Every Canadian Olympian has a story to tell about their road to Tokyo. Few are like those of the Canadian women's rugby sevens team.
Bronze medallists in Rio under John Tait, the Canadian women essentially earned a divorce earlier this year with their longtime coach after filing a formal complaint under Rugby Canada's harassment and bullying policy. While Tait was not found guilty of any breaches of that policy, he stepped down believing his job was untenable.
Rugby Canada has since approved an updated safe sport policy manual.
The true story may never be told, given mechanisms in place to protect complainants and whatever paperwork was signed as part of Tait's departure.
Adding to the upheaval, the sevens squad had to deal with an outbreak of COVID after returning from an April event in Dubai.
"I'm not going to lie. It's been a really tough time for the group off the field and on the field," said captain Ghislaine Landry. "You can't just turn that off when you show up. But credit to how tight this group is right now. We went through it together. We did get closer. A lot of honest, vulnerable conversations were had within our group to help each other out and to speak our truths.
"I don't think any of us would have planned or wanted to do this at the timing that it happened. But I'm so proud of the way we've come through it. And I think it's something we're proud to stand for. It's not water under the bridge but we're focused on moving forward and the positive aspects of our environment that we do have right now."
Rugby Canada plans, post Olympics, an independent assessment of the women's sevens and other programs "to help us understand the journey and experiences of our athletes and staff involved with our national teams.''
Landry says the players will "stay close to the process."
"Everyone that is involved in that review, I think will have important things to say — good and what needs improvement," she said. "I think ultimately it's something that should be happening in every program across the country, whether it's going well or not. There's always space to improve."
Australian Mick Byrne is now leading the Canadian women. At 62, with extensive coaching and life experience, he is taken by the women's fortitude.
"I'm not into the right or wrongs, I'm just into the experience," he said. "I think the issue here is … resilience. You can go and read books on resilience. And you can go and do courses on resilience. But you don't actually become really resilient until you have to live stuff.
"This team has lived some moments which have been good and some moments which have been bad. Some players have lived some personal stuff. The team's lived stuff. What it's done is it has created a real resilience in the group because they have had to deal with stuff that's been uncomfortable for them. Some players have had to deal with stuff that they've been targeted on. They've come out of it the other end."
The team features six players who were in Rio: Landry, Britt Benn, Bianca Farella, Kayla Moleschi, Karen Paquin and Charity Williams. And Kaili Lukan, who is also going to Tokyo, is the younger sister of Megan Lukan, who was part of the Rio squad.
Landry says that experience is a "massive benefit."
"And these other athletes have had five years to build and get ready and play on the World Series," she said.
The 33-year-old Landry, the all-time leading scorer on the World Series with 1,356 career points, is key to the group
"Ghislaine, her leadership is twofold," said Byrne. "She's a quiet, subtle leader and she leads on the field. What I found from Ghis, her leadership is 'I'll show you how it's done. And I'll help you get there as well.' It's a perfect combo."
While Byrne says the depth of the women's game has increased, he believes the Canadian women have kept pace and has high hopes for Tokyo.
"I think they're capable of doing a lot of damage," he said.
Landry says the goal is gold.
"We've been working so hard for this. We believe that we can do it. When I watch training right now, I'm constantly impressed with how our group is going considering everything that happened. I think we'll make a lot of people proud."
The Canadian women are in Group B along with Brazil, France and Fiji.
Canada was third in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series standings when the season shut down after five events due to the pandemic. France was fourth, Fiji seventh and Brazil 12th.
The Canadians open play at 9:30 a.m. Thursday (8: 30 p.m. ET Wednesday in Canada), facing first Brazil and then Fiji. Day 2 starts with a showdown against France before the quarterfinals.
The top two teams in each of the three groups and the two best third-place finishers advance to the quarterfinals.
The Canadian women can strike quickly with the likes of Farella, Landry and Williams able to leave would-be tacklers in their tracks.
Their lone tournament action prior to the Olympics was April's Emirates Invitational Sevens. Using everyone on the roster to give them playing time, they won the tournament in the first weekend and were runners-up in the second edition a week later.
They were planning to compete in a subsequent event in Los Angeles, but their COVID issues prevented that from happening.
Byrne said the COVID scare is "well well behind us," and that the Canadian players escaped major symptoms.
"Our players reported it was like a bad cold. So we understand how fortunate we were there."
In recent weeks, they have spent day after day going after each other in training. Landry, for one, says she is looking forward to tackling someone she doesn't know.
Canada, New Zealand, the U.S., and Australia qualified for the Tokyo women's field via their World Series performance. Britain, China, Fiji, Kenya and Brazil joined host Japan through regional qualification, while France and Russia advanced via a repechage tournament.
Australia won Rio gold, defeating New Zealand 24-17. Canada won bronze, downing Britain 33-10.
The formal complaint by the women's team started with a "letter of concern," sent to Rugby Canada at the end of November. Tait, arguably Rugby Canada's most successful coach, was essentially put on administrative leave at that point.
Under Rugby Canada's guidelines, there is an opportunity for mediation. That failed to produce a solution, so the players' complaint became formal on Jan 31, prompting an independent review.
Almost all of Tait's staff have since left. Many of them believe justice wasn't done.
"We knew it would be a big situation. It turned out to be bigger than we anticipated," said Landry. "A lot was happening all at once and I think we were just trying to kind of keep our head above water at that point."
"The upside of this is we've been able to speak our truths and take control of our culture," she added. "That's been a really important thing. Obviously, there's bigger systemic issues that need to be addressed but for us, for our program and our team, we've been able to make some changes in our day-to-day (life) that have had a lot of positive impact. And ultimately that's what we wanted.
"We're rugby players but we're people first. And we've been able to address those things and keep the environment open for people to show us as people (first) and as athletes second."
Landry declined into go into specific details, but says the team is in a better place.
"High-performance sport is a high-pressure, very intense environment. I've lived it for over 10 years now and I can honestly say I've never seen our group happier. And I think when you have happy people coming to training and happy people showing up, you're going to get a quality of work that's just so much better."
Landry has plenty to look forward to off the pitch. Her wife, Toronto-area firefighter Michaela Hoskins, is expecting.
Asked about her playing future after Tokyo, Landry chuckled before answering: "Nothing is concrete at this moment."
Canada Women's Rugby Sevens Team:
Elissa Alarie, Trois-Rivieres, Que.; Olivia Apps, Lindsay, Ont.; Britt Benn, Napanee, Ont.; Pamphinette Buisa, Gatineau, Que.; Bianca Farella, Montreal; Julia Greenshields, Sarnia, Ont.; Ghislaine Landry (captain), Toronto; Kaili Lukan, Barrie, Ont.; Kayla Moleschi, Williams Lake, B.C.; Breanne Nicholas, Blenheim, Ont.; Karen Paquin, Quebec City; Keyara Wardley, Vulcan, Alta.; Charity Williams, Toronto.
Head Coach: Mick Byrne.
Assistant Coach: Maria Gallo.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 23, 2021.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press