Erica Wiebe smiles, somewhat sheepishly, as she recounts the moment at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, England when she snuck onto the wrestling mats in the ExCeL building.
The former University of Calgary student and champion wrestler estimates that she was about 30 seconds away from being selected for the Canadian Olympic team that year, a loss that she describes as a “heart-wrenching failure.” But she was fortunate enough to travel with the team as a training partner, where she was able to experience the games first hand.
“There were three mats set up in this big 10,000-person stadium and, I guess, the security guards were looking the other way. The stadium was empty and the lights were dim,” recalls Wiebe with a wink. “I walked up the stairs and onto the Olympic wrestling mats, and I felt them, and I breathed the air, and I realized then that it was exactly the same feel, the same air as where I train every single day here at the university.”
Endless pursuit of excellence is about the journey
Four years later, mounting the podium to accept her gold medal in Rio de Janeiro, Wiebe made good on the promise she'd made to herself that day in London: that she would do everything she could to be part of the team in 2016.
Addressing a room full of Thrive Centre volunteers and participants on Feb. 9, the Olympic champion had plenty of advice to share about facing the toughest challenges life can throw at you.
“There were 306 medals distributed in Rio, that’s just over 100 gold medals, so there was about a one-per-cent chance of winning a gold medal,” says Wiebe, herself a former volunteer at the Faculty of Kinesiology’s Thrive Centre. The innovative fitness facility aims to empower and improve the quality of life of people affected by cancer.
“It was never about winning,” she confides. “It was about the journey. When I stepped on to the mats, I already felt like a champion.”
The image of Wiebe’s moment of triumph in Rio, beaming, with her coach perched on her shoulders, is iconic, but she doesn’t consider that day at the Games to be when she won. “I always tell people I won on some random Tuesday five years ago. Because it was about that endless pursuit of excellence every day.”
Challenges and loss forced Wiebe to see success in a different light
Having moved across the country to be a part of the Dinos' renowned wrestling team, Wiebe won a spot on the Canadian National Team in 2013 and went on to win the 2014 Commonwealth Games, the University World Championships and a host of international tournaments.
But it was a loss in the 2015 national tournament, costing her a spot on the Canadian team at the Pan Am Games, that forced Wiebe to see success in a different light.
“It was really weird because I walked out of the gym that day, pouring sweat, very upset, crying, but at the same time, I had never felt like a burden had been lifted off my shoulders like that before,” says Wiebe. “The people around me, the people that care the most about me, it didn’t change the way that they looked at me. Who I was didn’t change because I no longer had that title.”
Even after fighting her way onto the Olympic team, Wiebe never stopped focusing on what mattered the most to her.
“If you had asked me three weeks before the Olympic Games, I probably would have told you ‘I don’t think I’m going to win a match',” says Wiebe. “I focused my whole heart on just being my best, every day of that journey.”