Desiree Scott has gathered just once in the past year with her Canadian soccer teammates – people she calls her closest friends, her second family and those with whom she aims to win another medal this summer at the Tokyo Olympics.
As the COVID-19 pandemic kept the Canadian teammates apart for 11 months, the veteran midfielder spent large chunks of time at home in Winnipeg, exercising in her basement with a treadmill and punching bag and kicking a soccer ball against the wall. The national team gathered on Zoom a few times a week for an eclectic variety of workouts. A certified Zumba instructor, Scott, even led them in virtual dance class.
Finding an opportunity when the Canadian women were free from their clubs and could gather safely proved challenging. They reunited for the first time since March of 2020 last month in Orlando before the SheBelieves Cup, although Canadians on European clubs were not released to go. Players had their own hotel rooms, could only visit outdoors and refrained from hugging. Still, the women were elated to see each other, and they will gather again in England in the April FIFA international window.
“At our first team meeting I had tears in my eyes and I cried a little bit,” said Scott, a bronze medalist with Canada at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. “To be able to laugh with your friends and kick a soccer ball together was huge. I had an immense feeling of gratefulness. It was just so lovely to not be by myself anymore, and to be able to train together with a purpose.”
Facing postponed tournaments, cancelled training camps, the travel complications of Canada’s 14-day travel quarantine, and the risks of getting COVID-19, many Canadian Olympic and Paralympic teams have not trained or competed together as much as they would have liked before Tokyo. But that doesn’t mean they’re not working.
With time ticking, many Canadian teams have got creative. They’re taking preparation virtual, remapping their training calendars on the fly and making the most of fewer in-person gatherings. While training separately, some athletes are being quite innovative.
Canada’s wheelchair rugby team has earned medals at three of the past four Paralympics and is eyeing another in Tokyo. Its players live across the country, but had a busy training and competition schedule before the pandemic hit. Since then, the players have gathered just twice to train.
Three-time Paralympian Trevor Hirschfield, co-captain of the team, lives in Parksville, B.C., on Vancouver Island. In the absence of much time with teammates, and intermittent gym closures, Hirschfield rented a storage unit, put some adaptive exercise equipment inside and opened the garage door to his own gym. When the weather is good, he uses the long, smoothly paved rows between the storage buildings as a track to push his wheelchair fast.
It’s a mixed-gender contact sport played on a gym court, with fast-moving competitors, strategic passes and hard-crashing wheelchairs. Canada hasn’t faced another team in more than a year, and Hirschfield says it’s hard to simulate what it’s like to absorb match-like hits when you’re not facing them regularly.
“We’re all at home, lifting and getting stronger, pushing in our chairs, and we notice the impact of our training, but after a two-week training camp you’re feeling more sore than in the past after a camp because your body’s not used to that level of contact,” Hirschfield said after a camp in Ottawa. “I’m thinking of maybe setting up drills where you run into car tires to simulate that contact. You have to find ways to be creative.”
Canada’s women’s basketball team has high aspirations for Tokyo, but hasn’t gathered since it won the Olympic qualifier last February in Belgium. The players are scattered around the world, with teams in the WNBA, NCAA or Europe. Canada Basketball hasn’t been able to safely squeeze national team camps into the players’ limited time away from their clubs during the pandemic, especially with Canada’s 14-day quarantine period being enforced until at least April 21.
So the women have focused on online gatherings. They began with regular check-ins, then held a week-long virtual camp in the summer with lengthy team sessions each day, to study game film, do mental preparation and have small-group breakout conversations. They used game-based education platform Kahoot! to quiz the players on new basketball technical stuff they were learning.
“We’re probably more connected and closer than we’ve ever been as a team, even though we haven’t been face to face,” head coach Lisa Thomaidis said. “We’ve learned some new ways to teach and learn the game.”
The team plans to hold a camp in Kariya, Japan, before the Games, but when the players may meet in person before that remains uncertain. They know their competitors are gathering.
“We don’t think of ourselves as at a disadvantage because we haven’t been able to play together this year,” said Bridget Carleton, one of four WNBA players vying to play for Canada. “We have played together for four years many of us, we know each other well and we’ve been communicating all year.”
Canada’s women’s softball team will head to Fort Meyers, Fla., this month to train in warm weather, and it likely won’t cross back into Canada until after the Olympics.
Softball is briefly returning to the Olympics for the first time since 2008 and Canada’s women have qualified. Some kept their careers going for this opportunity. Softball isn’t on the Olympic program for 2024 in Paris.
The softball women, who live across Canada and the United States, gathered for virtual camp early in the pandemic. Players would FaceTime with coaches from afar to watch bullpens or batting practice. They didn’t meet in person or as a team until January in the Toronto area, where as high-performance athletes they could access domed facilities that were closed to the public.
In Florida, they will live a bubbled existence between their houses and the training facility, be tested regularly and play exhibition games against NCAA teams. The players imagined being in a big send-off event in B.C. this summer, but that won’t happen. They didn’t want to lose 14 training days to quarantine.
“For the majority of athletes on this team, this is their only opportunity to go to an Olympic Games, so there’s a sense of urgency,” said Canadian women’s Olympic softball coach Mark Smith. “We’re going there to win a medal.”
Canada’s men’s volleyball team is qualified for Tokyo. Right now, its players are with their pro clubs in places such as Turkey and Italy, playing in leagues that test them regularly for COVID-19.
The Canadian team likely won’t get a chance to play together until the Volleyball Nations League (VNL) starts in late May, a five-week bubbled international tournament in Italy that was just announced. The team is hoping players can come home to Canada to rest after their pro seasons, then train as a team before the VNL, but the 14-day quarantine could make that tight.
This team is seasoned at connecting virtually, especially with mental performance coach Kyle Paquette. Players do short optional drop-in sessions with him to have a quick meditation and chat with teammates. He also has athlete leaders on the team host small groups to build personal connections, autonomy and decision-making on the court.
“It’s an opportunity to get some face time and make sure they feel like they’re part of something bigger,” Paquette said. “The No. 1 priority is making sure these athletes are being taken care of as people, because during COVID their connections with others are decreased. Without that foundation of wellness, it’s really hard to expect high performance.”
MEN’S FIELD HOCKEY
Canada’s men’s field hockey team has qualified for the Olympics, and the players have been able to train together, because most of them live in the Vancouver area, and they play outdoors. The team has had some players and family members test positive for COVID-19, and while everyone has recovered, that has shut down training a few times.
The players are soon headed on a two-week trip to Belgium to play against the Belgians and French – the Canadians’ first matches since January of 2020. Then they’ll return to Canada and do the 14-day quarantines.
“The European teams can play each other easily, so it’s kind of a disadvantage for Canadian athletes that we’re just so geographically far from competition and we have to account for that,” said two-time Canadian field hockey Olympian Mark Pearson. “Like anything it’s a cost benefit – you get the two weeks of gain from the trip, and then you have to try and maintain it while you’re in quarantine.”
Canada has also qualified Olympic teams for men’s and women’s rugby and women’s water polo. It could still qualify men’s teams in basketball, baseball, soccer and the debuting 3-on-3 basketball. Canadian Paralympic teams have also qualified women’s teams in sitting volleyball, goalball, and men’s and women’s squads in wheelchair basketball.