When Canada’s Erica Wiebe stepped inside the circle of the mat to execute the downfall of Kazakhstan’s Guzel Manyurova, she knew there could be no wasted movements.
It was an Olympic gold in the women’s 75 kg freestyle wrestling at stake in Rio de Janeiro for the then 27-year-old, an opportunity of a lifetime in front of her. And she seized it. Knowing her opponent’s go-to moves, counters were ready. Knowing the importance of imposing her will, she found a way to maximize her best strengths. Every bit of preparation possible was done for this moment, and so she stands today and forever as an Olympic champion.
It’s a feeling she wants once more, and so in the midst of a global pandemic, Wiebe has sought to utilize all her time to be ready for the Olympics that have been pushed back a year. During lockdown, she worked out at a friend’s gym and bought a road bike to satiate her appetite for competition and challenge. Strava, the mobile app connecting millions of runners and cyclists, became her new measuring stick. Every day she would grind until she could grind no more. And it was difficult. Maintaining the intensity needed to compete for a gold medal at the Olympics without an Olympics in sight brought its own set of challenges.
“We always have these demons that we battle,” Wiebe told Complex on a phone call she squeezed in between training sessions. “Whether it’s when you’re preparing for an Olympic Games and there’s those doubts and fear of ‘Am I enough?’ and in this current environment: ‘Do I have the courage to commit to another year? What’s the point?’ And so, it’s really important to find your why and ignite your passion.”
Wiebe appears in a new spot for Team Canada's "It's Time" campaign, which was "designed to help inspire and motivate Canadians to live by Olympic values of determination, strength, and courage to persevere through these uncertain times." Hey, we could all use a little encouragement right now. And if any story can get you charged up, it's Wiebe's.
Her story actually begins in minor league soccer, where her father, Charles—an engineer—was the team’s coach. Both Charles and his wife, Paula (also an engineer), were major advocates of putting their kids in sport and skiing was also something the family went out to do. It wasn’t until a wrestling session in Grade 7 gym class at Sacred Heart High School in Stittsville, Ontario that Erica gravitated toward the sport, though. She found it cool and fun but still couldn’t do anything about it because there wasn’t a girl’s team. Finally, in Grade 9, Wiebe was able to join a co-ed wrestling team with three of her best girl friends, and that’s when the passion really took over and helped form the star athlete we see today.
That’s Wiebe’s why, and to remind her of it in these unprecedented times, Wiebe did a couple of three-day virtual wrestling camps where over 40 kids would hop on a Zoom meeting and throw themselves around their makeshift wrestling space at home—and she made sure to set one of the themes as ‘Find Your Why.’ Wiebe came up with the idea when she realized the Alberta Amateur Wrestling Association that has hosted a summer camp in Jasper for almost 50 years—where she was once a camper and a counselor—had to cancel their annual event and she didn’t want all those kids to miss out on the opportunity completely.
“It’s been really cool for me, they’re around Grade 9 to 11 and so it’s cool for me to just see their passion and just their perspective on the sport and that’s actually been what’s so inspiring for me,” Wiebe said. “To hear 13-year-old boys and girls talk about why they love the sport of wrestling, it was such an amazing reminder for me to bring it all back to why I do this in the first place. And then, just with having sport taken away from me, it’s really put so much value on the privilege that it is to go to the wrestling room every single day and challenge yourself to be better.”
Life is about as normal as the new normal can be for Wiebe now. The relatively new Canadian Sports Institute of Calgary hosts a number of national sports teams and athletes and has been home to Wiebe and other wrestlers for close to two months now. She goes in for three days of strength training and two days of wrestling and when she’s not there, she also finds time to do her aerobic training three to four days a week by herself on her bike or running. The facility itself is maintaining impeccable hygiene standards, with mandated cleaning in between user groups which means participants can only use the facilities for up to 75 minutes at a time. In addition to the cleaning staff that sanitizes in between, user groups are also required to clean equipment themselves before and after each use. To minimize risk when wrestling, specific partners with specific protocols are in place, while all coaches have to wear masks. Wiebe also begins and ends each visit to the facility—about a 15 minute drive from where she lives—with a scanned questionnaire.
If you thought all that was enough to keep an elite, high-energy athlete going, you’d be wrong. Wiebe started pursuing her MBA in June through a joint program with Queen’s and Cornell. She remembers always having an entrepreneurial spirit about her, even bootlegging cases of Red Bull to the United States when she was playing soccer for the Ottawa Fury and selling them to friends at a premium.
Wiebe had initially applied with the intention of deferring until after the Olympic Games this year, but with that having been pushed back, the program officer gave her a call that provided the nudge she needed. Being an executive MBA program, Wiebe has classes every other weekend after an initial two-week residency and, once again, she’s relishing the opportunity.
“I’ve been kind of an expert in the sport of wrestling for a long time, so to go back to square one where you just feel completely incompetent and incapable, it’s a refreshing mindset to be in,” Wiebe said about her impressions of the program so far.
“It’s been a challenging, eye-opening experience. Kind of what I needed exactly to reframe and give myself something beyond wrestling. When you have that balance outside of your sport life, that allows you to compete with the fearlessness that’s required on the world’s biggest stage.”
That time will hopefully come in 2021 as scheduled, but if the past six months have taught us anything, nothing is guaranteed. What Wiebe will ensure, though, is that no time will be wasted and no stone left unturned when it comes to staying ready to claim yet another gold medal for Canada.