Canadian athletes ready to rumble with Olympic competition around the corner

TOKYO — For Canadian athletes in Tokyo, the focus is finally shifting to the field of the play.

After more than a year spent talking about dealing with an Olympic postponement or how COVID-19 altered their training routines, the Games that many thought would never happen are here. While a handful of Canadian athletes have already competed in Tokyo, most of Canada’s 370-athlete contingent will see their first action after the Olympic flame is ignited Friday night in Tokyo.

Over the last few days, Canadians soon to compete in these Games — athletes can only arrive in the village five days before their competition — have been checking out the arenas, courts and rings where they will pursue their Olympic dreams.

There are many narratives playing out here in Tokyo. For some, it’s the beginning of an Olympic journey. For others, it’s their last chance. Some arrive with well-chronicled stories, while others will be introduced to Canadians for the first time.

For boxer Mandy Bujold, who will turn 34 during these Games, Tokyo will be her curtain call.

Bujold lost her quarter-final fight at the 2016 Olympics after falling ill hours before, and for a while it appeared the 11-time national champion wouldn’t get a chance for redemption in Tokyo.

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During 2018 and parts of 2019, Bujold was on maternity leave and out of the ring. But after the pandemic caused the cancellation of a key Olympic qualifying tournament, she appeared out of luck. Only after a successful appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), who ruled the qualifying criteria should have taken into account women who were pregnant or had recently given birth, did she make it to Tokyo.

WATCH | Fear of pandemic mixed with thrill of competition in Tokyo:

Inside the Olympic bubble, many athletes feel more excitement about their upcoming competitions than concern about COVID-19 cases, but the amount of cases popping up is only adding to anxiety within the Japanese population. 2:03

And now that she’s here, her focus is in the ring.

“Now it’s about getting ready for competition. We get our draw soon and once we get that it’s just easier because we know who we will be competing against,” Bujold told CBC Sports.

“For me right now, it’s all about my process. What are the key things I need to do so that I can bring the best out of my performance? I know there are multiple opponents I could face and I need to focus on my strengths as opposed to theirs.”

Asked about what she left back home to go to Tokyo, Bujold began to cry.

“[Two-year-old daughter] Kate is obviously my motivation,” Bujold said through tears. “My husband sent a video of her with all of this cheering stuff, so it’s nice. I’m hoping he takes lots of pictures and videos when she’s watching so that it’s something we can show her later.”

WATCH | Bujold uplifted after winning legal battle:

Watch boxer Mandy Bujold of Kitchener, Ont., read her statement after the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled that Olympic qualification criteria must include an accommodation for women who were pregnant or postpartum during the qualification period, paving the way for Bujold to compete at the Tokyo Olympics. 5:40

There’s also heartwarming stories among Canada’s taekwondo athletes. 

At 31 years old, Yvette Yong thought she would never compete at an Olympics. She only found out she was coming to Tokyo three weeks ago.

“Since my first taekwondo class I knew I wanted to go to the Olympics,” Yong told CBC Sports. “I’ve trained a lot of years for this. But it feels surreal. I still can’t believe I’m here” 

‘I’m ready’

Yong said that when COVID-19 hit and it appeared she wouldn’t have an opportunity to qualify for Tokyo 2020, she nearly gave up.

“Something inside of me just told me not to retire yet. If there’s anything I want to tell anybody who’s at that point in their life is to not give up.”

Yong, left, fights Iris Silva of Brazil in the bronze-medal match at the 2015 Pan Am Games. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Yong’s teammate, Winnipeg’s Skylar Park, arrived in Tokyo with gold-medal expectations and a level of family support most other athletes won’t have. Park is coached by her father, who has been in her corner since she started competing.  Her brother is her training partner and also travelled to Tokyo.

“The Olympics have been my dream and to win a gold medal for Canada. I’ve always told my dad when I was younger we’ve been building up to this for a really long time, so I’m excited, I’m ready,” Park told CBC Sports.

For all Canadian athletes who have landed in Tokyo, win or lose, they are happy be here — happy to finally be back in the game.

“Just walking into the arena, and seeing the Tokyo 2020 signs everywhere, seeing the rings, it was amazing,” gymnast Rene Cournoyer told CBC Sports. “Mentally, it’s great to be here competing against athletes I haven’t seen for almost two years. The pressure is fading away. It’s more excitement and confidence at this point.”



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