Home / Around Canada / 1 year out, again: Olympic hopefuls gain new appreciation for craft due to postponement

1 year out, again: Olympic hopefuls gain new appreciation for craft due to postponement

Olympics

For Canadian athletes and coaches alike, this summer's Olympics in Tokyo were meant to be the culmination of years of hard work. Instead, many have been forced to take a step back and reflect on what their sport means to them.

On July 23, 2020, athletes and coaches – yet again – find themselves one year out from the Tokyo Games. Despite the setback of postponement and threat of cancellation, many are using the time to regain focus ahead their continued Olympic journey.(Eugene Hoshiko/The Associated Press)

Sitting idle in the summer at his home in Nova Scotia in the winter of his career, this is unfamiliar territory for Canada's women's softball head coach Mark Smith.

For more than four decades, Smith has been travelling the globe in pursuit of softball glory, first as a player and now as a coach. After these Olympics, he's retiring.

"I'm coaching a wonderful group of women that I could not be prouder of. And if we can get to the Olympics when this pandemic subsides, I can't think of a better way to close a career," Smith said.

This summer was meant to be the ultimate final journey for Smith — a trip to Tokyo, leading this country's softball team into the Games.

"Each morning that I wake up I think about where we would be if the season were actually happening," Smith said from his backyard just outside Halifax.

"So for example, today we would be finishing up our pre-Olympic preparation and tomorrow we'd be taking the bus down to the Olympic village."

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CBC Sports' Andi Petrillo hosts a panel with guests Aaron Brown, Mandy Bujold, Catharine Pendrel, Sean McColl and Ben Titley to discuss life in quarantine, the new lead up to the Olympics, and Rule 50.24:41

Smith had every day mapped out. And then in early March when the pandemic hit in full force, all of his planning was thrown into disarray.

"On March 2 when we did our fitness testing and we had 89 personal bests, we had to be the fittest softball team in the world, bar none. We were building toward winning a gold medal which is what we believe we're going to do a year from now. All systems were go," Smith said.

The system has been shut down. Not just for the 20 women who were embarking on a journey years in the making – softball hasn't been part of the Olympics since 2008 – but for thousands of athletes around the world.

Team Canada women's softball head coach Mark Smith, right, and wife Anne Dodge. After dedicating more than four decades to the sport, the Nova Scotia native intends on retiring after this Olympic cycle – but not before, hopefully, one last attempt at glory in Tokyo.(Steve Lawrence/CBC)

It's the universal struggle for high-performers who are wired to go faster and be stronger – now, maybe for the first time in their athletic careers, they must learn how to be still.

Smith told his softball team to take the summer off, an almost unfathomable consideration in preparation for the Olympics. He sees it as hitting the reset button.

"It took a little while for us to get our heads around it and to give ourselves permission to grieve and go through the rollercoaster of emotions you feel when you've worked so hard for something and then, through no fault of your own, it's been taken from you," Smith said.

But Smith, his team, and so many other Canadian athletes aren't about to sit around and feel sorry for themselves for too long.

The Games, as of now, are still going ahead starting in July 2021. It's one-year to go, again.

The softball team plans to come together in September to ramp up training.

WATCH | Canada's chef de mission discusses logistics of Tokyo 2021:

Canada's chef de mission for Tokyo discusses Rule 50, the importance of a COVID-19 vaccine and the logistics of a 2021 Olympics.8:28

For those athletes who have already qualified, which according to the International Olympic Committee is about half of the participants, and those who haven't, there are still so many unknowns.

Having a specific target is crucial to peaking at exactly the right time — medal performances on the grandest of athletic stages are surely centered around skill and preparation, but also timing.

"When you're preparing for the Olympics, the week out of the Olympics you want to be the fittest you've ever been in your life," rower Jenny Casson said from Victoria, B.C.

"And on an Olympic day you want to be the fittest you're ever going to be in your life and that's what we were tailoring our bodies for."

Resilient rowers grow in confidence

If Smith is in the last chapter of his career, Casson's story is just beginning. She's part of a lightweight doubles team alongside Jill Moffatt — a duo that just missed qualifying their spot for Tokyo last year.

Their final hope to make it to the Games hinged on one last-chance qualifier they were feeling massively confident for when everything stopped at the beginning of March.

"I started seeing the writing on the wall and it kind of felt like a weird dream. It happened so quickly," Moffatt said.

"I don't really want to sit around and cry about it. I want to move on as quickly as I can and get ready for the next year, but it definitely was hard at first to switch that mindset."

Rowing teammates Jill Moffatt, left, and Jenny Casson have battled through a vast set of safety protocols in order to return to training on water.(Merijn Soeters/Rowing Canada Aviron)

The two are finally back on the water again, having to endure a rigorous set of protocols just to get their boat on the water at their training facility in Victoria — they have set times they're allowed to train, they have to sanitize all their equipment (including their boat) and are wearing Team Canada branded masks while doing it.

"At first, when we first heard all the protocols I was like, 'oh my gosh, how are we going to do this?'" Moffatt said.

"It was a lot easier than anyone thought, and everyone said if we have to do this to get in the water it's well worth it. And our boats are cleaner than they've ever been," Casson added.

The two are upbeat and saying all the right things, for now. They're leaning on each other more than ever to stay motivated and focused. Their tolerance for flexibility and adaptability is being tested like never before.

Jill Moffatt, left, and Jenny Casson are working toward a final Tokyo Olympic qualifier in May 2021.(Merijn Soeters/Rowing Canada Aviron)

"Jill is the uplifting positive force, I think. She has this really good saying when we get down, 'what would your competition want you to be doing?' That's the biggest wake up call you can get, because I know my competition would be thrilled if we were moping around," Casson said.

As it stands right now, the two will get their final chance to qualify for the Olympics next May.

If there's fear for athletes about how their bodies will respond having been away from the track, off the pitch, or out of the pool for months, at least one Canadian athlete has done this all before and isn't too worried about it.

Hayden's experienced long layoffs before

At 36 years old, swimmer Brent Hayden has come out of retirement to make one last push for Olympic glory. He won bronze in the 100-metre Freestyle at the London Games in 2012, stepped away from his sport for seven years, only to decide to return for Tokyo last fall.

He never imagined having an extra year to prepare when he made the decision.

"I don't think anybody saw this coming. I was giving myself a year to get ready for Tokyo, which I already knew wasn't going to be a lot of time," Hayden said from Vancouver.

Hayden had to first earn his spot on the Canadian squad at the trials that were set for April. He was pleasantly surprised at how well his body was performing, having been away from swimming for so long. Age and experience are perhaps allowing him to train smarter and make him faster.

"I was on pace to not only make the team but I think I was on pace to do really well at the Games," Hayden said. "I was working out a lot in the gym and I'd put on a lot of muscle mass. I had gotten a lot stronger. I think I could actually break my 50-metre Freestyle Canadian record."

WATCH | Brent Hayden is staging a comeback, and training in his parents' backyard:

CBC Sports' Scott Russell spoke with swimmer Brent Hayden, who is training for next year's Olympics after retiring from the sport in 2012.3:03

Perhaps that's what Hayden most wants to share with his fellow Canadian athletes right now: not to panic over lost time. He's done this all before. Instead of months away from training at the highest level, Hayden was away from it all for years.

He says the body is more resilient than anyone could imagine.

"The fact that my body was able to respond to my training not just from the time off but also at this age, a lot of positives out of that," he said.

When Hayden left swimming in 2012, he fell out of love with the sport. He was spiraling, depressed and never thought he'd find a way back.

Now he's here, with an entirely different outlook — one that could lead to a podium performance nine years after stepping off of one in London.

"There's a pandemic going on and that just makes you realize that there's more important things in life than sports," he said. "Deep in my heart this was something that I really wanted to do and I believe anything is possible."

One year out, athletes once again are eyeing Tokyo. This time with a new appreciation for what they do and what it all means — and in the midst of their journeys, learning about the redemptive power of sport.

About the Author

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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