By Hritika Jimmy
Returning to the Olympics this summer, Erica Wiebe will be pursuing another gold medal, while also after more, this time.
Since the 2016 Rio Summer Games, when she made her explosive arrival on wrestling’s greatest stage, Wiebe’s become known as more than an athlete.
The defending Olympic champion is a student, consultant, volunteer, speaker, LGBTQ+ ally and someone who’s stature as an advocate for progressive social change is challenging even her standing as a gold medallist.
“I believe sport has the power to heal, to inspire, to empower and to unite,” Wiebe recently told the Sports Pages.
Specifically, the 31-year-old Stittsvillian has become a champion of empowering young girls and helping them push past barriers that have historically been in women’s way — which, as she knows well, there’s no shortage of in sport.
“The history of women’s sport is a history lesson in resilience,” Wiebe said in a promotional video published by the Olympics Youtube channel in August 2020.
“We’ve had to fight for everything that we have, and we have to continue to fight,” Wiebe added.
Even since winning Olympic gold five years ago, Wiebe still gets told that she doesn’t have the “look” of a wrestler.
Those attitudes, as Wiebe explains in the Olympics video, are reinforced to girls from a young age.
“When young girls are getting into the sport of wrestling, they have been told their whole lives that they can’t play rough; they can’t be tough; they can’t be a little bit creative with their bodies and that’s a big challenge to overcome,” she said.
Wiebe’s own wrestling journey began in Grade 9, when she took it up after attending an open tryout at Sacred Heart High School.
While it was uncommon for girls her age to wrestle then, it was simply another athletic undertaking for Wiebe, who at the time was just another member of a family who had an untiring appetite for sport.
“As the youngest, Erica got dragged along from a young age to help out at her sister’s competitions, who was a rhythmic gymnast, because the whole family was volunteering at events,” Paula Preston, Wiebe’s mother, said.
Preston was the second-ever recipient of the Ottawa Sports Awards’ Spirit of Sport Award.
It was given to her in 2016 in recognition of the two-plus decades she’s spent as a fixture in the Ottawa sports scene.
The benefit of having a super-star volunteer as a mum isn’t lost on Wiebe either.
“My mum was always there,” Wiebe said. “From finding a wrestling club for me, to volunteering to be the draw master, to driving me around Ontario to tournaments.”
Preston, admittedly, was never going to be an elite coach for her daughter, so she always contributed in ways she knew how.
“I could help at the organizational and operational levels,” Preston said. “I could see how the sport actually worked and helped in those areas.”
Preston described her sports-parenting as being rooted in providing opportunity for her daughter, without exerting pressure on her.
“We cannot tell her what to do on the field or the mat, but we could get her there,” Preston said, adding that “we helped her develop an independent and strong personality and we let her go.”
That foundation is the backbone of Wiebe’s success, she said.
Wiebe’s own evolution off the mat suggests a few things may have rubbed off on her as well.
In Tokyo this summer, Wiebe will try to join a class with trampolinist Rosie MacLennan, who is currently the only Canadian to win individual gold medals in back-to-back Summer Olympics.
But with the influence she’s building outside of competition, and the push she’s promised to continue to make for “the next generation (to) have even better opportunities than (she) did,” she’s got the chance to have even longer lasting impacts off the mat as well.