It has been nine days since Kylie Masse’s last swim. The two-time world champion doesn’t know when she’ll be able to get back in the pool for her next.
Catharine Pendrel is on Day 7 of self-isolation at her home in Kamloops, B.C., where her husband stocked the fridge with groceries and the cupboard with toilet paper — a reasonable amount, she says. Pendrel got back from California earlier than planned, since her mountain biking races were cancelled.
On Monday, Reid Coolsaet logged a 31-kilometre run in Hamilton, Ont., a training session he assessed as “just alright,” partly because of the wind, partly because he was tired from solid training the week prior. And partly because, he says, “this was my first workout with the realization that almost all the marathons are cancelled.”
That’s right: It’s only almost all of them that are cancelled — at least for the foreseeable future. As it stands, the 2020 Olympic Games are still on the schedule for July 24-Aug. 9 and the Paralympic Games are set for Aug. 25-Sept. 6, despite the COVID-19 global pandemic, which has killed more than 13,000 people and infected more than 300,000. The virus has wiped out virtually every major sporting event planned for the next few months, replacing them all with social distancing. Meanwhile, the Olympic torch relay is set to resume this week with its final leg in Japan. Last week, the International Olympic Committee put out a statement declaring that since the Games are still four months out, “there is no need for any drastic decision at this stage.” So, yeah, as of now Tokyo 2020 is still on.
And so, athletes are doing the only thing they can, the thing the IOC urged them to continue doing: They’re trying to prepare. Here, seven Canadians representing both a range of experience and a range of sports weigh in on what it’s like to work toward the biggest event of their lives in the midst of a global crisis. As Pendrel puts it: “Everything is unprecedented.”
More than 40 per cent of the events on the Olympic schedule have yet to host qualifiers, and those qualification events have now been postponed. Masse, Pendrel and Coolsaet, among others, have yet to punch their tickets to Tokyo. Swimmer Aurélie Rivard managed to secure her berth for the Paralympics last year. Reigning Olympic wrestling champion, Erica Wiebe, meanwhile, was one of the last athletes to qualify for the Games, on March 14 in Ottawa, just days after most of the sporting world ground to a halt.
WIEBE, 2018 world silver medallist, 2016 Olympic gold medallist at 75kg We got on the plane [on March 12] and it was this chaos of information coming in, and here we are on a four-hour flight from Calgary to Ottawa for qualifiers. I was like, “Okay, who knows what’s going to happen when we land?” They had announced the NBA had been suspended, and they had just announced the NHL had been suspended. The wrestling Olympic qualifiers in Asia and Europe had been postponed. I’d never wiped down an airplane seat with Lysol before, but I did that Thursday. And I mean, I’ve competed in so many different circumstances around the world: I’ve had buses break down on the way to events, I’ve had major injuries leading into events, I’ve had the craziest things happen in my sporting career. But I’ve never had to deal with competing in the face of a global pandemic.
MASSE, 2017 & ’19 world champion, 2016 Olympic bronze medallist, 100-metre backstroke When we finished practice on [March 13] we found out that our Olympic trials were going to be postponed. Our coach told us that now we’re obviously not preparing to race in the next few weeks, so everyone take care of yourself, we’ll keep practicing. The next day, the University of Toronto [where Masse and other national team members train] announced that the facilities were going to close. That’s when it all began.
AURÉLIE RIVARD, three-time 2016 Paralympic gold medallist, freestyle swimming Luckily, I have been pre-qualified since worlds last year. Even though I was looking forward to trials — it’s the only time in the year where we’re going to peak outside of the Games. But at least I don’t have to worry about that.
CRISPIN DUENAS, 2019 Pan American gold medallist, three-time Olympian, archery We haven’t finished our qualification process. I’m currently in first [among Canadian men] through one selection stage, but we’re supposed to have three more. As of now, the World Archery Federation has suspended all international competition until the end of April. We’ll see what happens. I’m training now as if the Olympics are still happening.
WIEBE I was so thankful that Wrestling Canada and United World Wrestling were able to take the precautions to put the [qualifier] on. Going to Ottawa, I went from preparing to compete in my hometown for the first time in 14 years in front of supporters and friends and family and people I’d gone to school with, to, “Okay, there’s no one in the crowd.” [Laughs.] We were limited to four fans per athlete. My mom and dad were there, and two close friends from Calgary.
COOLSAET, three-time Olympian, marathon I checked this morning and [the Prague Marathon, an Olympic qualifier planned for May 3] is still on. Apparently they said they’ll make a decision no later than March 31, which seems kind of late. I think a lot of the big events, they don’t want to cancel, but they also know from the New York City Marathon in 2012 [cancelled on just two days’ notice], the worst thing they can do is cancel at the last minute.
WIEBE There’s always pressure at a qualifying event, but there was this added feeling of: Don’t waste this opportunity. We’re here, we’re wrestling, let’s take care of business now. It’s a relief to qualify. Honestly, for us it was such fortunate timing. If the qualifier had been a week later, it wouldn’t have happened — Canada announced they’re closing the border to foreigners, but the event was able to go on. There was, at the time, relatively low risk in Ottawa. They had one coach tested because he had the symptoms of a flu, so they isolated him and his test came back negative.
PENDREL, 2011 & ’14 world champion, 2016 Olympic bronze medallist, mountain bike I planned on being in California for a three-week trip: three races, team camp, lots of sponsor visits. It was a pretty rapidly escalating and changing situation. It was definitely a little more stressful being out of the country and having that amount of uncertainty about what even the next couple of days were going to look like. I was going to return to Canada on March 26, and then we [were scheduled to have] the first Canada Cup and national team camp that weekend in Victoria — that was the first event to get cancelled, the Canada Cup. We were all waiting to see what was going to happen in the U.S. I’m surprised it took so long.
RIVARD Last Thursday [March 12] was the last time I was in the pool, so more than a week ago. I was in Florida and I flew back to Montreal to race, but the [Quebec Cup] meet was cancelled like 15 minutes after we landed. The rule of 250 people in a public place had just happened, so the meet was cancelled. Everything happened in the next couple days. The next day, the pool closed. The day after, a bunch of other facilities closed. I haven’t been able to train since.
MASSE I wasn’t thinking that the Friday afternoon [March 13] was going to be my last swim. I have some international swimming friends, and one in Denmark had been messaging me that week that her facilities were all closed. I thought maybe it was coming, but I didn’t think that it would happen that weekend.
PENDREL Getting to the Olympics is the hardest that it’s been for me this time. I’ve been so dominant in past years that even before selection happened, I was pretty darn confident I was going. This one, there’s been so much fluctuation year-to-year. I broke my arm in 2018, so I didn’t have a strong season. I had an okay season last year. I’m currently standing second in the qualification [Canada has so far qualified two spots on the women’s side], but there’s so much opportunity for things to change.
COOLSAET It would be great if Athletics Canada would just set up a time trial [to determine Olympic qualification]. It would really only involve at maximum 20 competitors, probably less. The women’s team is pretty set right now. The men’s team, there are two spots open, [and] there’s really five guys that would go at the pace you’d need to make that team. Obviously, one of the reasons races are getting cancelled is because there are thousands of people. If you have a race with 10 or 20 people in May, maybe that could be allowed, right?
PENDREL People are in the position where they’re still trying to qualify their nation for the Olympics and trying to qualify themselves, or get a better start position. We just needed to remove any of that incentive to travel and put people’s minds at ease. Whatever happens, they don’t need to worry about their race, they can do what’s right for the world right now. Our selection event was supposed to be May 24, at the first World Cup. At this point, none of us know if that event’s going to happen. Everyone has to focus on their own preparation, staying healthy. All U.S. events have been cancelled until April 5. From there, we don’t know.
COOLSAET Somebody [on Twitter] suggested to do our Olympic qualifier on a track. It was a racewalker, of course: “Oh, just do it on a track!” And I responded, “Well, I wouldn’t be able to run after that so what would be the point?” [Laughs.] But everything’s a first at this point, right? [Imagine running 42 km. around a track, round and round, in the same direction. Coolsaet wonders if he’d even be able to stand up straight after that.]
KELSEY MITCHELL, world record holder in women’s flying 200-metre sprint, world No. 3 in women’s track cycling, looking ahead to her first Olympics We’re lucky because world championships back in February was the last chance to get points for qualifying for track cycling. We got all our points and we have 13 spots locked in. That’s not a stress for us because we know how many spots we have. Now it’s just wait and see if [the Games] actually happen.
And, while waiting and seeing: Train. Doing so during a pandemic poses challenges for everyone, but some sports are hit much harder than others. The one thing athletes take solace in is the fact they’re all in the same boat. They all have to work with whatever — often limited — resources they have.
MASSE The pools have been shut in the majority of Canada, as far as I know. Definitely around me here [in Toronto], there aren’t any pools open. I know my coaches have tried to see if there’s anything else, but I’m pretty sure that everything is closed, and rightfully so.
MITCHELL The velodrome [in Milton, Ont., where Mitchell lives] is shut down. They’re taking every precaution necessary. We’re hoping that in a week or two we’ll be able to go — not sure it’d be open to the general public, but they might allow us on the track. We can ride on the roads still, that’s not closed. I’m with my teammates [Mitchell lives with two other track cyclists], so that’s good.
WIEBE We train at the University of Calgary Dinos wrestling club. Practices have ended indefinitely — for two weeks, for sure. The university has been closed. Technically Danielle [Lappage, who also qualified for Tokyo] and I were both at trials and have both been doing social distancing, so we may just do technique together alone in the wrestling room, if the university is open.
MASSE We’re just doing our best. When trials were postponed, I did take a couple days off, to physically and mentally reset. We didn’t have a plan moving forward and we didn’t know what was going to happen, so I took a few days, which was really nice.
DUENAS We have a private range [The Peel Archery Club) and it’s not big enough for 50 people, so we’re able to train. It’s big enough for you to stay one metre away from other people. We’re lucky because there’s no physical contact in our sport, like wrestling or hockey. Other archers are good about people’s personal space and equipment — you don’t touch somebody else’s equipment without permission.
MASSE The last couple days I’ve actually been using the city bike share, to get out and get some fresh air and exercise. That’s been really fun for me because it’s something completely different that I’d been a bit too timid to do before. I took the opportunity and I thought, “Why not?”
PENDREL I’m on self-isolation, but I’m fortunate in that I can go for a ride by myself. And luckily it’s been nice and sunny, so I have a little bit of that positive energy, too. For training, I wouldn’t use any public facilities, so it’s mostly home-based, and we’ve created an at-home program. I have a stationary bike in the basement, and I do online competitions — I can do races, compete against people all over the world. We’re pretty lucky to have access to all those resources. Home workouts are limited because I don’t have a squat rack — squats and deadlifts are big, normally, for cyclists. I can do lunges, single leg squats, planks and things like that. I can do bicep curls and push-ups. Outside of the racing, I feel like I’m able to train as much as normal, but mostly at home.
MASSE I’m doing bodyweight workouts and circuits at home. It’s been really cool actually to see other athletes posting on their social media different workouts and exercises they’re doing. A fellow Canadian posted a link about online yoga for swimmers. I saved that link and I’ll try that maybe tonight or over the next couple days.
WIEBE I have an exercise bike at home, so I’m going to jump on that. I love doing yoga classes on YouTube. I’ll put away my coffee table and I’ll do a little Vinyasa Flow. You can be pretty creative at home, and for sure now you’ve got to get super creative. I’ll do circuits. So I’ll write 10 exercises down and then I’ll do each exercise for 45 seconds, have a 15-second break and move to the next one. You do that three times and that’s a 30-minute workout. I would do squat jumps, plank, superman on your stomach, triceps dips, push-ups, v-ups, regular squats, seated twists for your abs, then lunges. The final one I always end with is burpees.
RIVARD It’s the first time in 10 years or more that I’m not swimming at this time of the year. It’s weird. I’m kind of getting used to it now, but the first week I was waking up like something was wrong. I’m turning in circles, walking around the house, not knowing what to do with myself. Because I train so much I have so much trouble going to sleep now, because I don’t do anything. It’s definitely weird. I have too much energy. I try to do as much [physical activity as usual], even though it’s almost impossible — I usually work out for five hours a day when I’m swimming. I’m not going to work out for five hours in my living room, but I try to expend a lot of energy so I’m tired enough.
MITCHELL We took all the trainers and rollers [from the velodrome] and we have our track bikes and road bikes at the house here now. We’re going to get some gym equipment [also from the velodrome] and we’re going to set it up in the garage — there’s just my car and some garbage in there right now. But we’re getting a squat rack, barbells, some weights, maybe some bands and accessories. We’re improvising for sure and making it work. We’re going to work out until our muscles are sore and get on the road and get our miles in.
DUENAS I’ve got stability balls at home. I’ve got TRX straps, string them up on a tree outside and have a workout in my backyard. I still go for runs in my neighbourhood. There are ways to figure out how to train in isolation.
MASSE I can stay as fit as I possibly can doing workouts in my room, hopping on a bike or going for a walk outside to get fresh air. But for swimming, the feel in the water, you lose that really quickly. You can be out of the water for two, three days and your feel in the water is different. It’s an adjustment we’ll have to make when we do get back into the pool.
RIVARD Swimmers are pretty unlucky. I think it’s the hardest to try and do at home. Actually, we can’t — unless we have a private pool. I just do what I can do in my living room. I tried to recreate my weight training, with my bodyweight. I just bought a few things like bands and weights and a yoga mat, so I can make the best out of the situation. When the weather is okay, I try to go outside and run to maintain the cardio. That’s pretty much all I can do.
MITCHELL I think that’s kind of where you’d freak out a little is if you’re not able to train and you’re stuck at home knowing that you should be training and you’re not able to. It will affect you. So I’m definitely thinking of all the other athletes that aren’t able to get into the pool or aren’t able to do their sport. We’re lucky that way, we can still get on our bikes.
No matter the sport, with no races or competitions on the horizon and only an uncertain schedule ahead, it can be tough to find motivation.
COOLSAET If I think ahead to May and not racing, I won’t train as hard — I know it. When I’m out there by myself actually pushing, I won’t get that last 10 or 20 per cent out of myself. I really have to think of it as: There’s going to be a race in May, and prepare for it… Yeah, I don’t know how to convince myself of that [laughs] — it didn’t work today. I have to realize that if I do a few more hard workouts and keep training hard, it could put me in a good spot.
MASSE I think the hardest thing is that in sport we’re so used to a level of certainty. We have a plan for the beginning of the year: This is our training plan, we’re working on this in this training block, we have things scheduled for this date and this date and this date. We know everything. Not to say that we don’t encounter situations where we have to be adaptable — things come up that you don’t plan for, that definitely happens. And it has here: We were told very close to trials that they weren’t happening, and we were all in preparation, right?
MITCHELL To hear there’s a chance the Olympics could be cancelled is obviously heartbreaking. I’ve been able to take a step back and focus on one day at a time. We measure so much in cycling, so I’m able to compete with myself from the previous day, compete with my teammates that are here — thank goodness. We are staying motivated in that way, but it’s definitely hard, all the unknowns of your season, if you’ll even have the opportunity to compete at the Olympics. All of this is crazy.
Every athlete has to plan to peak at qualifiers and especially for big events like the Olympics and Paralympics. The constant possibility of date changes and cancellations calls for creativity and remaining in a pre-peak state — for now, at least.
PENDREL Especially in an Olympic year, we’re highly planned out, what energy system we’re training, when, and for which event. You can’t be on peak form for an entire summer, so you have to be able to plan for it. That’s why I’m not doing maximal intervals right now, because it could be mental bullets that I’m going to need later. I have to save them for when I need them. Mental resources aren’t infinite. Just like you have to periodize your fitness, you have to periodize when you’re going to bring your game mentally.
WIEBE I’m a dangerous world-class athlete today and I will be in Tokyo.
COOLSAET You have to qualify for the marathon by the end of May, otherwise it’s too late. To get to peak in marathon, that’s usually 12 to 14 weeks of intense training. So I’ll just train hard. If nothing comes up or the Olympics get cancelled, I don’t really mind training hard. I won’t regret it. But I would regret it if I didn’t train and an opportunity presented itself.
PENDREL If you try and keep yourself at 100 per cent right now, when we could be racing in August for the first time, or July, or June, then you don’t have as much flexibility to bring your peak form when you want it. It’s been a stressful week and it’s changing every single day, by the hour even. I think it’s really important to focus on the daily habits of working my core, doing meditation, maintaining a level of performance, but not bringing myself to a peak level until I know there is a definite race date in the next four weeks.
WIEBE From a physiology perspective, I’m fitter and stronger than I’ve ever been. As we look towards peaking for the Tokyo Games, there are training blocks that get pretty intense about six to eight weeks out — that’s our last big load of training where we’re doing a lot of wrestling. It’s a really tough time. So that’ll be the final block of training in May and June of this year, and then we’ll begin to taper about 10 to 14 days out from the competition. If things change [like the date of the Games, for example], I’m incredibly fortunate. I work with the Canadian Sport Institute Calgary — with an exercise physiologist, an athletic therapist, a chiropractor, my coach, Paul Ragusa, a nutritionist, a mental performance coach. I have this team around me that is monitoring and working with me to make sure that I’m healthy and optimizing my training. I know that’s the case for many of Canada’s top elite athletes. Obviously there’s the stress, the mental aspect of preparing for the Olympic Games. I think there’s a tendency, too, for a lot of athletes and coaches to do more in an Olympic year, but I’ve been down this road before, it’s not my first rodeo [laughs]. I know I’ll be ready to go when it matters.
COOLSAET I’ve been to two Olympics, and this was kind of going to be the bonus one anyway, if I made it. The last two times I had the Olympic qualifier under my belt going into the Olympic year. And I’m not waiting for 2024. This is it.
MITCHELL Right now, we’re putting the work in. We’re hurting ourselves, training hard, doing the lactic sessions, getting our miles in on the road. So this is a time when we start to prepare for the Olympics — this far out.
While the Games are still a go as scheduled, there’s been talk of hosting them without fans, a year later, or even not at all. Athletes are trying to stay positive amidst all this uncertainty. And they still have goals for the Games, whenever they may be.
RIVARD What’s hard is that we don’t know anything — that’s the worst part. It’s not like somebody told us, “Oh, the Games will be in 2021,” so we have a specific goal [and] know why it’s worth it to do all this. We’re kind of left with our own thoughts and speculations. I try to not overthink or look too far ahead. I try to go day-by-day, do what I can control and hope this might be over soon, even though I’m aware it might take a while.
MASSE I obviously want to continue to do my part in the community and self-isolate. I’m not really thinking about it in terms of myself and not being able to train and not being able to compete. There are millions of other people in the same boat in their respective fields.
WIEBE My goal in Tokyo, it’s exciting, because now I can start talking about it. Previous to this I’d always say, “I want to qualify for Tokyo, that’s my goal.” I hate putting the cart before the horse. Now that I’ve qualified, I want to walk on the mat in Tokyo with no regrets and to be ready to showcase who I am and what I can do.
RIVARD I have titles to defend, and that would be my priority heading into the Games. So I want to defend the three races that I won in Rio. And, also, my goal every single year is to swim faster than I did the year before. I want to head into Tokyo and have the best meet of my life.
DUENAS I’m going for a medal. This is my fourth games, not sure there’s going to be a fifth. I want to get to Tokyo and perform the way that I know that I can perform in practice and in local competitions — if I just shoot that way there’s a very high chance I can win a medal there. Four games was a bit of a pride goal for myself, too. I would officially have the most Olympic Games of any Canadian archer in history.
MITCHELL I for sure want to be on the podium. We just had World Championships and in [match sprint], I got fourth. Fourth is a really, really hard spot to get. It just lit the fire that much more. I know I’m up there with some of the best. I’m excited to work hard over the next few months and see if I’m able to get on one of the steps — hopefully, the top one — at the Olympics.
PENDREL I feel fortunate in that I have had Olympic experiences. If this was your first Olympics and you never know if you have that chance again, you’d be under a lot more stress. I’ll be grateful for whatever opportunity we get this year. I would love another Games experience, but it’s not guaranteed at this point, because there’s still the selection event — and nothing is guaranteed. It’s a bit of, carry on as normal and be ready to do your best if you get the opportunity.
MITCHELL There are different stressors than I thought I’d have [ahead of her Olympic debut]. I never thought one of the issues would be that it could be cancelled.
MASSE It’s been nice to have school online [Masse is taking a lecture course at U of T, which is now online since the University has closed]. I can do that from my room, but it’s also something that keeps me busy — I have a final paper and a lab report due. I’m also doing a couple things I’ve never tried. I was actually inspired by [fellow Olympian] Georgia Simmerling. She was posting about making sourdough bread. I started that last night, so I hopefully I can figure that out and make some delicious bread. Other than that, maybe I’ll do some spring cleaning in my closet.
PENDREL I was just saying to my husband, “Maybe we can order some lighting online from Home Depot and fix up the lighting around my workout area in the basement [laughs].” Yeah, we’re keeping busy.
DUENAS If the Olympics happen, great. If the Olympics don’t happen — and I think that’s probably better for humanity than having everybody get sick and re-spreading it around the world — it will suck. But there’s nothing I can do about it if that’s what all the organizations and professionals say. If the Olympics don’t happen, I’ll come away knowing that I was prepared and I was the best that I’ve ever been.
RIVARD I always wanted the Games to be held this summer, but seeing that this could take a while, I’d rather it be moved to next summer, with the same dates. I think it would be best for everyone — for Tokyo, for the partners, for the athletes, for the spectators, for the volunteers. If the Games still happen this summer, I think people are going to come out of this quarantine and be rushed and stressed, like we’re running out of time. I want to remove that negative thought and just refocus, go back to training. I think that would be best, personally.
PENDREL Races will resume, things will become normal again, it’s just not knowing when that start date is. The biggest thing I’ve learned as an athlete: You have to be adaptable, you have to expect challenges. We do all have the resources to adapt. We’ll be okay. Fortunately for Olympic pool athletes we have access to great sports psychologists. People were already feeling anxious about the Olympics and now you have that additional challenge [of the pandemic], but there are people that can guide you through the unknown. The biggest thing as an athlete that separates the Olympics from a world championship or a world cup is just how much more mental pressure and energy there is around a Games. It’s about who brings that physical form and can also handle the pressure. This is certainly a new challenge that is going to create some interesting results and variations in people’s ability to perform when it matters.
RIVARD We don’t know how the situation is going to be in a month or two. Of course it’s hard to be 100 per cent like, “Oh, I’m going to believe that.” [The notion that everything is going ahead as planned.] But I try to pretend — it gives me motivation [laughs].
MITCHELL My hope is that obviously the Olympics happen. But they’ll make the decision and the best call for what’s best for the athletes and the general public. We’re just trusting that they want it to go on and they’ll do everything they can, but knowing that everyone’s health is the No. 1 priority.
WIEBE I’m confident that we’ll walk into the opening ceremony on July 24, and I’ll be ready to go. I compete on August 2. Whatever happens, I’m so thankful that I get to enjoy every day of the process. I get to do what I love and I get to be surrounded by amazing people and hopefully make a difference somehow. Sport is so cruel sometimes. I think it’s taught me to enjoy every moment, and to be thankful for what I have.
RIVARD It’s a shitty situation for the athletes, but I’m also aware that people are going through worse issues, health-wise, people who own small businesses — they are facing much bigger problems than not being able to train. I understand everything that is happening and the measures that are being taken are for everybody’s health and security.
PENDREL The Olympics, more than any other event we do, it comes into the homes of Canadians. To be able to show what we do, how good Canadians are on the global scale, it’s so exciting. It’s a really exciting course in Tokyo, and I think it’s going to showcase mountain biking so well. Over four Olympics I’ve seen so much growth in the courses, in the depth of our competition. There are only three people that can win a medal, but 40 women are going to fight for it with everything they have. It’s going to be exciting, and if I’m there I want to represent Canada as well as I can.
MITCHELL Everyone is coming together and it’s actually pretty amazing to see. It was chaos at the beginning, but it seems that’s slowed down a bit, with the toilet paper and everything. We were on our last roll, so our teammates gave us some, thank goodness. We’re good now [laughs]. If people stay home and do everything they’re telling us to do, we can for sure get through this. And hopefully sooner than later.
PENDREL The biggest focus for everyone now should be keeping ourselves healthy and our neighbours. All this will sort itself out. Keep focused on the now and, yeah, it’ll be alright.
MITCHELL Take care. And wash your hands!
Behind the scenes on a historic day in NHL broadcasting
On the ice, it was just another game on the schedule — a Pacific Division tilt between the Flames and Golden Knights. Behind the scenes, it was anything but.