Event: Women’s 76 kg Freestyle
Local Club: National Capital Wrestling Club
By Martin Cleary
OLYMPIC BOUND: Technically speaking, Stittsville wrestler Erica Wiebe is the defending champion in the women’s top weight class for the Tokyo Olympics, after taking gold in her 2016 Games debut in Rio.
But if you mention that to her, she may take offence, toss you onto the competitive mat and pin you for another one of her career victories. For Wiebe, her second Olympics as a Team Canada athlete is like starting all over again.
“I’m not trying to defend my Olympic gold. The medal is up for grabs,” said Wiebe, who actually attended the 2012 Summer Olympics as the training partner for Canadian teammate Leah Callahan.
Wiebe is ranked No. 5 in the world in the women’s 76-kilogram division behind Estonia’s Epp Mae, No. 1; Germany’s Aline Rotter Focken, No. 2; Russia’s Natalia Vorobeva, No. 3; and Kazakhstan’s Elmira Syzdykova, No. 4.
Five years after winning the Olympic gold medal in the women’s 75-kilogram class in Rio, Wiebe will face a highly accomplished field of wrestlers, including five-time world champion Adeline Gray of the United States.
Gray, who was upset in the Rio quarterfinals, and Vorobeva, an Olympic gold (72 kg, 2012) and silver (69 kg, 2016) medallist, will be tough competitors. And Mae recently defeated Vorobeva for the 2021 European championship.
“That (gold medal) is never the goal,” Wiebe added in a telephone interview. “It’s about having the best performances that day. That’s what I focus on. If I can be my best, I’ll be champion.”
Reaching her second Summer Olympics took five instead of four years this time because the Games were postponed a year by the COVID-19 pandemic. But a lot has happened in that half decade that pulled Wiebe in many directions.
In the wake of becoming the second Canadian woman and third national-team member to win an Olympic wrestling gold, she was busy making appearances, being honoured and speaking to thousands of school children across Canada.
For one season, she competed in a highly popular wrestling league in India and fared well. On the other end, she was invited to explore the inner workings of professional wrestling for a possible World Wrestling Entertainment career.
After winning a bronze medal at the 2018 world championships, Wiebe was hit with a series of injuries, requiring seven X-ray sessions and three MRIs. But she’s a constant competitor and took another bronze at the 2019 Pan American Championships.
Then the pandemic struck and the sports world came to a standstill. But as that was happening, Wiebe attended the 2020 Pan Am Olympic qualification tournament in Ottawa in mid-March and won the women’s 76-kilogram competition.
For the next 10 months, competitions were cancelled and training was difficult because of local health and safety restrictions, especially those related to physical distancing. But Wiebe learned to carry on in a different way.
“The pandemic was tough early on, mentally, socially and with physical distancing,” she said. “Clearly, you couldn’t train or wrestle. You had to find a way to do it safely. I had to find ways to stay positive.”
Wiebe shook up her life significantly April 7, 2020, when she bought a road cycling bicycle, which she added to her training routine.
“I learned a new skill,” she added. “I found a new passion being outdoors. It helped me stabilize mentally.”
If that wasn’t enough to keep Wiebe busy during the one-year Olympic postponement, she decided to pursue an Executive MBA through Cornell University and the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University.
“There’s so much out there. It’s a great opportunity to have something tangible,” said Wiebe, who already has two university degrees and earned a scholarship to take her MBA through the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Game Plan program.
As the Olympics approach and the highs and lows of the past five years become building blocks for her next major assignment, Wiebe looks positively toward Tokyo.
“I’ll be ready no matter what,” she said defiantly.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 48 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.