A junior field hockey team from Canada stranded in South Africa is hoping to come back home by the end of the week after the newly discovered coronavirus variant named omicron spurred global travel restrictions and cancelled flights to the region.
The new potentially more transmissible virus was first identified in South Africa. On Friday, the Canadian government announced all foreign nationals who have travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini or Mozambique in the last 14 days will be barred from entering Canada.
Canadian nationals and citizens are still allowed to return home under the new rules, but travel has become much more onerous with many commercial carriers cutting flights and putting new testing and quarantine measures in place.
The team, which includes 14 women from B.C., had flown to South Africa to train and compete at the International Hockey Federation (FIH) Women's Junior World Cup taking place in Potchefstroom from Dec. 5 to 16.
On Friday, the tournament was postponed because of the omicron variant. Teams from the U.K. and Europe would have been unable to participate because of the travel restrictions.
Sue Goddard's two daughters, Nora, 20, and Arden, 18, of Metro Vancouver are part of the team stranded in South Africa. All of the team's players are under 21.
"At that time, the borders and flights down to South Africa started to shut down and they found out pretty quickly that they had no way of getting home," Goddard said Monday.
Nancy Mollenhauer, the team's manager, said it was incredibly disappointing for the team, particularly after winning the gold medal at the Junior Pan American Games in Chile earlier this year, that they would not get to play.
"It's a huge deal. For a junior athlete, at this point, it's the pinnacle of their career," Mollenhauer said.
Goddard said the team's focus soon switched to how they were getting home.
"Initially all the girls were devastated and they were just focused on the fact that they had all literally trained and worked for this for years and it wasn't happening," she said. "Then there was quite a bit of anxiety from everyone about how they were going to get home."
Goddard said South African and Canadian officials have been supporting the team and working hard to get them home.
"The university that they're staying at has taken extraordinarily wonderful care of them," she said. "We were never worried about their physical safety, just anxious to get them back on planes and back to Canada."
Field Hockey Canada CEO Susan Ahrens says that could soon be a possibility. She says the team has secured a route back on Dec. 8, but is looking at coming back even earlier on Dec. 3.
For now, Mollenhauer says the team is taking things day-by-day.
"We're here. We're safe. We're being well looked after and we know that we're in good hands here in South Africa and also at home," she said.