Long road, but less limbo for Canadian athletes bound for Tokyo Games

Rosie MacLennan performs her gold medal routine during the women's trampoline at the 2012 Olympic Games in London on August 4, 2012. The Olympic and Paralympic dreams of Canadian athletes now have fixed dates, to their relief. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

On the coldest, wettest, hardest days on Elk Lake, rower Hillary Janssens told herself and her numb hands "this is the last winter we have to do this before Tokyo."

It wasn't.

The International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo organizing committee announced dates for the rescheduled Olympic and Paralympic Games on Monday, and that had Canadian athletes contemplating what that means for them.

The Summer Olympics will now open July 23, 2021, a year after the originally-scheduled July 24 opening ceremonies. The Paralympics start Aug. 24 a year minus a day later.

An Olympic Games has been rescheduled for the first time in history due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has infected hundreds of thousands and killed thousands world-wide.

Janssens of Cloverdale, B.C., and her teammate Caileigh Filmer of Victoria won a world title in the women's pair in 2018 as well as bronze medal at last year's world championship.

The duo emerged from a gruelling winter on the water feeling ready to race and win in Tokyo.

They'll now train longer and harder to achieve that goal in 2021.

"This past year, we're going to have to do again," Filmer said Monday. "It is tough having to go through another winter. It's exhausting.

"But my partner Hillary and I can take it on together and we can get through it and do it even better."

Tokyo felt so close for wrestler Erica Wiebe of Stittsville, Ont., when she qualified for the Games on March 14. The Olympic champion is now wrapping her head around an extra 16 months of preparation.

"I kind of hoped they would happen earlier in 2021," Wiebe said. "Now, it's like 'OK, it's a full year of waiting.' The only thing you can do is go back to the drawing board. For my sport, there's always things I can do better.

"I think about pushing the limits of what my body would have been capable of. Here's another year to become a more dangerous wrestler when it comes time."

Canadian sprint star Andre de Grasse of Markham, Ont., appreciates firm dates to anchor his training.

"It's nice to have some new dates to focus on," he said. "There's always room for improvement, so I'm going to use this additional year to get better in all areas of my events."

Calgary paratriathlete and world champion Stefan Daniel is pleased he'll race at the same time next year. The 23-year-old doesn't have to toss aside his planning and preparation for the heat he's expecting.

"It changes the preparation for everybody if it was in the spring," Daniel said. "Obviously conditions would be a lot cooler and it would be a very different type of race.

"Now everyone can go back to the original plan of getting ready for extreme heat. It's nice to have it the same as it would have been."

Canada led the charge for a postponement, declaring on March 22 that the country would not send teams to Tokyo if the Games went ahead this summer. Australia made the same decision that day.

Less than 36 hours later, the IOC and Tokyo organizing committee announced the decision to delay a year after initially saying four weeks was needed to weigh options.

The new dates announced Monday lessened some of the uncertainty athletes have been feeling. There is a target on the distant horizon while they wait for their dedicated training facilities to re-open, and for Olympic qualification processes to re-start.

"We can start dreaming," said two-time Olympic trampoline champion Rosie MacLennan of King City, Ont.

"It's really great for athletes to have more clarity and not have to wait longer than we need to to have that clarity.

"We're all still going to be sitting here waiting to hear when our international seasons start up again and the rest of the qualification process.

"It allows us to start planning and get creative with what we can do at home, and obviously start thinking with our coaches and our support team about what we can do in the long run too."

Canadian men's field hockey captain Scott Tupper appreciates the luxury of time not only for athletes, but for the world to get the virus under control.

"For myself and our team, I'm just happy that we have some clarity and a firm timeline to work with moving forward," said the 33-year-old from Vancouver.

"This allows us to be responsible now and prioritize our protocols for helping slow the spread of COVID, before getting back to training and pursuing our Tokyo dreams."

And Janssens is prepared to tell herself again in the boats next winter "this is the last one before Tokyo."

"The reward is going to be even sweeter at the end, the longer we have to train our butts off to get there," Janssens said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2020.

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