Brittany Crew still grappling with weight of expectations after injury-marred Olympics

·5 min read
Canada's Brittany Crew admits now that her Tokyo Olympics, in which she failed to register a successful throw, were the 'hardest experience' of her athletic career. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images - image credit)
Canada's Brittany Crew admits now that her Tokyo Olympics, in which she failed to register a successful throw, were the 'hardest experience' of her athletic career. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images - image credit)

For athletes, expectations can be a funny thing. For some, they can motivate and push them to succeed, to fill out the glorious details in a script that has already been written.

For others, the lofty predictions of others can be crushing, especially when things don't go as planned. They can derail even the most promising of careers.

That's what happened to Canadian shot putter Brittany Crew.

When CBC Sports caught up with Crew recently on a sunny afternoon on the campus of York University, the pain of what transpired more than a year ago at the Tokyo Olympics was still very raw.

"This was the hardest experience I've ever had to go through in my entire athletic career," Crew said, tears streaming down her face.

"I felt embarrassed. I felt like a failure. I felt like I let everyone down."

From the outside, Crew's medal prospects were promising heading into Tokyo. At the 2016 Rio Games, she finished 18th and things had trended upwards since then. By the summer of 2021, she had a top-10 world ranking, had enjoyed consistent success internationally and held both the Canadian indoor and outdoor records.

And that's why many Olympic pundits, predictive algorithms and Canadian sports officials were confident that Tokyo would be a chance for Crew to reach the podium — or at worst finish in the top 10.

Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Injuries strike at worst moment

But as had happened so many times in her career, Crew could never get healthy for the competitions that mattered most.

Tokyo was no different.

First it was a strained abductor muscle that was never properly diagnosed and then only months before the Olympics, a torn ankle, which left her training in a walking boot.

Outwardly she was devastated, but privately the injuries calmed an anxiety that wouldn't go away.

"I don't know why, but I felt a sense of relief because I didn't know if I was going to perform well or not."

She contemplated pulling out of the Olympics but her coach encouraged her to go, and Crew acknowledges that she would have regretted skipping an event she had trained her entire life for.

At the same time, despite lofty expectations, the 28 year-old knew that many of her competitors were better prepared as injuries had greatly reduced her ability to compete before the Games.

"There was a lot against me, but I had everyone still think — or still have that expectation — that I should medal. Even Athletics Canada, right? I didn't even need to hear everyone say it. I felt it."

WATCH | Pre-Olympic feature on Crew:

Battling the nerves

It was never meant to be. Crew knew long before the women's shot put event even began that reaching the podium was improbable.

"I was just nervous the entire time. I went over to my coach at one point and I was like, 'I cannot calm down, like I don't know what to do. I can't do this,'" Crew recalls.

Crew says that from the moment she stepped into the humid air of Tokyo's Olympic Stadium, she knew it wasn't going to happen.

"We did a lot of mental preparation going into this. I was working with a mental performance coach for like the entire year and it still didn't help. I was shaking. I wanted to literally pick up my shoes after the warm-up and just hide in a shell."

Things unravelled quickly. None of Crew's three qualifying throws counted and within a matter of minutes, her Olympic journey was over. More than a year later, she concedes that she basically gave up after realizing she couldn't win.

"I had three fouls, yes, but I did not foul any of those throws. I [purposely] stepped out on them, because I was just very angry and embarrassed, which I regret now. I shouldn't have done it but what was a 20-something place going to do for me?"

Changing life in pursuit of competition

In the 13 months since Tokyo, Crew has struggled to define who she is and what she wants to do with her life.

One thing she knows is that despite all that has happened, she still wants to compete. But she acknowledges that to be successful, she needs to change.

She has returned to school to add needed structure to her life and to pick up some needed credits for when she steps away from competing.

It hasn't been easy.

"I felt like a total loser after Tokyo and I felt like I wasn't progressing my life at all and there was no sense of accomplishment happening for me," Crew says. "So I've decided to take some classes this semester and work towards getting into physio school."

She has also started looking inwards, committed to better health and nutrition, hoping she can guard against the injuries that have come to define her career.

"I think people maybe just got sick of being there for me because I wasn't changed, I wasn't fixing the problem or I wasn't there, wasn't providing action."

Aim to go out on top

That doesn't mean it's worked. Crew recently suffered another injury, a torn calf at this summer's Commonwealth Games.

At this point, nobody would question if Crew called it a career. Nobody would question her desire to leave the disappointment and anxiety aside and move on with her life.

But for some athletes, it's about chasing their own expectations and their own goals.

For Crew, that means competing at the Olympics in Paris in two years.

"I want my last memory of track to be a good one and I don't want to go out like this," Crew says. "I want to remember myself being happy in the sport and go out on top."