By Dan Plouffe
Rio 2016 Olympic wrestling champion Erica Wiebe booked her return trip to the Olympic Games with her fourth victory of the day at the Pan-American Olympic Qualification Tournament on Mar. 14 inside an almost eerily quiet Shaw Centre, closed to spectators due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“It’s the first step,” Wiebe said after surviving her women’s 76 kg semi-final contest with Ecuador’s Genesis Reasco Valdez to win an Olympic berth for Canada. “I am a competitor and I’m not happy with the way I wrestled. I have so much more to give.
“But I’m really excited to put the training in over the next couple months and be ready to go for whatever happens in Tokyo.”
When the final buzzer went, it was far from the storybook moment where the hometown hero raised her arms in victory in front of throngs of cheering fans. Instead, there were a couple quick claps and a smile from the 30-year-old to family members among the assembly of not even 200 people (mostly officials) who witnessed the major moment.
“I don’t think anything in life really turns out exactly the way you picture it,” reflected Wiebe with a smile. “I guess when I wrestle, I’m not super emotional. It’s a tough sport out there and you know, you can’t let your emotions interfere with what you’re trying to accomplish, and I guess I wasn’t really thinking about it being my ticket to Tokyo, I was just trying to think about my wrestling match, and so, yeah, I was just kind of a little bit indifferent.
“I mean, I think every day is such an amazing opportunity. I get to train with the best, I have amazing team, and so competing is just like an awesome opportunity to showcase all the work we do, but I really enjoy the process, and I enjoy the process of mastery rather than the process of competition.
“So I didn’t really feel like I was mastering my technique there. It’s things to work on.”
Wiebe’s opening match with Brazil’s Aline Da Silva Ferreira was a cautious affair, with both wrestlers claiming their first points on inactivity penalties. Wiebe scored the decisive points with a rueful push-out just after her opponent’s 30 seconds on the clock expired and held on for a 2-1 win.
The National Capital Wrestling Club product’s second pool contest against feisty Cuban competitor Milaimys Marin Potrille was high-tempo from the start. Wiebe narrowly manoeuvred out of an attack to score 2 points early and managed to maintain control through 6 minutes of hard work for a 4-0 win. That guaranteed her place in the semi-finals, which would determine who gets one of the two Olympic tickets available. She made quick work of her final pool opponent, pinning Venezuela’s Andrimar Lazaro Diaz.
Wiebe, ranked 6th in the world heading into the tournament, knew it wouldn’t be a cakewalk to get back to the Games, particularly against a world #10 Brazilian and the reigning World Junior and Under-23 champion Cuban.
“I looked at the draw and (they were) first and second match, and I was like, ‘Awesome. I’m here to compete, and it’s exciting to have the opportunity to wrestle against the best people,” said the back-to-back Commonwealth Games champion.
The semi-final match represented Wiebe’s second opportunity to book her place at the 2020 Olympics. In the 2019 World Championships quarter-final, she’d been leading her match until her Estonian opponent earned a miraculous 2-point last-second score.
Locked in a close 2-0 match with a minute left against Reasco Valdez, Wiebe displayed patience in the key moments to sneak on top for 2 points, find a leg-lock to roll her Ecuadorian opponent for 2 more, and take care of business with a 6-0 victory.
The University of Calgary-based athlete said she didn’t get lost in the importance of the moment.
“It’s just, take it one take-down at a time,” Wiebe explained of her thought process in the close tilt. “It’s just be strategic. I was being a little bit too cautious, but you know what, it’s just a minute to continue the legacy, so now I get to more chances to compete this summer, it looks like.”
Exactly what form Wiebe’s future competition takes is of course unknown at the moment. The last-chance Olympic qualifier (which would have offered an another avenue to the Games had Wiebe not made it through in Ottawa) has been postponed. With cancellations of most sport events near and far, there were questions about whether the Pan Am tournament would move forward. Eventually organizers determined the show would go on without spectators.
“I like to think that I’ve been through it all, so it was actually really fun to have a new challenge to work with and to manage,” indicated Wiebe, whose post-match interview took place in front of just two media representatives. “We are so thankful given the circumstances that we were able to continue with the tournament. It was such a great opportunity to get that Olympic ticket.”
Wiebe was set to face Da Silva Ferreira in a rematch for the tournament final, but her Olympic-qualified counterpart defaulted to hand Wiebe the gold medal and the chance to sing O Canada. Though she would have enjoyed a full army of “BeWiebers” cheering her on in the stands, Wiebe said she still felt their presence.
“On Twitter and on Instagram and on my Facebook page, I really appreciate all the support,” underlined the Sacred Heart Catholic High School grad. “I know that Ottawa’s been behind me since day one, and so it’s still an honour to do it here.
“Looking out here at Parliament Hill and seeing all the Canadian flags that are flying downtown, it’s like surreal. You don’t see that internationally, so to qualify for my second Olympics, in the nation’s capital, in my hometown, I start to get a little bit emotional about that when I start thinking about it.”
Look for more coverage on SportsOttawa.com and the next Ottawa Sportspage newspaper.