Canadian athletes' bodies could benefit from unexpected year off

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When Damian Warner coiled himself into the 100-metre starting blocks for his first decathlon in more than a year, there was no pain in his feet.

The 31-year-old from London, Ont., won bronze in the 2019 world championships on two bad ankles. And had COVID-19 not shut down global sports for much of 2020, would he have fully healed in time for the Tokyo Olympics last summer?

Instead, Tokyo was pushed back a year. Warner suddenly had plenty of time to heal and train.

If there were any questions about his 20-month gap between decathlons, he answered them in May at the Hypo-Meeting in Gotzis, Austria, by obliterating his Canadian record with the fourth-highest score in history.

While the pandemic has thrown up massive roadblocks for Canadian athletes, it's also raised questions. What lessons have we learned from being forced to slow down and stay home?

A year ago, three-time Olympic rowing gold medallist Marnie McBean, who's Canada's chef de mission for the Games, joked that athletes often arrive at Games "all duct-taped together," their bodies battered from a tough competitive schedule.

"I don't think that's going to be as prevalent when we get to Tokyo 2020/21," McBean said last summer.

She may have been right.

"Canadian athletes are faster and stronger than they've ever been," McBean said a few days before hopping on her flight to Tokyo.

Mathieu Gentes, the chief operating officer of Athletics Canada, believes there will be case studies done on training, competing and travel loads during the pandemic.

"I'm sure sports scientists (are interested), and not just from our sport," Gentes said. "It's a really easy habit to get into overtraining. I think track and field athletes are notorious for that, right? Like, you see it on Twitter, an athlete gets a cold or something and they miss a couple of runs, and it's like the end of the world. Rest is pretty important too. And they haven't been jetting off to meets all around the world.

"There's limited travel, you're in one environment. It's not ideal, but there's probably a happy middle between all that traveling and competing and all the training. We've never had a healthier team, limited to no injuries, everyone's running, jumping and throwing well. It's weird to think that forced rest has probably had a hand in that."

Penny Oleksiak, who became a household name at age 16 with her four-medal performance at the Rio Olympics, recently beat a stacked field to win the 100-metre freestyle at the Olympic trials, looking better than she has in years. Oleksiak said the pandemic break was a chance to reset, refocus and rediscover her love of training.

Warner, meanwhile, trained in an empty hockey arena in London, Ont., after the pandemic shut down the University of Western Ontario facilities. His trip to Austria in May was his first time leaving the country since pandemic began.

Warner has long held the opinion that athletes are overtrained, an interesting perspective from an athlete who must train for 10 different events. This past year perhaps proved his point.

"In 2019, I was dealing with two ankle sprains, and I was having issues all over the place, and I think training in the arena and not having to compete or having the pressure of a deadline allowed us to take our time, go back to the basics, get healthy," Warner said.

"That time off really, really helped. And I think it'll be important moving forward, especially as I get older, to take lessons from this past year."

Melissa Bishop-Nriagu, a world silver medallist in the 800 metres, is running the fastest times she's seen since the birth of her daughter in 2018.

"I can't speak for the whole team, but I think if I've learned anything, it's that we've had to learn to be fairly flexible, and almost to slow down," she said. "Like the training was still what it was, but we had more time to recover. We couldn't go anywhere. We couldn't do anything. So, maybe that's why, we just had the time to recover, we had the time to just rest between hard workouts."

Olympic paddling bronze medallist Mark de Jonge said he's feeling better than he has in a long time and credits a reduced travel and competition schedule.

"Competitions have a way of breaking up the season, in good ways and bad. Good in that you get experience racing other athletes. You get a gauge of where you stand in terms of world ranking and knowing what improvements you need to make," said the 37-year-old from Halifax.

"But it's been nice over the past year to just put your head down and train really well every day. I feel like I'm in really good shape now as a result of it."

Alex Hutchinson, a former national team distance runner who writes about the science of fitness, exercise and health, pointed out that the Olympics usually come at the end of a busy year of competition. Just the travel alone takes a toll.

"I haven't flown across an ocean in a couple of years, but I look back, and think 'Wow, these were some of the most painful days,'" said Hutchinson, who wrote the 2018 book "Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance." "Imagine what doing that six times in the course of a couple months does to someone's training?"

He believes the pure joy in just being able to compete at all is a big reason for great performances like Warner's.

"I've heard athletes talk about how excited they were . . . a lot of gratitude, and just appreciating the opportunity, and they're so happy to be back in a competitive situation," he said. "That's a better frame of mind than -- I know from my own experience -- going into a big competition with abject fear and anxiety and thinking 'Don't screw it up.' To change that to 'I'm glad to have a chance. Whatever happens, I'm glad I have this opportunity,' I think is a benefit."

No matter the results of any post-pandemic case studies, McBean said athletes need competitions. It's how they get paid.

"For a lot of athletes, not everyone, but for some, they go into these competitions, there's appearance money, there's prize money, it's an income," she said.

And athletes need the experience of competing. McBean and longtime rowing partner Kathleen Heddle kept up a hectic race pace, and that wealth of experience helped them climb the Olympic podium.

"No matter what you threw at us in a race, fatigue, conditions, injuries, disruptions, we're like, 'Oh, yeah, we raced a race like that,'" she said.

Canada won just one rowing medal -- a silver -- at the 2016 Olympics. McBean said because of finances it was tough for Canada to get enough big pre-Rio races, "and I think it affected how Canada progressed through the Olympic rowing regatta.

"There were races where I really felt that more experience would have helped our crews, who I thought were physically capable of great results, but just were still a little green when it comes to big time race maturity.

"So there's some hiccups (to the forced grounding of the pandemic). And so it becomes the unknown ingredient in the special sauce of what will be these Olympics be like?"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 17, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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