Hundreds of Canadian Olympic hopefuls have begun competing on rinks, mountains and icy tracks looking to earn the right to wear the Maple Leaf in Beijing. The next three months will decide the fates of athletes who have spent their lives preparing for this moment.
The sports calendar was thrown completely out of whack after the unprecedented year-long postponement of the Tokyo Summer Olympics.
Most noticeable, amid the various restarts of league and event schedules, is having two Olympics within six months of each other. That hasn’t happened since the International Olympic Committee began staggering the Summer and Winter Games in 1994.
But in just 100 days — on Feb. 4, 2022 — the Olympic flame will again be lit, this time in Beijing for the 24th Winter Olympics.
With myriad cancellations because of the COVID-19, the race to complete events and get athletes qualified for Tokyo seemed, at times, impossible. Now, the race to do it all over again is underway.
But this is exactly where Marie-Phillip Poulin wants to be.
The Canadian women’s hockey team captain is treating October practices as if a gold medal is on the line.
“I love this. There’s one place where I’m most happy and most myself and it’s at the rink,” she told CBC Sports.
Poulin has been waiting four years to get back to another Games — her fourth — to seek revenge after a heartbreaking shootout loss to the Americans in Pyeongchang.
“That moment crushed me a little. A lot actually,” said the 30-year-old from Beauceville, Que. “It’s still pretty fresh in my mind. But you have to look forward and we know where we need to be right now.”
There’s no panic from Poulin as Beijing comes into focus. In fact, you won’t find many Canadian winter athletes panicking as the clock ticks down. Most seem at ease.
It’s a somewhat different leadup to these Olympics compared to the turmoil ahead of Tokyo, when athletes were forced to pivot and prepare for much longer than expected.
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Nobody really knew what the Games in Japan were going to look like with all of the new protocols and a seemingly unending moving target of qualifiers, training conditions and restrictions. But the Canadians competing there showed resilience and adaptability, something many of the winter athletes were watching closely.
In particular, the women’s soccer team that won gold.
“We watched a lot of it. We were in camp in Calgary for [the world championships] and the [women’s soccer] final was unbelievable. We were pumped to watch that. I think we can relate a lot to them. That was special,” Poulin said.
The Canadian women’s hockey roster will be announced in late December, with the team of 26 being trimmed to 20 players at the end of the centralization camp that is underway.
“This whole thing is a process. We want to learn day by day,” said head coach Troy Ryan. “As much as people have a tendency to look at scores, the centralization process is about being successful in February and this training and the exhibition games will make us better.”
It’s qualifying season right now, with hundreds of Olympic hopefuls competing on rinks and mountains and icy tracks looking to earn the right to wear the Maple Leaf in Beijing. The next three months will decide the fates of athletes who have spent their lives preparing. Team Canada will be announced in late January.
‘It’s getting real’
Freestyle skier Justine Dufour-Lapointe, who won Olympic gold in 2014, is eyeing another Games.
“It’s getting real. We can count the number of sleeps until the Olympics now,” she said. “I’m just waking up every day knowing my purpose and knowing the plan and focusing on that. One step at a time. That’s all we have to focus on.”
Her sister, Chloé Dufour-Lapointe, won silver in freestyle in 2014 and is looking to make it to her fourth Olympics.
“We are exactly where we need to be,” she said. “I feel serene. I feel prepared.”
The freestyle team, including 2018 Olympic champion Mikaël Kingsbury, have seven World Cup competitions before the Games in Beijing. Kingsbury has been dominant on the World Cup scene and is again a favourite to reach the top of the podium at the Olympics.
In addition to training in Canada, many athletes have also taken to international locations.
Canada’s four-man bobsled team are now in Beijing, training on the track they’ll race down during the Games. And early this week, Toronto’s Cynthia Appiah won bronze in the women’s monobob event at a test event in Beijing — where the discipline will make its Olympic debut.
Ice dancing duo Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier have begun their season and are preparing for the Grand Prix circuit before the national figure skating championships in January. The two opened with a win in mid-September at the Autumn Classic International in Quebec.
They’re coming off winning bronze at the world championships last March, their first medal at the event in eight tries.
“We’re in charge of our own destiny. We’re really trying to figure out how to be our best in February to get on that podium at the Olympics,” Gilles said. “However we want to feel is how we’re going to feel. It’s all about the preparation.”
Poirier says their focus is on improving each day and at each competition and not falling into the trap of peaking too soon.
“It’s important we don’t get ahead of ourselves. We don’t need to have our Olympic performance this week,” he told CBC Sports. “Trying to force that to happen now is foolish. We’re happy with the work we’re doing and aware of what we need to do at the Olympics.”
Canada’s short-track and long-track speed skaters are entering their World Cup seasons with crucial races throughout November and December to not only prepare for the Olympics, but earn spots on the team.
Earlier this month, Speed Skating Canada held its national championships in Calgary to set the competitive tone for the season. Ted-Jan Bloemen, the 2018 Olympic champion in the 10,000-metre, says he’s extremely focused at this point of his training.
“I think I’m as prepared as you can be at this time of the year. I know I’m on track. It’s a really motivating feeling,” he said.
Bloemen set a new national record at that event. He did the same in the leadup to Pyeongchang and ended up winning gold.
“It’s fun to look back at where I was then and where I am now. It’s such a long time already. An Olympic cycle already,” he said. “That gold is something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life and I’d love to do it again.”
Canada’s chef de mission is very familiar with what the speed skaters are going through. Catriona Le May Doan is a two-time Olympic champion, winning gold in the 500-metre in 1998 and again in 2002.
She says every athlete is now in countdown mode.
“One hundred days out is an exciting milestone as this means ‘it is real,'” she said. “The Games is where the athletes are hoping to have all the physical, mental, emotional, and teamwork come together so that they can have their very best sport performance in Beijing.
“This milestone brings nerves, but also excitement and pride.”