By Dan Plouffe
Erica Wiebe’s Olympics started and ended the same way: singing O Canada.
Canadians from coast to coast watched the 27-year-old wrestler from Stittsville sing our national anthem from the top of the podium in Rio, but first came a more intimate rendition.
“One moment I’ll always remember forever – well, one of many – is at the Opening Ceremonies,” recounts Wiebe, explaining that the march-in is a very long process to organize, further building anticipation for the moment when the team was reunited with flag bearer Rosie MacLennan just before they entered the stadium.
“All of a sudden, somebody from the Canadian team started singing O Canada, and as a team and a country of 300 athletes, we sang O Canada together,” Wiebe details. “It gives me chills thinking about it. I never felt so united with my team, and to be doing this for Canada. That was the best way to start the Games.”
With her event still a full 13 days after the Opening, Wiebe and the wrestling team left Rio and setup for a camp in a small town around 3 hours away. The University of Calgary-based wrestler’s daily schedule leading up to her event had been meticulously sketched out essentially hour-by-hour, and the craziness of the athletes’ village couldn’t get in the way.
“Our wrestling coaches, our strength coaches, our exercise physiologists, our team leaders – everyone works together and develops a very specific game plan on what they want us to do the days leading in and the day of,” Wiebe highlights. “It’s all quite fine-tuned.”
The main goal of the camp was really to relax.
“In the preparations leading in to Rio, my coaches had pushed me and I’d pushed myself beyond what I thought I was capable of doing. Every day was such a struggle just to get up and go to practice. It took everything that I had,” reflects the former National Capital Wrestling Club athlete. “You go from training 4, 5 or 6 hours a day to when you’re tapering and you’re only training 1 to 2 hours a day, so that on the day you compete, you just feel so fresh and ready to go.
“But for an athlete in a sport like wrestling, you just want to push and push and grind. To trust my coaches and sit back and truly rest and embrace the taper was actually one of the hardest things I had to do.”
Wiebe entered the Games with plenty of experience against the world’s best, including two World Championships appearances and the 2014 Commonwealth Games, where she won handily.
“I’ve wrestled at big events, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt so in the moment when I’ve been wrestling before as I did at the Olympics,” signals the six-time Canadian champion. “I’ve always been worried about what’s going to happen, or I’ve been scared of losing because I’ve wanted to win so bad.
“When I stepped on the mats in Rio, I was just so truly focused on my game plan and what I needed to execute that I didn’t think once of the outcome.”
Wiebe controlled her opponents in the women’s 75 kg division at almost every moment of every match. She opened with a 5-0 win over Germany’s Maria Selmaier and then a 5-2 victory over China’s Zhang Fengliu to reach the semi-final.
Facing Belarus’ Vasilisa Marzaliuk, Wiebe was given a passivity caution, meaning she needed to score within 30 seconds or her opponent would get a point. Immediately after the restart, the former Ottawa Fury soccer goalkeeper showcased her trademark breathtaking quickness, darting down into Marzaliuk’s legs and converting it into 2 more decisive points.
“I knew that in her mind, she was going to reset and wait for me to come at her, but by sitting back, I knew she was heavy right-legged, so I just knew it was going to be there,” Wiebe recalls. “That’s kind of my bread and butter move, so I just went for it.”
Another pillar of Wiebe wrestling was on display in the final: unmatched fitness. The Sacred Heart Catholic High School grad simply outlasted Guzel Manyurova of Kazakhstan to win 6-0 and become the Olympic champ.
“I felt the full flow of my being. I was so in tune to what I needed to do in every moment,” Wiebe says of her golden day. “When my semi-final and final ended, I was still kind of in my moment of wrestling and I was so intent on what I needed to do, and then the buzzer rang, and I’m kind of like, ‘Hmm, OK…’ And then I look at the scoreboard and I’m like, ‘Oh, I won, OK…’
“And then it’s like, ‘Holy shit!’ In the semi, I was like, ‘Woah, that means I’m in the Olympic final,’ and then in the final, the buzzer rang and I looked over at the scoreboard, it was 6-0, and that was it, the match was done, and it took me a couple seconds to be like, ‘Holy shit, I just won the Olympics!’ It was just such a surreal feeling.”
Wiebe paraded around the mat with the Canadian flag and then showed she had plenty of energy left by hoisting her coach on her shoulders and completing several more laps to kickstart celebrations for days and weeks to come.
When she arrived home at the Ottawa airport, Wiebe was greeted by family, friends, supporters from her home club, media, the mayor and her city councillor, and other members of the public who didn’t know her but were nonetheless very proud of her performance and journey.
The Winsport-trained athlete received a similar welcome in Calgary, the gymnasium at the Goulbourn Rec Centre was named after her, and the social media tributes with the #bewiebe hashtag takes hours to read.
“Oh my God, it’s so overwhelming,” Wiebe smiles. “Even going into the Olympics, I had so many people reach out to me to say they believed in me, and that they’d be watching and supporting me this whole way, and they knew I could do it. Having all of that support going into it, I was so buoyed by all the love from my community.
“Afterwards, it’s been so amazing to hear all these people who have reached out to me and were inspired by my performance. I really hope that they can be inspired in their everyday lives too.”
Wiebe is Ottawa’s first Summer Olympic champion since men’s 4×100 m relay runner Glenroy Gilbert won gold at the Atlanta 1996 Games.
Wiebe’s solo version of O Canada during the medal ceremony was a powerful moment that created a lasting image of the 2016 Olympics for Canadians.
“I’m sure anyone in Canada can name a few moments of watching their favourite athlete on the podium at the Olympic Games, watching the Canadian flag raised. It’s just such an iconic moment in sport,” Wiebe underlines. “For me to be there and have that be my moment, it was so surreal.”
In the CBC’s Scott Russell’s closing reflections on Rio 2016, he asks towards the end of a video montage, “Is it worth it to have athletes of every race, faith, gender and orientation arrive at the Olympics and demonstrate what is humanly possible?” and then at that moment appears the final clip – a teary-eyed Wiebe proudly standing on the podium with her gold medal – and he concludes, “The answer is simple: ‘Yes, it is.”
“I’d dreamed about that moment for so long, but there’s no guarantees that it’s ever going to happen,” notes Wiebe. “I had been prepared to lose my first match. This sport is so cruel and I knew that anything could happen.
“But I was so fulfilled walking onto the mat the 18th because I had done everything I could to get there and I knew that if I wrestled my best that I would be happy with whatever the outcome was.
“I really truly felt like I wrestled my best that day. I just felt so in control, and I was moving, and I was dynamic, and I had so much fun.
“For that to culminate in me standing on top of that podium at the Olympic Games, I mean, I was just awash in feelings. All of those years of challenge and struggle that I endured and got through, and thinking of all those amazing people in my life who have supported me, it’s a really overwhelming feeling to actually be there.
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