THUNDER BAY – The first time Erica Wiebe stepped onto a wrestling match, she had no clue it would one day lead her to Olympic gold.
A Grade 9 student in Stittsville, Ont. at the time, it was just another sport, something new she wanted to try out to see if she liked it or not.
Ten years later, she raised her arms in triumph at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the 75-kilogram gold-medal champion after defeating Kazakhstan’s Guzel Manyurova in the final.
Getting there wasn’t easy, a message she plans to deliver this week in Thunder Bay, starting Thursday at the Gord Garvie Memorial Wrestling Tournament, put on by the Lakehead Wrestling Club at the C.J. Sanders Field House.
“Everyone saw that moment, where I stood on the mat and won the Olympic Games, but the thing is, along that journey, there are so many challenges, so many failures. I’m telling them that story, that it’s not going to be easy, whatever you pursue in your life,” said the 27-year-old Calgary resident, who plans to speak to hundreds of students while in town, hand out medals at the tournament and host a series of wrestling clinics.
The key is to not give up, no matter how daunting the challenge might seem.
“For me, I felt successful the moment I stepped on the mat for the Olympic Games. That was when I truly felt like a champion,” Wiebe said. “I kind of cultivated for myself the sense that it was enough and the journey that I won was enough for me.”
Her success is even more amazing when one considers when she started in the sport, women’s wrestling wasn’t even part of the Olympic Games, first offered up the year after she began, in 2004.
“Instantly I was ignited by passion for the sport. Wrestling is the world’s oldest and greatest sport. For this age group, if I can just cultivate in them a sense of fun, a sense of play, a sense of wrestling their hearts out on the mat every single time and not being scared to lose, or not being scared to give your all, I think that’s what I hope to do,” said Wiebe, who regularly trains with Thunder Bay hockey Olympic champion Haley Irwin.
Eight-year-old Addison Arthur couldn’t believe she was meeting an Olympic gold medalist and was astonished at just how heavy the medal was when Wiebe handed hers over to the youngster.
“It’s really cool because I’ve never actually met someone like that before. It was really heavy and it was just so cool that she won that. One day maybe I’ll be a wrestler like her.”
Nine-year-old classmate Taryn Foley said she learned valuable lessons listening to Wiebe’s story.
“It inspires me because if you don’t win every match, you learn more. And it doesn’t really matter if you lose a match,” she said.
Fellow Canadian Olympic wrestler Korey Jarvis is expected to join Wiebe in Thunder Bay this week.