Olympic champ Wiebe delivers inspiration to young volunteers who watched her win Tokyo berth in Ottawa

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Erica Wiebe had expected she may have to handle crowd noise and the emotions from her hometown fans cheering her on, but in the end, the only thing she heard on the mat aside from her coach’s directions loud and clear was the click of photographers’ camera shutters. “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,” Wiebe says of the impact COVID-19 had on the Pan-American Olympic Wrestling Qualification Tournament. (Photo: Steve Kingsman)

By Dan Plouffe

It was a special moment – Ottawa’s Olympic hero claiming a return trip to the Games in her hometown – rendered all the more unique for the few who got to witness it live.

Ultimately, with COVID-19 forcing organizers to close the competition to the public, it was a small segment of the local wrestling community that was present for Erica Wiebe’s victory at the Pan-American Olympic Qualification Tournament on Mar. 14 at the Shaw Centre, but, true to form, the radiant grappler from Stittsville managed to inspire numerous young athletes just the same.

READ MORE: Not the way Wiebe pictured it, but Olympic wrestling champ qualifies for second Games in Ottawa

“For a lot of our wrestlers, she’s their favorite athlete,” underlines National Capital Wrestling Club head coach Chris Schwauren, once upon a time a teammate of Wiebe’s as a teenager. “Of course it was frustrating to have no spectators, but certainly a lot of our kids were even more keen to be on that volunteer list to get them in the doors.”

Helping out at the event was a bit of a dream opportunity for Grade 6 student Ella Cleary, whose mother Victoria has been an athletic therapist with the Canadian wrestling team since 2001.

Cleary was 3 years old when her mom first started showing her pictures, people and prizes from competitions all over the world, but this was the first time the Petawawa resident got to see it live.

Having tried wrestling this past spring with the Renfrew club that also operates in Pembroke, Cleary was tickled to get the chance to walk out beside Wiebe and carry the Rio 2016 champ’s basket of warm-up clothes.

“She always said thank you to the people who carried her stuff,” notes Cleary. “Some athletes didn’t, they just kind of ignored us.”

“She’s so nice,” echoes Miriam Visser, a Grade 9 Merivale High School wrestler and new NCWC member. “When she’s walking in, she’s all serious and like smacking her face and everything, but then when she walks out, she’ll thank you for giving her her stuff, and she’s just so kind.”

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Erica Wiebe salutes her small section of supporters after securing her Olympic berth inside a near-empty Shaw Centre (less than 200 – mostly officials – were on hand since the event was closed to fans due to the COVID-19 outbreak) at the Pan-American Olympic Wrestling Qualification Tournament on Mar. 14 in Ottawa. (Photo: Steve Kingsman)

Wiebe says it can sometimes be difficult to be viewed as a role model, but she nonetheless accepts and embraces the opportunity.

“I really just try to be myself, and think of how I can make myself and my family proud in 50 years,” explains Calgary-based Wiebe, who is Alberta’s first-ever ambassador for sport and active living, and an advocate for KidSport Canada, Fast & Female, and other organizations. “It’s a big responsibility that I take very seriously.”

‘Considerable growth as an athlete and a person’, says Wiebe’s coach

Returning to the Olympics hasn’t been a piece of cake for the 30-year-old Sacred Heart Catholic High School grad. The road included an abundance of injuries and personal challenges in 2019 in particular.

READ MORE: 2016 Olympic wrestling champ rebounds from rough 2019 to chase Tokyo Olympic berth in Ottawa

“For me, it just reinforced how resilient she is, how much of a competitor she is, but also, she’s grown a lot as a person,” signals Wiebe’s coach at the University of Calgary, Paul Ragusa, who feels grateful for the opportunity to coach her, and to be surrounded by such a standout support team in Calgary.

“She’s growing a lot as in terms of her ability to understand and see the bigger picture,” adds the coach who was famously paraded on Wiebe’s shoulders after she won Rio 2016 gold. “She’s a very smart person, she’s very in tune to what’s going on, and the way she reflects on her competitions and herself is very different now and deeper than it was years ago.

“She’s not the same athlete she was in 2016. She’s developed and grown considerably as a wrestler and an athlete and as a person.”

Hosting major tournament in town makes the dream real, says local coach

Getting to see Wiebe compete in Ottawa – for the first time since her high school days – at a major international event was a treasured opportunity to fuel the fire for young aspiring athletes, indicates Schwauren.

“Certainly it just kind of makes it real, right?” he highlights, noting they can often watch streams of matches in faraway places, but this time it was in Ottawa, with big mats, lighting, the United World Wrestling logo, “and then to see someone we know who comes back and trains with us competing against some of the best in the world – that’s pretty cool.”

“It was the neatest opportunity ever,” concurs Visser. “To see them live and to see how they prepare, it was really beautiful.”

“For her to qualify here in Ottawa, and then hopefully do well at the Olympics again, it was super exciting to be a part of,” Schwauren adds. “Hopefully we do more big events like this.”

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