TOKYO — There were plenty of days over the past 18 months that Canadian boxer Mandy Bujold had to wipe away tears before climbing into the ring to train.
The battles raging outside of it were overwhelming.
A month after winning a human rights appeal to sport's highest court to compete at the Tokyo Games, her arduous Olympic journey ended in just nine minutes, with a first-round loss to Nina Radovanovic of Serbia on Sunday.
But her much bigger victory versus the International Olympic Committee will have ripple effects for so many young women coming behind her.
"It was a big journey. But honestly, I just kept pushing through," Bujold said. "A lot of people just kept saying that just one person can't take on the IOC, it’s impossible, it’s not the right time or place. But you know what? I did it. I made it happen.
"I think I'm going to make it easier for other women moving forward. There's a lot of women in these Olympics who are mothers and Olympians and they're at the top of their game. And I think that's okay, it's good to show your kids what they can continue to do even though they have a family. So, I think we're setting the stage for the next generation to come."
The 11-time national flyweight champion, who hadn't fought an international bout in 18 months, lost a unanimous decision on points.
Standing in the post-bout interview area moments later, her red singlet drenched in sweat, the 34-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., curled her hands into a heart sign to her two-year-old daughter Kate Olympia - "K.O." - who's back home in Kitchener.
Bujold was briefly overcome by emotions and had to pause an interview to compose herself.
Arriving in Tokyo after what she called the toughest fight of her career, her final Olympic appearance hadn't gone to plan.
"I don't think there's any excuse for physically the way I felt," Bujold said. "It was just putting it all together. It's boxing . . . Some days you have good days, some days you have bad, and she just had a better day today."
The trouble began when COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 season. Then the regional Olympic qualifier this past spring in Buenos Aires was scrapped due to raging virus cases in Argentina. The IOC Boxing Task Force opted to hand out berths by world ranking, but then arbitrarily chose three international events for ranking that Bujold had missed because of her pregnancy and post-partum recovery.
Obviously unable to predict a global pandemic, Bujold had carefully timed her pregnancy to be back in top form for Tokyo, giving birth to Kate on Nov. 5, 2018.
She and lawyer Sylvie Rodrigue lost their original appeal to the IOC in May, leaving the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, as her last chance to box in Tokyo.
The CAS ruled on June 30 that the Task Force must include an accommodation for women who were pregnant or postpartum during the qualifying period.
Still, Bujold hinted there were other hurdles she had to clear that she'll be more willing to share at a later date.
"I think there's a bigger story to tell. Even when I thought I won, it was like, 'Well, did I actually win?' There's a whole story that even goes beyond that," she said, then added with a laugh: "You have to wait to read the book."
Since returning from her pregnancy, Bujold won six of her seven fights, the most recent in February of 2020 before the pandemic brought sport to a screeching halt.
In the months since, Bujold trained at home in Kitchener. Depending on Ontario's level of lockdown, she was either able to spar with a partner, or forced to train alone on the punching bags in her garage. She also used high-tech devices such as BlazePods, which are panels of flashing lights, like sport's version of Whack-A-Mole.
"My focus was obviously ups and downs. There is a lot of times when, I’d start my workout, and I was in tears, because of something that had just happened, it was just a big roller-coaster," she said. "But I have a really good team. My coach every day was keeping me focused. I had really good teammates that were kind of pushing me on the days where I needed it."
A Canadian camp in Montreal in February - the team's first chance to gather since the pandemic started - was cut short by a COVID-19 outbreak, sending athletes into another two weeks of isolation.
"I haven't fought for 18 months, but I didn't really think it was going to bother me," Bujold said. "It would have been nice to kind of get this one under my belt, and then continue to build on that."
The atmosphere in Kokugikan Arena, normally home to sumo wrestling, felt un-Olympic on Sunday, with no spectators due to the pandemic. There was no roar of applause during the boxers' walk-out. With only coaches, judges and a smattering of media, there was next to no reaction at all.
"It was a very different atmosphere. Even walking out, it kind of felt like it was more of like a club show, as opposed to the Olympics, there's no fans, there's no nothing to kind of get your energy going," Bujold said. "I was trying to find that internally by trying to pump myself up. But it's difficult.
"Nonetheless, hats off to my opponent, she had a really good game plan. She made me counteract what she was doing, where I should have been the one initiating."
Bujold has known Olympic heartbreak before. The two-time Pan American Games champion was eliminated in the quarter-finals of the 2016 Rio Games after a stomach bug sent her to the hospital the night before her fight. She was receiving intravenous fluids hours before the quarters, and could barely climb through the ropes for her match.
Then Adrian Teodorescu, her coach of eight years, died of cancer three months later.
Bujold's plan all along was to retire after Tokyo, and she said her loss doesn't change that.
"I'm proud that I can call myself a two-time Olympian. I still made it here. The battle to get here is often harder than the battle fought in the ring," said Bujold, the first Canadian to box in two Olympics. "I'm still proud of my career, I've had a really great career up until this point. There's other things that I want to start doing in life. I want to grow my family. I want to spend more time with my daughter. So, this is just the end of a big stage of my life."
She received an outpouring of support via social media after her loss.
"She's amazing. No matter the result, we're so proud & she has definitely set an important precedent that will help make sport more inclusive for mothers going forward! Well done @MandyBujold," wrestler Jasmine Mian posted on Twitter.
Posted Grace Dafoe, a Canadian skeleton athlete: "I'm gutted to hear she is out early but she should be SO PROUD of helping pave change. And for making it to Tokyo 2020!!!!"
No doubt, when she's old enough to understand, daughter Kate will be proud too.
"One day, I'm going to be able to share the entire story with her," Bujold said.
"Absolutely this was a win for me on this journey. Unfortunately, it didn't happen in the ring, but it happened outside."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 25, 2021.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press