By Martin Cleary
Gen Morrison has gone back to the future to rebrand herself.
The Olympic wrestling community knew her as one of Canada’s most dedicated and accomplished athletes from 2006-16. She had success on various international levels and won eight consecutive bronze medals at the Canadian championships before finally winning gold in the lightest weight class for women in 2015.
But after missing her dream of representing Canada at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, she announced her retirement as a wrestler.
For the next seven years, she focused on family with her husband Ryan and the wrestler turned mom now has three children – Bobby, 5; Corey, 3; and Haley, 2.
But 14 months ago, Ryan asked her if she would work out with one of his clients at Ottawa’s Sport Science Rehab and Performance, where he is the director of sport science. The time she spent on the mats with the mixed martial arts athlete helped her “get the kinks out” and reignite her passion for wrestling.
The Embrun resident had also been doing some wrestling coaching. By July, she was boldly relearning her sport of wrestling and doing it her way with the full encouragement of her husband.
“I wanted the process to be my own. When I started back, I had no intention of coming back to wrestling. I just wanted to roll around,” Morrison said in a phone interview this week.
“I was away so long. I was approaching it with new eyes, a new perspective and enjoying the relearning. If I jumped in too quickly, I’d lose it. I still needed to grow, improve and explore. I felt I needed to properly prepare for the transition.”
The return to being a wrestler as well as being a mother of three children under six years old was smoother than she imagined. One of her goals was to compete in last weekend’s Canadian championships and she elected to have no warmup meets.
For seven months, she rebuilt her wrestling skills, strategies and informed Wrestling Canada she would be entering nationals in Waterloo, ON.
Morrison, 34, didn’t quite know what to expect at her first Canadian championship in eight years and her first set of matches in seven years. On one hand, she was confident in all her abilities. On another hand, she viewed herself as the underdog, given her double Olympic quadrennial absence from the sport.
But after the National Capital Wrestling Club athlete/mom won all four of her 50-kilogram matches, including decisions over the first- and second-seeded wrestlers, she was once again a Canadian champion.
“It was surreal. It didn’t feel real,” an overwhelmed Morrison recalled. “In years past at the national championships, I won bronze eight years in a row before winning in my last year (2015). Winning nationals was not a habit of mine. It was neat to pull it off.”
Morrison, who also was supported by her cheering family at nationals and was named the most outstanding female wrestler at the championships, had company on the medal podium from her National Capital Wrestling Club teammates.
Kyler Keogh handily won his two matches in the men’s 71-kilogram cadet draw to earn a national championship. His performance also helped Ontario win the provincial cadet team award. Peter Shannon captured the bronze medal in the men’s senior 79-kilogram class.
In the women’s cadet 53-kilogram bracket, Ayden Gilbert Parson placed sixth.
Ottawa’s Augusta Eve, who now competes for Calgary’s Dinos Wrestling Club, was fifth in Morrison’s 50 kg category.
Morrison, who was the 2015 world championship 48-kilogram bronze medallist and the gold-medal winner in the same class at the 2015 Pan-Am Games and Pan-American championships, faced top-seeded Madison Parks of London in her first match. She posted a 4-0 decision.
“In my head, I knew I was going in unseeded and there was a chance I could meet the top seed early,” said Morrison, who saw that become a reality in the first round during the athlete draw for positions.
“But I told myself, she probably was hoping we wouldn’t meet. But I was definitely the underdog. I scored early. It was a physical match. Getting that out of the way was huge.”
She moved into the final by pinning her next two opponents – Alexia Seal of Burnaby in the quarterfinals and Samantha Romano of Brock in the semifinals.
The final against second-seeded Katie Dutchak of Saskatoon was filled with late drama and tension. With 20 seconds left in the match, Morrison “made a poor decision” on a move and Dutchak capitalized to take a 4-3 lead.
“I wasn’t sure if I was up or down (in the score),” she explained. “I took a Hail Mary attack with one second left.”
In that split second, she exposed Dutchak’s shoulder enough to score three points for a 6-4 win. But wait. Officials decided to review the end of the match to see if Morrison’s desperation move occurred before time expired. Morrison had indeed beat the clock, her opponent and a new path in the sport.
By winning her weight class and the national championship, Morrison has been named to the Canadian women’s senior national team, which will open the door for a number of international possibilities.
“I was excited to compete and see what I could do. It was a personal challenge for myself,” she explained. “In my past career, my highest priority goal was to get to the Olympics.
“My husband encouraged me. He said ‘why not train for seven months and see what happens? You have all the tools at your disposal.’”
Ryan Morrison has played a significant role in bringing his wife back into wrestling, providing athletic and scientific help along the way as well as putting the children to bed, when she had a night practice.
Chris Schrauwen, the head coach and technical director at the National Capital Wrestling Club, took his cues from Morrison. He let her dictate her progression, but he assisted with her skills refinement, made it fun and kept the pressure low.
Morrison remained rather quiet about her return to wrestling until she won her second national championship in Waterloo because “I wanted to do it my own way.”
“It’s what I love,” she said with feeling. “I didn’t think I wanted to be an athlete again until I got on the mat. It was fun.
“My husband is a fan of doing cool things. I’m usually practical, conservative in decision making. It’s really for fun and a fun family challenge. I haven’t done anything for myself since having the kids. My husband said ‘do something for yourself.’”
So she did. And for the moment, she’s an Olympic-style wrestler again. And the women’s senior 50-kilogram Canadian champion.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 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 High Achievers “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.
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