TORONTO — The world No. 1-ranked decathlete Damian Warner trained in an unheated hockey arena all winter that was so cold some days he couldn’t feel his feet.
Melissa Bishop-Nriagu worked out in her home gym during a two-week quarantine after competing in the U.S.
Andre De Grasse had to train on a soccer field for weeks after his track in Florida closed for COVID-19 protocols.
The trio headline a Canadian track and field team for the Tokyo Olympics that’s not just one of the most talented ever assembled, but perhaps also the toughest.
“The catchphrase for me is resilience, mental resilience,” said Simon Nathan, Athletics Canada’s high performance director. “The Canadians have had it as tough as any other country in the world … in terms of restriction on travel, restriction on competitions, the just constant changes and uncertainty they’ve had to deal with.
“So I’m sure this will be an incredibly resilient team in Tokyo.”
Athletics Canada announced its 57-member team — 33 women, 24 men — on Saturday. It includes 31 athletes with previous Olympic experience.
Led by triple Olympic medallist De Grasse, Canada captured six medals at the Rio Games in 2016, the most since the nine medals won in 1932 in Los Angeles. The 2016 team also saw 13 top-eight finishes, and five Canadian records.
“It’s always an honour to represent my country on the world stage,” De Grasse said. “I’m really proud and excited to be going to my second Olympics Games. I look forward to making Canada proud.”
Canada is coming off a solid showing at the 2019 world championships in Doha. De Grasse won two of the team’s five medals there.
But international sports ground to a halt with the arrival of the pandemic in early 2020, leaving Canadian athletes scrambling both to find facilities in which to train and competitions to achieve qualifying standards. Even the Canadian Olympic trials last week in Montreal were in doubt — organizers got the green light from health officials just three weeks before the event.
Many athletes didn’t go to Montreal for the event because of travel restrictions and the 14-day quarantine rules.
“This has been hard for everybody to try and make this team,” said Bishop-Nriagu, who was fourth in the 800 metre in Rio. “Everybody had to live through COVID, nobody got special treatment anywhere, everybody had to live and abide by the rules and compete by the rules. So, I think for everyone to get to this point, we’ve made it a long way. We’re really excited about it.”
Some highlights of the team include Malindi Elmore, whose last Olympic appearance was in 2004 in Athens, where she ran the 1,500. The 41-year-old mom of two has made a spectacular comeback in the sport, shattering the Canadian women’s marathon record to earn her first Olympic berth in 17 years.
The women’s marathon is an example of the team’s depth this year, particularly in the middle-distance and distance events. Elmore was one of five Canadian women who qualified in the marathon, while four Canadian men qualified. Athletics Canada could only take three in each.
The team’s youngest member is 21-year-old Lauren Gale of Ottawa, a member of the women’s 4×400-metre relay.
The team also features sisters Gabriela DeBues-Stafford and Lucia Stafford, who will both race the 1,500.
Head coach Glenroy Gilbert is proud of the determination of Canadian athletes.
“They’ve had to probably (adapt) more than most other countries just because of the way things were stacked up against them, with all the closures, the difficulty for high-performance athletes to get into facilities, to get the competitions,” he said. “So yeah, it was tough for a lot of them. But they’ve demonstrated resilience, they demonstrated perseverance and creativity, they found ways to kind of try to get it done the best they could, and clearly to be able to select a team of this calibre just speaks to that.”
While previous Games have seen Canada set performance goals, that went out the window for Tokyo. Athletics Canada hasn’t set a specific medal target for Tokyo.
“We have no idea, we don’t know how other countries will be,” Nathan said. “We’ll try to get as many personal bests as possible … and just try and beat pre-event rankings, we’ll just concentrate on those process pieces, and then the rest will follow from there.”
The Canadian team will gather in Gifu, Japan, on July 18 for an acclimatization camp before travelling to Tokyo or Sapporo, where the marathon and race walk events are being held.
The Olympic track and field competition is July 30 to Aug. 8.
While these pandemic Olympics hold numerous question marks around COVID-19 protocols, Nathan said if nothing else the past 16 months have taught Canadians to be prepared for anything.
“The one thing we know for sure about Tokyo is it will be different. We just don’t know quite how. We’ve got lots of rules and lots of guidelines and all those things. But unexpected things can happen because of COVID, or because of whatever, it’s just so different,” he said. “I think the team is really, really well set up to deal with that.”
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press