COVID-19 hurdles proved too much for athletes who didn't qualify for Tokyo

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Samantha Stewart has done more than 40 days of post-travel quarantining since the start of 2021.

The Canadian wrestler went the better part of a year without training against a human opponent. She wrestled at a last-chance Tokyo qualifying event in Europe without her coach in her corner because of COVID-19 restrictions.

And despite it all, Stewart came within seconds of realizing her lifelong dream, to compete in the Olympics.

But Romania's Andreea Beatrice Ana beat her with a desperation takeout with 10 seconds left in the semifinals of the world Olympic qualifiers in May.

Shocked and distraught, Stewart still had to compete for bronze the next day in a 53-kg match that suddenly meant next to nothing. She had to cut weight, and so took a cab back to her hotel in Sofia, Bulgaria to sweat it off in the sauna. She sat in the steam, rocking and sobbing.

"I don't know what's worse, going there and just being completely outmatched, or going there and literally being so close, 10 seconds away, and then not having it happen," Stewart said. "I was super upset afterwards, and what made it a million times worse was I feel like if I had had my coach (Don Ryan) there, it have turned out differently.

"Talking to my coach on the phone afterwards, analyzing the match, he said he'd scouted this athlete and knew that she was going to take like last-ditch dive at my legs. Hearing him say that . . . made me feel that if he'd been there, if he had been in my corner and said something, it might have changed the ending."

For the first time since women's wrestling made its Olympic debut in 2004, Canada won't be represented at every weight class. Reigning champion Erica Wiebe of Stittsville, Ont. (76 kg) and Danielle Lappage of Olds, Alta. (68 kg) are the only Canadian women competing.

Canada named 371 athletes to its full Olympic team on Tuesday, the largest team since the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. But if not for the global pandemic, it would have been even bigger. There were athletes such as Stewart who fell through the cracks.

The 31-year-old from Fredericton fought back tears as she told her story. It was a losing battle.

"When this has been your dream for as long as you can remember, and then there's all these things happening to prevent you from being able to prepare, and all the uncertainty and all the rule changes," she said. "Uncertainty was the biggest killer, because I couldn't plan. I had to stay away from home for long periods of time, which takes you outside of your safety net and your comfort zone.

"You don't have your support network, my coaches weren't travelling with me, I was traveling by myself. I did feel very alone and unsupported."

Because of Canada's travel restrictions and COVID-19 protocols, just qualifying for Tokyo was a tall task. Athletes had to navigate an ever-changing obstacle course of cancelled events, medical clearances, and facility closures, all the while not knowing when and if they'd compete again.

"It has been uniquely hard for athletes in the Americas to get to qualifying events, versus the other qualifying quadrants around the world," said Canada's chef de mission Marnie McBean, a three-time Olympic rowing gold medallist. "I always recognize the hardship. And I would say (to athletes who didn't qualify), 'I'm so sorry.'"

Canadian boxer Mandy Bujold appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland - and won her human rights case - after her Olympic qualifier in Argentina was cancelled. The IOC Boxing Task Force decided to assign berths based on world ranking, but Bujold had missed all three competitions the Task Force retroactively decided to use for ranking, because of her 2018 pregnancy.

Tokyo will be the first live competition since the start of the pandemic for Canada's gymnastics team, whose athletes were selected through virtual events.

Both the Canadian Olympic swimming and track and field trials were pared-down, invitation-only events, with no fans.

With the country under rolling lockdowns the past 18 months, facilities were closed. With no access to the University of Western Ontario, Damian Warner turned an unheated hockey arena in London, Ont., into a temporary multi-events facility.

Charles Philibert-Thiboutot chased the Olympic 1,500-metre standard for weeks but came up short. The Quebec City native and Rio Olympian said it was more due to an Achilles injury in the spring than the pandemic. He had a last chance to run the qualifying standard in Montreal before the qualifying window closed at the end of June, but the blustery weather conditions weren't conducive to fast times.

Like many Canadian athletes, Philibert-Thiboutot left the country in search of chances to qualify. It was risky and costly, and came with quarantines upon return.

"There were no races to qualify in Canada. So you had to plan at some point in your season to go either to the U.S. or Europe," he said. "I've talked to a lot of athletes who said 'I'm going to plan to just get out of the country for a long time.' And that's a big psychological strain to not be able to go home.

"Some athletes cope very well with it. But others, not being at home and training in an environment you know well . . . by the end of three or four or five week-stint outside of the country, where you're living in a suitcase, a lot of athletes were really borderline (on the verge) of a breakdown after that."

On top of normal travel expenses, athletes were shelling out for COVID tests that were required to compete - anywhere from $100 to $400 per test, Philibert-Thiboutot said.

"That's a big bill at the end," he said. "It's cost me a couple grand just to get tested for all my races."

Regan Yee was more fortunate. The 26-year-old from South Hazelton, B.C., was among the last Canadians to qualify, hitting the standard - and shattering the Canadian record - in the women's 3,000-metre steeplechase on June 30, on the very last day.

"I hadn't raced at all this summer until around two weeks before the Tokyo qualifying window closed, so it was pretty nerve-racking," she said. "We didn't want to go down to the States for safety reasons, we just didn't feel comfortable without being double vaccinated, and with the quarantine restrictions upon arrival back into Canada. We'd been planning to race earlier in Ontario, but then they put in those inter-provincial restrictions.

"So, it was pretty nerve-wracking to leave it to that last little stretch, but I have a lot of faith in my coach (Mark Bomba). He's never failed me before, and it all worked out."

Stewart went months without wrestling against a training partner, as combat sports in Canada faced tight training restrictions. She finally decided to go to the U.S. in January, boarding one of the last flights out of Fredericton before the airport was closed.

"I went knowing that it was a risk to even be going down to the United States where a lot of people don't believe that COVID is real," she said. "I wasn't vaccinated, and taking that risk was super stressful, some of the American wrestlers were kind of openly anti-vax, and didn't believe that COVID was a big deal.

"Then just trying to train at a high level again, after taking that much time (off), March to January of not being able to be on the mats, trying to get back into competition shape was so difficult. Physically, mentally, like all of it was just insane. Super stressful. I was super emotional all the time, feeling like I wasn't going to be ready, like I wasn't in the place where I needed to be."

The hardship made her narrow loss all the more remarkable. Wiebe tweeted, with a heart emoji, after her loss: "A tough fought match until the very end. Sam loses a last minute takedown and her chance for Tokyo. Proud of her for fighting so hard throughout the last year and sticking to the process."

Stewart plans to stick around until the 2024 Paris Olympics. There's no obvious silver lining to her story.

The one takeaway, she said, is that at least "nothing can be as difficult as what we've been through this past 16-17 months, nothing will be as hard as this. Restrictions will ease, things will get back to what we consider like an actual new normal, where people are vaccinated and we no longer have training restrictions, and we don't have to like quarantine for ridiculous amounts of time."

Stewart is still "an Olympic fan girl," and plans to watch the Olympics. She's not sure if she'll watch her own weight class, although she's curious how it plays out.

She'll be cheering on Wiebe and Lappage.

"They're both amazing people and amazing role models," she said. "So I 100 per cent want to watch them and cheer them on and I'm really looking forward to see how they perform."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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