’t long removed from a breakup just before she turned 30 in June.
“2019 was a tough year, but when I look back, there’s always been these big challenges that I’ve had to overcome, and that’s what allowed me to be a champion and win when it matters most,” reflects the Sacred Heart Catholic High School grad. “So I know when I look back, 2019 was probably one of the best years of my career because I learned so much about myself, and I grew as an athlete.
“I’m really proud of who I am today because of it.”
Wiebe says that when things in personal life are weighing her down, “I always look forward to training, and in some ways, it becomes an escape.”
To rise up from the downs, Wiebe employs journal writing, meditation, reads inspiring quotes, and often receives a lift from her mental performance coach, wrestling coach or teammates.
“There are so many different tools I can use to get me through the tough times, and I use them all,” highlights the graduate of kinesiology and sociology programs at U of C.
Ticket to Tokyo passes through Ottawa
The bright side to the worlds loss was of course the prospect of competing in Ottawa for the first time since high school.
But first, Wiebe needed to win December’s Canadian team trials in Niagara. The women’s 76 kg wrestler won her first two bouts 10-0 and then took down 2018 72 kg world champion Justina Di Stasio 5-2 and 2-1 in the best-of-3 final.
Her post-event message on Instagram (where Wiebe frequently provides insightful and inspiring commentary) articulately captured the pressure associated with the title of “defending Olympic champion”.
“It’s a challenge. An expectation. A powerful reminder of what I am capable of,” she wrote. “But, ultimately, it’s irrelevant to who I am and the destiny I’m pursuing. I never joined this sport to win a gold medal and it certainly doesn’t motivate me today.
“I’m one of the crazy ones that truly loves each heartbreaking, body-crushing, soul-filling moment of this sport and I’m in the pursuit of crossing the chasm between who I am and who I can be. I’m in pursuit of the furthest boundaries of what I am capable of.”
Olympic champ in the spotlight
Wiebe often pushes her limits outside of wrestling too, keeping up a hectic schedule. In her free time since the trials, Wiebe became Alberta’s first-ever ambassador for sport and active living, coached a regional team to an Alberta Winter Games title, and started a Harvard University “Crossover Into Business” course for professional athletes. Wiebe does work for Deloitte, and is an advocate for KidSport Canada and Fast & Female, amongst others. She says it can indeed be difficult to manage the requests for her time.
“I’m always a yes person,” smiles Wiebe, who spoke to the Ottawa Sportspage by phone despite battling a cold that kept her away from practice that evening. “I’m always trying to give back as much as I’ve gotten through sport, but I also only say yes to things that I truly enjoy doing and get energy from.”
Wiebe expects to draw plenty of fire from her Ottawa supporters come the Olympic qualifier.
“I’m excited to compete in front of a hometown crowd. It’ll be crazy,” signals Wiebe, who’s heard many Sacred Heart Huskies and National Capital Wrestling Club athletes will come to watch. “It’ll definitely be a unique opportunity to compete in the city where I grew up in front of all my friends and family. And it’s cool to inspire the next generation.”
When asked if she expects the road to defending an Olympic title will be more difficult than winning her first, Wiebe instead frames the whole concept differently.
“In early 2016, we never said the goal was to win an Olympic gold medal. The goal was to have a peak performance on the day,” reflects the back-to-back Commonwealth Games champion. “When I sat down with my coach in early 2020, it was the same conversation. What can we do to evolve and be better and to have a peak performance when it matters most?
“If I can do that, step out on the mat, put it all on the line, and have no regrets in the process, then I will be so happy with my journey, and that’s what it’s all about.”
The top-2 finishers in each weight class at the Pan-Am qualifier will secure a spot for their country at the July 24-Aug. 9 Tokyo Olympics. (There remains a later last-chance global qualifier for those who don’t make the grade).
World #1 Adeline Gray of USA won’t be entered in the qualifier, having already earned her Olympic ticket by winning the World Championships.
Wiebe has shown good form recently, having won her last international competition in Rome in January to move back up to #6 in the world rankings.
Wiebe’s focus remains on taking “one step at a time and one takedown at a time” to execute her game plan at the qualifier. But she draws confidence knowing the tough moments she’s made it through will serve her well come the big show.
“I’m such a different athlete today,” notes the former Ottawa Fury soccer player. “I’m stronger and fitter than I’ve ever been. Technically and tactically, I can see and feel so much on the mat. It’s really cool to reflect on how far I’ve come.
“There are still so many areas I need to work on and improve on, but I’m so much more mature and disciplined and focused on my pursuit. I feel like I’ve never been wrestling better, and I’m really excited to showcase that.”
2 local greco-roman wrestlers
Ottawa is also hosting the Pan-Am Championships (which features the full spectrum of international weight categories, on top of the six Olympic classes) the weekend before the Tokyo qualifier.
A pair of local wrestlers will be in action there (as well as at the Olympic qualifier) in an effort to gain international ranking points. University of Western Ontario-based Ottawa native Adam Macfayden will compete in the men’s 60 kg greco-roman event, while Ioannis Narlidis of the new Carleton (University) wrestling club will enter the men’s 87 kg greco-roman class.
Wiebe plans to arrive in Ottawa from Calgary on Mar. 11.
Provincial prizes for Ottawa grapplers
A men’s 86 kg freestyle quarter-finalist at the Olympic trials, Ismail Ayyoub of the National Capital Wrestling Club defended his Ontario junior title at the Jan. 25 provincials in London
At the Feb. 1-2 cadet/juvenile provincials in Toronto, Pathway’s Sam Griffin (juvenile male 75 kg) and National Capital’s Gabrielle Chartrand (cadet female 80 kg) and Laila Seed-Desai (juvenile female 43 kg) also captured championship crowns, while Tsunami Wrestling Academy’s Gabrielle Gauvin (cadet female 57 kg), National Capital’s Kai Harada (cadet male 60 kg), Ziad Saif El Nasr (juvenile male 55 kg) and Kathryn Robinson (cadet female 43 kg) were all silver medallists, and National Capital’s Samey Al Beajan (juvenile male 75 kg) and Pathway’s Max Roxburgh (juvenile male 71 kg) and Anthony Le Count (juvenile male 125 kg) took bronze.
USE #OTTAWABEWIEBES TO WIN FREE OLYMPIC QUALIFICATION TOURNAMENT EVENT PASSES!
The Ottawa Sportspage is giving away a pair of free event passes to the Mar. 13-15 Pan-American Olympic Wrestling Qualification Tournament. Show your support on social media with #OttawaBewiebes to enter our draw!