Chasing Olympic dreams, Edmonton athletes power through pandemic

·9 min read

For Edmonton-area athletes with Olympic aspirations, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought anxiety and an end to at least one Olympic dream.

After years of hard work and training, and mere months from Olympic qualifiers, athletes have had to deal with the global pandemic, which forced the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 games.

But athletes have met the postponement with resiliency and a determination to turn the extra training time to their advantage.

'Quite a shock'

Hurdler Christie Moerman, 34, has never competed at an Olympics. It took her days to fully comprehend the lockdown in March and the eventual postponement of the games.

"We actually had one of my best sessions and then someone walked in and said, 'We're shut down; everything's locked down.' And so that was quite a shock to process," Moerman said.

Supplied by Christie Moerman
Supplied by Christie Moerman

The postponement has led to some of Moerman's best training with plenty of time to focus on preparing with her coach Wes Moerman, who is also her husband. But the extra year comes with mental and emotional challenges.

COVID-19 restrictions and the Edmonton winter leave her training on an exercise bike and lifting weights at home, while some of her competitors around the world have access to indoor facilities and warm weather to train outdoors.

"I was feeling, frustration, sadness, and fear for sure," Moerman said. "I think fear is a big one that comes and goes for me ... fear of, 'Will I be able to train properly?'

"Will someone else who I'm competing against be able to train better than I can, which gives them a better opportunity to potentially pass me in the world rankings?"

The possibility of making her first Olympics a year after international travel and competitions were shut down would make for a storybook ending to Moerman's career.

After looking through old pictures of her competing as a kid she's been reflecting on her dream. That's keeping her focused on the Olympic hurdle qualifiers that will be held in the spring or summer.

"I don't think there's many people that have decided in Grade 6 what we want to do with the rest of their life, but I did. The Olympics, for sure. I'd be lying if I said that wasn't a big goal of mine and that was part, if not a large part, of why I wanted to do it this year," Moerman said.

"But for me, I really do feel like I have more to give. I don't think I've reached my potential yet. And for me, that's enough for me to want to keep going."

Working toward her 4th games

Meanwhile another hurdler who calls Edmonton home is training in Toronto, with the goal of giving the Olympics one last shot.

Angela Whyte, 40, has already been to three Olympic Games, and wants to add another to her career. There's a bit of redemption driving her after she finished 30th in the 100-metre hurdles at Rio 2016.

During the most restricted days of the pandemic, when tracks and training facilities were closed, Whyte used weights in a backyard storage area, and set up hurdles in the streets or nearby parks. She's hoping to get into an indoor track for exempted Canadian athletes over the winter.

Martin Meissner/The Associated Press
Martin Meissner/The Associated Press

Whyte has put a lot on the line over the past four years, and is hoping to use her experience as an advantage.

"If they weren't to happen, I could walk away from my career and say I've accomplished quite a bit. But at the same time, I made the decision to go four years, quit my job in the States, came back home to finish out four years and see if I could make this team to try to do things that no other athlete has done.

"So if I were to make this team [Canada], I would be the oldest female athlete to compete in either the hurdles or the heptathlon," Whyte said.

"Sport generally is thought of as a young person's arena, but I think we're starting to see more and more athletes prove that if there's a passion, if it's what you want to do, it's possible." To qualify for Tokyo 2021, she'll have to compete in track meets for hurdles, along with heptathlon, and achieve standard race times.

Whyte looks at the challenges of training in a pandemic, the one-year postponement of the Summer Games and the uncertainty of competitions of the upcoming year as yet another chapter of her life.

"A lot has been up in the air. Training has been extremely difficult, but when you look back on the pages of your book, you know what I mean? You take a look and go, it was worth it. Regardless of whatever the outcome is, you went for it. You gave it a shot," she said.

Chasing qualification in new Olympic sport

FIBA Basketball
FIBA Basketball

The Tokyo Olympics offered a unique opportunity to an Edmonton athlete when the 3x3 basketball event was added for the first time. Steve Sir, a former NCAA Division I player and three-point specialist, has spent the last couple of years playing with teams of 3x3 basketball players from Western Canada and representing Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Canada while entering FIBA tournaments around the world. Last year, the team played close to 17 tournaments in a dozen countries.

The Olympic qualifying tournament in India was postponed over concerns related to COVID-19 just weeks before it was to start in March.

The Edmonton team of Sir, Jordan Baker, Kyle Landry and Jordan Jensen-Whyte was preparing to represent Canada at the tournament.

"What we did try to do was focus on what I think a lot of people felt and what we felt was important in the moment: making sure that we were safe, making sure that our families were safe," Sir said.

At the same time, the players had to be resourceful in finding ways to train such as jumping rope and doing ball-handling drills in the basement.

Sir, 38, is fond of aphorisms, and refers to two sayings passed on from his grandparents that have resonated over the past year. "Plan your work, work your plan" from his grandfather and "One foot forward," which he attributes to his grandmother.

"We haven't been able to have the time together that we would obviously like in a year that you're preparing for the Olympics, but we've talked a lot about making sure that we can control what we can, which is our preparation under the circumstances, our attitudes about it," he said.

"It's not ideal, but it's not going to get anything done by complaining and feeling sorry for yourself."

The Olympic qualifying 3x3 tournament is expected to be held in Austria on May 26-30 with six tickets to Tokyo on the line.

Sir is grateful for his health during the pandemic and for the offers to help including space to train and practise, even as roadblocks continue to pop up with restrictions and the challenges of training in an Edmonton winter.

"It's going to be, I think, a contributor to the urgency and to the motivation to put our best foot forward, because of just how tough this road has been and how lucky we're going to be to have a chance to put a Canadian jersey on and still be able to play to go to the Olympics," he said.

A newcomer awaits

Sherwood Park's Kelsey Mitchell is relatively new to Olympic competition, but the cyclist is already qualified to compete in Tokyo next summer.

Three years ago, the 27-year-old started training full time for cycle track after playing university soccer for the University of Alberta.

File/Getty Images
File/Getty Images

Within that time, she became a world record holder in the flying 200-metre sprint. In March she finished her last race to qualify for Tokyo 2020 and ended up with enough points before the pandemic hit Canada. She cherished that moment then, but even more so as she trains through the pandemic knowing that her spot is secure at the Olympics.

"We are very lucky to finish those races because I know there's a lot of sports, even within cycling, that still have to chase qualifying points and don't know if they have a spot at the Olympics, which is an additional stress on top of everything else," Mitchell said. She views the postponement of the games as an opportunity to improve.

"I just gained another year to get better at the sport and so [I'm] just taking it day by day. And luckily, we were only out of the velodrome for two months and then we got back in there and we've been training hard ever since."

Supplied By Kelsey Mitchell
Supplied By Kelsey Mitchell

Currently Mitchell is living with six other sprinters who are within their own bubble as they train together in Milton, Ont. The days are similar with strict diet and a steady training regime. "Lots more training ahead. I personally love training, I love pushing myself every day, but I do miss racing," Mitchell said. "There is talk of a World Cup in April in the U.K. so hopefully that goes through and then there's potential for another one in Columbia and then hopefully the Olympics.

"So training and just trying to get better every day is kind of the plan."

Life after the Olympics

Gymnast Jackson Payne was an alternate for Canada at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. He didn't get to compete and had his sights set on Tokyo 2020.

Payne was training in Calgary when the postponement was announced.

"I was very motivated for about a month-and-a-half. And then as time went on, as the Olympics were talked about more and I wasn't able to train, and I started to really put my business before training," Payne said.

Matthias Schrader/The Associated Press
Matthias Schrader/The Associated Press

After nearly a decade-and-a-half of competing in gymnastics, Payne retired in September.

"The sense of uncertainty, the sense of not having a real end date or goal, although they say the Olympics is going to go on and maybe it will and it probably will, it won't be the same as any other Olympics," Payne said.

He moved back to his hometown of Edmonton, to focus on his role as founder and CEO of Deeleeo. The company provides low-cost delivery services for businesses in Calgary and Edmonton.

He's found that lessons and skills learned in his career as an athlete have prepared him to pivot into entrepreneurship.

"To be resilient, determined and being organized, goal-driven and also being able to take a shutdown here and there. It is taking your losses, learning from them and progressing from there."