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Canada's Olympic champion wrestler Erica Wiebe eyes return to competition

·3 min read

Olympic champion wrestler Erica Wiebe feels it's time to get back on the competition mat.

She and teammate Amar Dhesi of Surrey, B.C., intend to represent Canada at a December World Cup in Belgrade, Serbia, unless the COVID-19 virus derails those plans.

It's been almost nine months since the two Canadians competed in the Pan American Olympic qualification tournament in Ottawa.

Wrestling in front of zero fans in mid-March, they punched their tickets to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Less than two weeks later, the Summer Olympics were postponed until 2021.

Wiebe is ready to navigate the pandemic pitfalls and complications of international travel to reboot her competitive journey to Tokyo.

"It's been really crazy because in my 10 years on the Canadian national team, I've never not competed for this long," said the 31-year-old from Stittsville, Ont.

"I'm wrestling and training better than I ever have. I've just taken so much time to develop, to really dig into some technical and tactical skills. The training volumes are so different compared to when we're traveling to Europe every month.

"When I think about competing in Serbia in three weeks, it's really exciting to just see where I'm at, to experience a competitive environment and go through that process."

The reigning Olympic champion in the 75-kilogram class trains in Calgary.

Dhesi, a 25-year-old who wrestles in the men's heavyweight division, is currently training at the University of Ohio.

"All this training doesn't doesn't actually prepare for the real thing on the mat," Dhesi told The Canadian Press from Columbus.

"I need to get in front of a real referee and stand beside a real opponent, blow the whistle and see what happens. I'm just grateful Canada is letting us go."

The tournament Dec. 12-18 in Serbia's capital city was initially the world championship. With some countries unable or unwilling to attend, it was downgraded to a World Cup.

Both Wiebe and Dhesi say there will be enough high-calibre opponents to warrant travelling there.

Wrestling Canada wrestled with risk and reward in deciding the World Cup was an option for the Canadian team. Some athletes chose not to go.

"We've had athletes that training wise are probably ready to go and compete in Serbia, but don't feel comfortable doing so," high-performance director Lúcás Ó’Ceallacháin said.

"We haven't forced anybody to do that. We have some athletes that still live at home, that have elderly relatives that live with them that will be considered high risk."

Canada's six-person contingent will consist of Ó’Ceallacháin, Wiebe, Dhesi, their coaches and an athletic therapist.

Wrestling Canada used the return-to-competition assessment tool developed by Own The Podium and the Canadian Olympic Committee, as well as consulting medical experts, to determine how safe it was for Canadian athletes to compete in Belgrade.

"They are precious cargo," Ó’Ceallacháin said. "We take it very seriously how we're going to take care of them.

"Serbia has been very good at providing extensive documentation in terms of what their plans are and what they're going to do. We feel they're doing everything they possibly can.

"We're full of trepidation, anxiety, but we're also excited to get back at it."

Ó’Ceallacháin says he also sought advice from Canada's winter-sport teams already competing in Europe, as well as the Canadian judo team that travelled to Guadalajara, Mexico, and Budapest, Hungary for competition in recent weeks.

Wiebe intends to take part in Alberta's rapid-testing pilot program for international travellers at the Calgary airport upon return.

That could shorten her quarantine from the required 14 days if Wiebe tests negative.

Competing in Belgrade means she won't spend the holidays with her family in Ontario.

"It's a really big sacrifice that's really important for me right now," Wiebe said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 27, 2020.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press