In the run-up to the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Canada's top athletes aren't just training to win medals. This summer, as we watch our athletes compete on the world stage, their passion, their perseverance and, yes, those painful losses will bring us together like few things can.
The Canadian women's soccer team was clustered on the field at Old Trafford, the home stadium of U.K. soccer greats Manchester United. It was chilly, almost cool enough for a tuque, but team captain Christine Sinclair wasn't paying attention to the weather. She had just played the game of her life, yet she was inconsolable: Christine had scored three goals in a Summer Olympics semifinal match against the U.S., but the game ended with Canada losing 4-3. Team Canada's gold-medal dreams were dashed.
Three days later, however, the team rebounded to beat France and claim bronze, Canada's first Olympic medal in a traditional team summer sport since 1936. Seemingly overnight, Christine and her teammates became national treasures. They'd been completely transformed by their Olympic experience—and they had transformed Canadians' identity in turn.
This summer, a new crop of Canadians is hoping to do just that, at the Olympics and the Paralympics hit Rio de Janeiro, Aug. 5 to 21 and Sept. 7 to 18, respectively. More than 10,000 Olympians and 4,000 Paralympians from 206 countries are expected to compete in 42 Olympic and 22 Paralympic sports, including new additions golf, rugby, para-canoe and para-triathlon.
Each of those athletes has put in years of work—gruelling training sessions, competitions in qualifying events and meticulous daily routines—to reach that moment. Many don't even find out whether they've made the Olympic team until a few months or weeks before the Games. And all athletes who qualify must bear the psychological weight of knowing that all the effort and training could come down to a fraction of a second, with millions of eyes watching.
But those spectators can be a source of strength as well. While each athlete faces the rigours of training, they're buoyed by the support of the Canadians who cheer them on, and they draw inspiration from the Olympians who came before.
That was the case for Jeremiah Brown, who played football at Hamilton's McMaster University until a shoulder injury ended his gridiron aspirations. Then, he saw the Canadian men's eight rowing team win gold at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and was drawn to the sport.
He relocated with his girlfriend and son to Victoria, where the rowing program is based, and after two intense years of training, Jeremiah joined the national team in 2011 and became part of the men's eight team that won silver at the London 2012 Olympic Games. "[When you cross] the finish line, the euphoria washes over you," says Jeremiah. "We won a medal, and it was incredible. It was almost too much for one human soul."
That moment of triumph wasn't something Jasmin Glaesser had even dreamed of. She never thought herself a true athlete growing up, though she'd been active in ballet, figure skating and running. Then, at the end of high school, she discovered cycling. Her passion for the sport led her to the London 2012 Olympic Games. Only weeks after her 20th birthday, and one year after joining the national team, she won bronze in the team pursuit event.
Now, four years later, Jasmin heads to Rio as one of the leaders of the Canadian cycling team—and she has her sights set on another medal. "You prepare for the pressure the same as you prepare for the physical part," she says. "You always want to be able to go into a race and say you did everything you could." She feels profoundly connected to the 35 million Canadians supporting from near and far. Having moved to Canada from Germany as a child, the link feels extra special. "I missed out on a few races [early on], while I was waiting for my citizenship," she says. "It made me appreciate what an honour it is to be able to represent the Maple Leaf."
It's that reciprocal admiration between citizens and competitors that helps the Olympics transcend mere sport and allows the athletes to tell universal tales of strength, endurance and perseverance. "We all dream. We grow up aspiring to do great things with our lives," says Jeremiah. "The pursuit of excellence is something that can be appreciated across all human endeavours."
As the competitors make their final preparations for one of the biggest experiences of their lives, we're right there with them—and wondering who will step up and inspire the next generation of young dreamers.