Ottawa’s Olympians on Canadian Olympic decision: “It wasn’t an easy one, but it was the right one”

Len Warren – Ottawa Sun

For Ottawa-area athletes and coaches training around the world in advance of the Tokyo Olympics, Canada’s novel coronavirus-inspired boycott of the Games didn’t come as a complete shock.

In the case of kayaking hopeful Madeline Schmidt, the writing was on the water during training sessions in Florida early last week.

For national fencing coach Paul ApSimon, the cancellation of an international Grand Prix event in California — only days before the Ottawa Senators and National Hockey League suspended their seasons — was a signal that the Olympics weren’t likely to go ahead as scheduled.

Meanwhile, over in Turkey, national men’s volleyball coach Glenn Hoag — who has a history in the national capital region — says he had heard loud rumblings that individual athletes were about to start boycotting the Games on an individual basis.

Accordingly, amid the disappointment of not being able to compete for the country on the grandest international stage this summer, there was widespread support for the decision by the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Accordingly, amid the disappointment of not being able to compete for the country on the grandest international stage this summer, there was widespread support for the decision by the Canadian Olympic Committee.

It’s possible — perhaps even likely — that the International Olympic Committee will officially postpone the Games within the next few days.

“It’s a luxurious problem to have,” said Schmidt, who effectively grew up at the Ottawa River Canoe Club and was bidding to make the Olympic Maple Leaf kayak squad for the first time. “Not being able to compete when people are dying and people are losing their jobs … I’m grateful for what I have. As a world, we’ve just got to get through this and stay isolated from each other.”

Schmidt, 24, was in Florida in early March, part of a national canoe and kayak training camp near Port Canaveral, Florida. The goal was to reach peak form in advance of the since cancelled Canadian trials, originally scheduled for the weekend of April 17-19 in Gainesville, Georgia.

“I was feeling very confident and strong in the water and I was ready to go to the trials,” she said. “I felt like I was in a good position.”

Even if the state of Florida was slow to acknowledge the inherent dangers of the virus — evidenced by the pictures of spring breakers on the beach and in the bars last week — those in training were aware of the global response to Covid-19 concerns.

“It was definitely on our minds once we started hearing events getting cancelled, with the NBA and the (NHL) shutdown and national organizations cancelling their events,” said Schmidt, who followed Canadian news events via social media. “It was kind of hard to see, because we’re in a bubble. We work out on the water, we go to our apartments, we go to the grocery store. We did see that there was no toilet paper.”

Early last week, the order went out to return home immediately. She drove home from Florida last Tuesday, arriving back in Canada on Thursday, and is currently self-isolating at a house in Welland.

ApSimon, meanwhile, was in Anaheim, preparing for a major international fencing event on March 13-15, when organizers called off the competition. The Senators were in California at the same time, playing against the San Jose Sharks on March 7, the Anaheim Ducks on March 10 (ApSimon attended the game) and the Los Angeles Kings on March 11. Considering that two Senators players have so far tested positive for the virus — test results for several others are pending — it hits home.

He wholeheartedly agrees with the decision by the Canadian Olympic Committee.

“It wasn’t an easy one, but it was the right one,” ApSimon said.

As for the possibility of the Games taking place in the future?

“I don’t see it happening in the fall, but maybe 2021,” he said. “Who knows? You work so hard for 10 years to qualify as a team. You want to be hopeful, but you want to make sure everyone is safe and happy.”

Hoag, who coached Canada to a sixth place finish at the 2016 Rio Olympics and played for Canada on the 1984 Olympic squad in Los Angeles, offered similar sentiments.

“The athletes were eventually going to boycott themselves and they have been following the news back in Canada,” said Hoag, who is coaching a team in Izmir, Turkey, in a now suspended professional league. “Our mindset was, how do we deal with the players who are stuck in Europe? Our mindset is really to make sure everyone is healthy and we have to turn our attention to planning, trying to help them with mental training. It’s disappointing. I hope maybe in 2021 (there will be an Olympics), but it’s hard to manage when you don’t have the information.”

Hoag’s son, Nicolas, who was born and lives in Gatineau, is also on the national team.

Almost universally, the message from Canadian athletes was the same as that from Erica Wiebe. Wiebe, the Stittsville native who became one of the country’s golden girls for winning Olympic gold in wrestling at Rio, summed up her feelings on Twitter.

“It’s the greatest privilege of my life to play for Team Canada,” she tweeted. “I get to do what I love and represent a country that stands for integrity, passion and is a true leader on and off the field of play. I stood on the podium in Rio and I wanted to do it again in Tokyo.

She followed that up with another tweet that closely mirrored Monday’s message from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“The most critical thing right now is protecting our community’s health and safety. We must focus our efforts globally on managing this crisis and getting through it together. For now, I am doing my part. Respecting social distancing. Staying healthy, mentally and physically.”

kwarren@postmedia.com

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