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For wrestler Verbeek, it’s about the memories, not medals

Olympic wrestler Tonya Verbeek of Canada poses for a portrait in St. Catharines, May 11, 2012.


For some Olympic athletes, medals are important.

For others, such as veteran wrestler Tonya Verbeek, it is the feeling and memory of winning one and the journey it took to get there that will stay with her forever. Not necessarily the thing itself, all glowing on its shiny ribbon, to be hung around the neck.

Verbeek, 34, of Grimsby, Ont., is in search of a gold medal at the Olympics this summer in London, and if she gets it, she will have created a collection of every colour. She already has a bronze medal from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and a silver medal from the 2004 Games in Athens. Or at least she thought she did.

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In 2005 during a flight between Fredericton and Toronto, someone stole Verbeek's Olympic silver medal – and a world championship bronze medal that she had just won.

The Olympic silver was hers to keep for only a year as it turns out, before it went missing. Verbeek had been bringing home a crate of lobsters, and laid back as she is, the silver medal (and the bronze) went missing amid the confusion.

She's put her own spin on the loss. It happened for a reason, she thought, like so many who have lost something important. "I'd be back for another Games," she thought.

Three years later, she was in Beijing, winning bronze.

The Canadian Olympic Committee helped Verbeek out with her loss, arranging for a replica to be made. Except that it's not the same. It has "Replica" stamped on the back. And she does not have the Olympic ribbon from which it hung.

Earlier, the real silver medal had had a happier ride, when Verbeek was introduced at centre field at a Hamilton Tiger-Cats game. The crowd was excited. "They wanted to touch that medal," Verbeek said. "They wanted to see it."

Before she knew it, the medal was being passed through an exuberant crowd, going from hand to hand, far from Verbeek's reach. "They wanted to see what it looked like, what it felt like," she said.

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"It was pretty cool. It was way up in the stands, and they'd say: 'It's here, Tonya! No problem!'"

Verbeek wasn't worried that she'd never see that medal again. "You'd be surprised how many people are on your side, protecting you in a lot of ways," she said. "They were full of amazement, and just very thrilled to have that opportunity and so I just went with it."

These experiences have led Verbeek to feel that Olympic medals are more for other people than for herself: supporters, family, friends and even just for Canadian communities to be able to touch. "I guess it's something very special for people," she said.

"It's my way of sharing with others the Olympics," she said, after being one of nine wrestlers named to the Olympic team for London. "To me, it's about the spirit of the Games, and how it brings everyone together. That to me is rewarding, to be able to do that."

Yes, the medal represents her accomplishment and if she had to do it over again, she'd take more care in where she placed her medal when travelling. There's perhaps little she can do about losing that silver now, except to win a better one.

She hasn't lost faith in people, she said. And she'll bring the same spirit to London.

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