‘More mental than physical’: How Ontarians are training for an Olympics that may not happen

Sidewalk gyms. Training interruptions. Stress and uncertainty. For these athletes, the pandemic means unprecedented challenges — and a career highlight that may not come to pass
By Nathaniel Basen - Published on Mar 01, 2021
Alanna Bray-Lougheed competes with Canoe Kayak Canada. (Courtesy of Alanna Bray-Lougheed)

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Alanna Bray-Lougheed’s day starts with Greek yoghurt and granola, which she makes in the cafeteria of the Vancouver Island boarding school she’s called home for four months. She and her Canoe Kayak Canada teammates are on the water by 8:15 a.m. for an hour and a half of training. On cold days, the team starts a fire on the shoreline to warm their hands and thaw frozen rudder cables. Then it’s weights or a jog, lunch, and back on the water by 3 p.m.

The roughly 50 athletes have been on Shawinigan Lake, in a mostly empty campus, since late October. Bray-Lougheed arrived via Halifax, and before that, Quebec and Florida — where she’d been preparing for a 2020 summer Olympics that never happened. “Our national sport organization found the warmest spot in Canada where we could train,” says the 27-year-old kayaker from Oakville. “It's actually been really great. There hasn't been a day that we have had to miss because of weather — the West coast is really beautiful, and the water is really nice.”

The team is now in the final push for a rescheduled Games, but nothing is certain. While the International Olympic Committee, the Canadian Olympic Committee, and the Tokyo Games organizers have said that the 2020 Summer Games will go ahead this year, the virus is still spreading, as are so-called variants of concern. If the Games are held, individual countries may decide not to participate.

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four people warm their hands near a fire
On cold days, Canoe Kayak Canada teammates start a fire on the shoreline to warm their hands and thaw frozen rudder cables. (Courtesy of Alanna Bray-Lougheed)

For Canada’s would-be Olympians, the past year brought plenty of opportunity to practise managing uncertainty. Training interruptions, shifting timelines, safety concerns, preparing for a summer sport in a Canadian winter, and run-of-the-mill pandemic-related stress affect athletes’ physical and mental health. Now, they are working to reach peak performance on the most celebrated stage in sport in unusual conditions — if they have the chance.

Last March, Nick Wammes, the youngest member of Canada’s sprint-cycling team, was focused on earning the lone Olympic spot in his discipline — a competition that would come down to him and his teammate, Hugo Barrette. He and Barrette were living at a team home in Milton. There was a chance that Canada could have earned a second spot, but that would have required several countries scoring zero points in a qualifying competition — a highly unlikely result. “We woke up one Saturday morning … and saw the results,” the Bothwell native says. “And we’re like, ‘Oh, that's right.’ The gears started turning in the head, ‘We need to calculate this.’ And then we were on the phone with our coach — who was in Berlin at the time — and the high-performance director, and they see the same things we do: we have two spots.”

Wammes knew then that he would be going to the Games, fulfilling a dream he’s had since before he took up cycling in 2012, inspired by the Canadian women at the London Games.  “That was a crazy morning,” he says. “That dream you always had, it's finally a reality. It's finally, finally there.”

The men decided to compete in the March 12 trials anyway. The next day, everything shut down. “I was still convinced the Olympics were going to happen,” Wammes says. “I'm like, okay, two weeks — just two weeks, it'll be under control. It's going to be fine.” He went home for a recovery week, which stretched into two and a half months.

two men cycling
Nick Wammes is the youngest member of Canada’s sprint-cycling team. (Jeland Sydney)

Wammes and his girlfriend, also a cyclist, were determined to stay in shape, but it was a challenge. “We're used to being in a high-performance training environment with staff all around us monitoring everything, all the best equipment,” he says. “And, suddenly, I'm in my neighbour's garage, who has a squat rack that he was letting us use.”

In March, while Wammes was tracking competitions abroad, Bray-Lougheed was with her team near Cocoa Beach, Florida, a month out from qualifiers. She was competing in a solo boat, a two-person team, and a four-person team, hoping to earn her way to her first Games. “Then we got the call to come home, and a week later learned Canada wouldn’t be going to the Olympics,” she says. “It was hard. It took me a little while to adjust and find my groove again. Being an older athlete, I was debating on whether I should continue after the Tokyo Olympics or retire and start my career as a dietitian.”

She went to Quebec City, where she could train in the basement of her then-boyfriend’s parents. She reached out to her school, Mount Saint Vincent University, in Halifax, and arranged to delay her program. “So that was one thing that really helped me make the decision. That's going to be put on hold again; I can still do this, even though it's another year.”

In August, the women’s team met up in Halifax. The team was given permission to train — essentially, the women were allowed to go from the hotel to the water and back. “That was really awesome,” Bray-Lougheed. “It was the first time we had all seen each other since Florida.” They stayed there until the end of October, when they made their way to Vancouver Island to join the rest of Canoe Kayak Canada.

While Wammes went home for what was meant to be a March recovery week, Stephen McMullan, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, was developing a new strategy. Step one was getting equipment to the athletes. McMullan worked with the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario to set up gyms in the athletes’ houses. A sidewalk gym was thrown together outside the Milton homes. After the Games were officially postponed, the training approach changed again. Without any upcoming competitions, the athletes could focus entirely on training without worrying about peaking for an event. “We were just given this whole dose of time to train and more time to develop and improve,” McMullan says.

For Wammes, that meant more time on the road than usual — and less rest. That brought its own concerns, including overtraining. “I'm training, I'm training, and then it comes to a point where you’re just like, ‘I'm done. My body is done.’”

Bray-Lougheed says her team has also trained in larger volume blocks than usual, without races to break up the schedule. (Her last race was August 2019.) “I think we’re all stronger in different ways,” she says.

Nicole Forrester, an Olympic high-jumper from Aurora who now works with athletes as a

a man lifting weights
Nick Wammes exercises at a sidewalk gym set up outside a team home in Milton. (Jeland Sydney)

mental-performance consultant, says that the physical challenges of the past year depend on the sport. “Take a swimmer: they're trying to master certain components of their actual stroke, and the slightest thing to us might seem minimal, but to them it’s massive,” she says. “Maybe it’s a little bit harder for gymnastics or something. But certainly in a sport like track, you quickly learn that if you've got 30 metres of space, you can do a full workout.”

Trent Stellingwerff, the senior adviser of innovation and research for Canadian Sport Institute Pacific, is working on long-term studies on the effects of the pandemic on athlete performance. After speaking with athletes and coaches, and examining some results from around the world, he says it seems that “the lack of competition has allowed for exceptional conditions for just prolonged consistent training, which has resulted in some pretty unbelievable performances.” Canadian speed skaters, for example, posted excellent times at the World Championships in February, despite having trained on frozen lakes while the ovals were closed. “With the caveat being: as long as the athletes have been able to remain motivated in these conditions,” he says.

“It’s more mental than physical,” says Bray-Lougheed. Besides the near-constant uncertainty, there are also practical issues with living in an athletic bubble. “I’m lucky because my team is really great and we all get along, but there are times where you need to find some personal space.”

At the boarding school, the athletes are alone except for the staff and a handful of international students. “Some of us have roommates, and the rest are rooming alone. We go to the cafeteria, and we're all served by the lunch ladies there. And then our training location is literally right across the street from school. So that has been an interesting challenge, because we are always together and always right where we train. We've had to get a little creative with finding off-time.”

Stellingwerff, who is also the sports-science and -medicine lead for Athletics Canada, says the pandemic has given athletes a double dose of anxiety. “There were some athletes where they just couldn't do their sport, and that created a lot of stress and anxiety from a career and performance perspective,” he says. “But, also, from an emotional mental-health perspective, imagine you're someone who is used to training 20 to 25 hours a week for 10 to 15 years, and then all of a sudden, it's a dead stop. So there’s a lot of endorphin, metabolism, adrenaline, and cortisol shifts in your body. Emotionally, that is going to be quite profound.”

Forrester, a sports psychologist, says the challenge early on was making sure athletes found meaning in their training, amid the uncertainty. “What can't you control? You can't control the virus, you can't control access to a facility, and you can't control whether the Olympics is a certainty or not, but you treat it as if it is,” she says. “But you can control your nutrition; you can control your sleep.”

three people kayaking on a lake
Canoe Kayak Canada teammates Alexa Irvin, Courtney Stott, and Michelle Russell. (Courtesy of Alanna Bray-Lougheed)

She’s been counselling athletes in a skill called imagery — engaging all your senses to visualize something you can’t do in the moment. “As a mental-performance consultant, or a sports psychologist, I'm like, this is an absolutely awesome time to work on this,” she says. “You deal with the brutal facts: This sucks. It's awful. But what can we take out of this? And how can you use this as a launchpad? The pinnacle for most amateur athletes is the Olympic Games, but not everyone gets to go, and not everyone wins a gold medal. So what are some other milestone markers that you can also achieve?”

Wammes, with support from the team’s mental-health advisers, works to keep any thoughts of another delay out of his mind. “We’re training as if [the Olympics] are happening. When you let that sort of uncertainty creep in, it affects your training. Why am I going to push the hardest if it might not happen?” he says. “But in the back of our brains, we know the possibility. Health and safety are still important, and we’re still in a pandemic.”

Bray-Lougheed’s focus is on the qualifiers, currently scheduled for Brazil in mid-March. That brings its own logistical hurdles, including increased exposure to the virus and building a potential quarantine into an Olympic training regimen upon return.

She hasn’t decided what she’ll do after the summer — retire and focus on her next career or try for one more Games, a goal she’s been working toward since she was nine years old. “Right now, I am training as if there will be an Olympics, but I’m training more to see how good I can be, and see how fast I can be, and see how good my crew boats with my teammates can be,” she says. “I know if I wake up every day and think, ‘It might not happen,’ I'm not going to train well, and I'm not going to get the work done that I need to do — whereas if I wake up and realize that I don't need an Olympics to train like an Olympian, then that helps.”

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