When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, Georgia Ellenwood was in denial.
Canada’s leading heptathlete had the Multistars events coming up and a Summer Olympics to compete in, and surely this would all pass in a few weeks or so.
“It was weird because way back in March, I was saying, like, there’s no way they would cancel the Olympics,” said Ellenwood.
She kept her name registered for the Multistars event in Italy even as her competitors withdrew. Initially she thought it just gave her a better chance at winning. But then she caught up to the reality of the rest of the world, as COVID-19 cases in Italy exploded.
“Everyone except me and one other girl had dropped out of the event in Italy. I’m thinking I’m going to compete alone in a very dangerous environment, or I’m going to go home and keep myself from getting sick. And I think that was probably when I was like, I can’t hang on to this any longer.”
She withdrew. Track and field events, like just about every other sporting event, got cancelled all over Europe. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed until this summer. Ellenwood and other Canadian Olympic hopefuls have been dealing with that reality ever since.
“Yeah, I definitely had a lot of a lot of hopes and dreams — still do,” said canoeist Katie Vincent. “It was a target date in my mind for a lot more than four years, something I’ve been looking forward to since I got into sport, so definitely there was a bit of disappointment.
“It was the right decision — I don’t think there’s any denying that — but just in terms of wrapping your head around it. You waited 24 years for one moment and then now it’s postponed. I think it just took some time to really just try to let go.”
Canada won four gold, three silver and 15 bronze medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics, matching the haul from 1996 in Atlanta, Canada’s high-water mark in a non-boycotted Games.
In 2020, it was Canada that led the charge to have the Tokyo Games postponed, the first country to withdraw because of concerns related to the pandemic.
It was a shock to the athletes’ system. They tend to be a regimented bunch, working with strict schedules, but they’re also optimistic.
“I guess I’m lucky because I’m still young,” says 21-year-old cyclist Michael Foley, who works out at the Mattamy National Cycling Centre in Milton. “I don’t think I had planned on stepping away from the sport entirely (after the Olympics). I mean, I really enjoy the group of guys I’m working with, so spending an extra year with them isn’t so bad for me.”
He was not alone among Canadian Olympic hopefuls feeling hopeful.
“I definitely took a couple days to process everything and, you know, feel bad for myself,” said cyclist Kelsey Mitchell. “But especially for me, I’m quite new to the sport, so gaining an extra year to get better, stronger on the bike, was kind of a blessing in disguise. I was able to take it as a glass-half-full situation.
“Obviously, it’s a terrible thing going on in the world, but I’m not feeling too bad for myself because I’m still able to work and train and live my life. Just less trips, and not going out in public at all.”
Most of Canada’s top athletes returned home from camps or competitions to quarantine and restart the long process for 2021 — when the Tokyo Games are now scheduled to run from July 23 to Aug. 8.
Ellenwood returned to Toronto from Wisconsin and is training at York University. Vincent was back from Georgia and canoed on the Credit River in Mississauga before joining teammates in Vancouver in November.
In Ontario and other provinces, health authorities have allowed high-performance athletes to continue to train with strict protocols in place, even with gyms and recreation centres closed to the rest of us.
Still, the fear is that Canada’s athletes will be behind other countries, where training facilities have been open longer. Canada’s swimmers and divers, for example, were out of the water for almost four months.
“What I see on social media is that countries in Europe, especially, have kept training,” said Edmonton-based diver Eleana Dick, who also trains at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre in Scarborough. “They’ve hosted some competitions. So from my perspective, I think, Canada is a little bit behind compared to the other countries in terms of competition.
“I think we’re taking the right precautions — so that we don’t, you know, cause further spikes or risk the safety of the athletes — but I think we’re a little behind.”
Most remain confident that Tokyo organizers will be able to pull off the rescheduled Olympics safely.
“It’s going to be a weird year, but we’re going to have races. There’s still an opportunity to be an Olympic champion, and there’s plenty of time to sort things out,” said Vincent. “It means being adaptable moving forward. Try to be good teammates and make sure that we’re all working together towards the same goals … keep taking the strokes to get you a bit faster and stronger.”