Many athletes recall a moment at their Olympics when the presence of family and friends provided a boost – from the familiar bellow of a parent, to a row of rambunctious loved ones wearing matching T-shirts or a breezy visit on a day off between events.
With no foreign fans allowed at the Tokyo Olympics this summer, Canada’s athletes won’t have their top supporters to applaud them, to hug them in celebration, or to ease their disappointment. Without family on hand, competitors must find solace or encouragement elsewhere.
Gymnast Ellie Black remembers how moving it was when her brother William flew in unexpectedly to watch her compete at the 2016 Rio Olympics. A young gymnast too, it didn’t look as though he could make the trip with the rest of the family because of his own schedule. But he decided at the last minute that he couldn’t miss it, arranged a flight that zig-zagged through four airports, and surprised his sister in Brazil.
Decathlete Damian Warner recalls looking up at his family and supporters in the Rio stands as he threw his final javelin of the gruelling multisport competition. It was his best throw of the day and a key moment in what would turn out to be a bronze-medal performance. He then caught a heart-swelling glimpse of them all cheering and crying.
Every athlete has relied on a village of people. So it’s a tough pill to swallow that after training many years, the Tokyo competitors won’t have the supporters who helped them get there.
Warner and Black are among a handful of Canadian Olympians who are ambassadors for a new “Feed The Dream” campaign with Sobeys and its partner grocers. It will divide $1-million worth of grocery cards among the country’s qualified athletes and provide an online place for Canadians to send them messages.
“I’ve been so lucky to have been to two Olympics and had all my family there to experience it with me and I kind of get emotional thinking about it,” Black said. “That is such a big part of the Olympics – being able to share that with the people who supported you the whole way to get there. But it’s just going to look a little bit different this time.”
Black, 25, likely to be chosen to her third Olympics, where she may be a strong medal hope for Canada, has, during the pandemic, spent more time at her family home in Halifax than she can remember in any recent year. During some of the strict months when her gymnastics club was closed, she used gym mats and a low balance beam to train in the driveway. She took over the living room with more gymnastics equipment, trying to avoid ceilings and furniture as she trained around parents and siblings working at home.
She got to do things with them she rarely had time for during typical competition seasons: cooking together and going on hikes. She’ll use FaceTime to see them when she’s in Tokyo.
It’s unlikely that the large groups of supporters in Nova Scotia who held watch parties during Black’s past two Olympic performances will be able to gather to watch this one. But they’ll be tuning in.
She hasn’t travelled to compete during the pandemic, but she has done virtual competitions from her Halifax club. Gymnasts across Canada put on competition suits and filmed their routines from their own gyms, to be submitted and scored by judges. It has given her a taste of what it will feel like to perform without a boisterous group of supporters.
“It’s going to be a lot quieter in the venues and on the competition floor than we’re used to,” Black said. “Athletes are so resilient and adaptable. I’m confident that even though it isn’t an ideal situation we’re going to feed off other things and make the best of it.”
Warner is considering the ways he’ll recreate that feeling of family support when he’s in Tokyo.
He has filled his phone with pictures of his new baby son, Theodore, born in March. He also thinks of a keepsake his partner, Jen, made for him at the sendoff party before his first Olympics in 2012 – a gathering with 200 people. That day, his friends and family scribbled notes to him in a book.
Decathletes often write down measurements and other notes to consult between the 10 events in their two-day competition, as they accumulate points. Those are also good moments to read quick messages from people who believe in you.
“I would open that up, look at the measurements, and then also read a message to feel like my family is there,” said Warner, a contender for the podium in Tokyo. “So maybe I’ll find that book again and kind of reuse it.”
With his usual indoor facilities closed at Western University during the pandemic, supporters in his hometown of London, Ont., helped turn a small unheated hockey rink into a training facility, with tracks and jumping pits. It kept the 31-year-old in good shape until he could get outdoors to prepare for his first competition in 18 months: the Gotzis Hypo-Meeting in Austria later this month.
Many in London have become like family to him, from his long-time coaches and extended support system at Montcalm Secondary School, where teachers helped raise funds to send Warner, who was raised by a single mother, to athletics competitions.
Warner remembers the impact of supporters at his events, from the school friends who held up signs at the Toronto Pan Am Games, to the voices of family encouraging him to keep his pace in the record-smashing 1,500-metre performance and then singing O Canada when he topped the podium.
His favourite was walking into the stadium at the 2012 London Olympics, and the first people he saw were wearing Team Warner shirts – his mother and also his father, a man who worked on a cruise ship in Barbados whom he had not seen in eight years.
“Before I started every single event, I looked around the stadium to try to spot my parents, and it gave me peace of mind and made me feel like a little bit more under control in what was only my second year doing the sport, and I finished fifth over all after going in ranked 18,” Warner said. “It’s sad that some athletes are going to miss out on those family experiences in Tokyo, but it’s nice knowing that people at home are going to be cheering you on and there’s different avenues for them to kind of stay with you.”