Olympic Odyssey: 10 Canadian Storylines for Tokyo

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This week marks the second installment of Olympic Odyssey by Mike Brock, an Olympics television producer for the CBC, a special for Expositor readers. 

by Mike Brock

TOKYO—The Opening Ceremonies for the Olympics are taking place on Friday, July 23. (There are a few events that actually start competition on the 21st.)

To help get you set for the action, here are 10 Canadian stories to follow.

Andre de Great

In Rio, Usain Bolt took the time for a wink and a nod to the second fastest man in the field before they hit the finish line. That would have been Canada’s Andre de Grasse. De Grasse was the first Canadian athlete to win medals in all three sprint disciplines (100m, 200m, 4 x 100m relay). Usain has since bolted for the lucrative world of commercials, while de Grasse has spent the last five years hovering around the top of the sprinting heap. With the current world champion, Christian Coleman of the United States, banned for missing three consecutive doping tests, de Grasse is in fine form, and will definitely be one of the favourites.

Athletics starts on July 30, and the men’s 100 metre heats start on July 31.

The Women’s Wave

The Canadian Women’s Swim Team in Rio surprised everyone, especially the Canadian Women’s Swim Team. The few expectations were blown out of the water early on in the competition, when rookie Penny Oleksiak tied for the Gold medal with American Simone Manuel in the 100-metre freestyle. Oleksiak’s face when she saw the clock is one of the iconic frames of the games. But it wasn’t just Penny’s medal haul. In all, the ladies won seven medals in the pool. Backstrokers Kylie Masse (100m) and Hilary Caldwell (200m) added individual medals, and both freestyle relays reached the podium. And since then, it’s only gotten better. Taylor Ruck won seven medals at the Commonwealth Games. Kylie Masse won two World Championships in the 100-metre mackstroke. Maggie MacNeil from London, Ontario burst onto the international scene in the last few years becoming World Champion in 100-metre butterfly, and earning NCAA Swimmer of the Year honours this past season. The newest addition to the team is 14-year-old Summer McIntosh, whose times at Canadian trials last month will put her in the Top 8 in the 200-, 400- and 800-metre freestyles. She should also help the 4 x 200 relay team challenge for another medal.

Swimming starts on July 24.

A Rosie 3-Peat

No Canadian athlete has ever won the same individual event at the three Olympics in a row. Rosie MacLennan is hoping to bounce back from a few injuries to do just that. The trampoline champion out of Richmond Hill has dominated the sport since the London Olympics, adding 19 World Championship medals to her two Olympic golds. 

Things on the trampolines get jumping on Friday, July 30.

#CANWNT

The all-time leader in International soccer goals scored, Christine Sinclair, leads the way again for the Canadian Women’s National Team (#CANWNT) as the perennial contenders try to climb the podium after two consecutive Bronze medals. The growth of the women’s game around the world has been phenomenal and Canada, backed by a huge grass roots soccer culture has been a big part of it. Some new faces on the team, but many of the veterans from the last two Games are back to see if they can get a medal of a different shine. In fact, there are a dozen women back from the Rio squad, including the top two netminders, Stephanie Labbe and Kadeisha Buchanan. The Canadians were ranked 8th in the world last month, but with a great mix of veterans and young stars, they should still challenge again for the podium.  

The squad’s first match will be against Japan two days before the opening ceremonies, on July 21.

Diving Back In

After an already successful international career, Brent Hayden won a bronze medal in the 100-metre freestyle at the 2012 Games. He then decided to hang up the goggles. It was almost eight years later, in 2019, after getting in the water with some of the kids that he was coaching, that he decided to dive back into the sport full time. Despite the delay last year, he hung with it, and the now 37-year-old won the 50-metre freestyle at last month’s Canadian trials. While the men’s team won’t be nearly as strong as the women’s team in Tokyo, there is some real promise on deck. After Rio, Swim Canada created the “Next Gen Program” to identify and support younger teenagers who showed potential to be part of the senior national team. The success of the program has put a few swimmers on the team that weren’t expected to be on the Olympic team for another four years. Teenagers Josh Liendo, Gabe Mastromatteo, Finlay Knox and Cole Pratt were barely born when Hayden was representing Canada for the first time, and now, they’ll be teammates.

Swimming starts on July 24. 

Women’s Beach Volleyball

It might surprise some folks–Canadian or otherwise–that this country has produced some really good beach volleyball players. This year, at least on the women’s side, there will be lots of Canadian content on the beach in Tokyo. Melissa Humana Paradis and Sarah Pavan were World Champions in 2019, and the other duo representing Canada, Heather Bansley and Brandie Wilkerson, were ranked No.1 in the world just a few months ago. 

The beach volleyball tournament starts on July 24.

Centre Court

Canadian tennis has had a really good couple of years. Bianca Andreescu became the first Canadian to win a Singles Grand Slam event when she won the US Open in 2019. And while hobbled by injuries through much of the past year and a half, she looks to be healthy and competitive in time for Tokyo. Also on the women’s side, up and comer Leylah Fernandez won her first event in 2021, and has rocketed up the rankings into the top 70. The men are led by veteran Milos Raonic, who has been joined in the World Top 25 by Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime. While Shapovalov has decided not to compete in Tokyo due to concerns over COVID, veteran double specialist Vasek Pospisil will join the squad. Don’t be surprised if any of these Canadians can make a run to compete for a medal in singles, or doubles.

First serve for the tennis competition is July 24.

Canadian Moms

Call it bureaucracy, call it misogyny, call it whatever you want, but it took the International Olympic Committee until the end of June to rule on the side of common sense, when they awarded judgments in the favour of two Canadian athletes who became mothers in the last year. Kim Gaucher, a member of Canada’s basketball team appealed to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) so that she could bring her three-month-old daughter Sophie to the Games in order to keep breastfeeding. If they had not, it was likely that Gaucher would have to stay home. 

Boxer Mandy Bujold had appealed to IOC because although she planned the birth of her child, Kate Olympia, in late 2018 so that she could be in top shape for the qualification, she did not plan for COVID cancelling the qualifying period. The IOC originally declined her appeal, despite her clear qualifications (11-time Canadian Flyweight Champion, including 2019). It’s good news all around, and it will be awesome to watch these great athletes and mothers compete wearing the Maple Leaf.

Tip off for the Canadian basketball women is July 26. Bujold enters the ring on July 25.

Rugby 7s

Rugby 7s, like beach volleyball, isn’t necessarily a sport that you might associate with Canada. But here’s the thing…we’re really good at it! It’s a fast paced, shorter event than traditional rugby. Seven minutes a half, seven players a side. The Canadian women won a Bronze medal in Rio, and are consistently ranked in the top eight in the world. The men join them in the Olympic tournament this time, and look to make an impact after solidifying their place in the world’s Top 10 over the last few years.

The ruck starts for the men on July 26, with the women getting going on July 29.

Ontario Tees Off 

Remember that one time when you hit that perfect three wood off the 7th hole at Rainbow Ridge? Brooke Henderson does that in her sleep. And she does it for a living, every single day. Henderson, from Smiths Falls, is one of the best golfers in the world. She is only 23 years old, and is likely already the most accomplished golfer in Canada’s history. This month, she is absolutely a threat to take home the Gold medal in Tokyo. She will be joined on the course by Alena Sharp, an accomplished LPGA player in her own right. Interestingly, both women are Ontario natives, as are both of the golfers teeing up in the men’s tournament. Even more interestingly, not only are Mackenzie Hughes and Corey Conners from the same province, the two men were also teammates at Kent State University. Both have had great seasons on the PGA Tour, most recently with Hughes getting a lot of attention for being in contention heading into the Final Round of the US Open Championship–and are most definitely in contention for a medal. Now, as any golfer knows, there are no guarantees—the sport is either the perfect game, or a good walk spoiled. No matter what your lie is, though, it should be fun to watch.

Conners and Hughes will tee off on July 29. Brooke and Alena will hit their first shots on August 4.