Erica Wiebe knelt on the mat, a Canadian flag draped in her lap and a look of disbelief on her face.
Moments earlier she had become Canada’s third ever Olympic gold medallist in wrestling after defeating Kazakhstan’s Guzel Manyurova handily by a score of 6-0. That put her in the elite company of United World Wrestling Hall of Famers Daniel Igali and Carol Huynh.
That was going to take some time to sink in.
“It doesn’t ever sink in maybe,” Wiebe later said. “I woke up and I was just a random person, an everyday girl, just trying to work hard and be my best today.”
“I’m never at a loss for words but I am at a complete and utter loss for words right now,” she told reporters.
Eighteen months ago Wiebe lost the Canadian title. That meant she missed out on competing at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto and that year’s world championships. It led to a lot of self-doubt.
“For me, competing for a long time was not fun. I had so much pressure on myself,” she said. “In my training room, every day it never changed the past eight years, but I made the Olympic team and all of a sudden I felt this pressure. Today and in the weeks leading up to it, I shed that pressure and I was like ‘I’m still the same person, I don’t have to be a certain way other than the way I am’.”
In the last six weeks, she never let up on her training, leading to six stitches and a replaced tooth. With that hard work behind her, she was able to find her confidence, despite a relative lack of big event experience with only two world championship appearances on her record.
“I was really happy with the draw because I had wrestled every single person on my side and I knew exactly what to expect,” Wiebe said of the path to gold that saw her go through competitors from Germany, China and Belarus before she met Manyurova, with whom she had trained last summer. “Yeah there’s a defending two-time world champion, yeah there’s a 2013 world champion. There’s world medallists, Olympic medallists, but I had wrestled every single one of those girls.”
In facing Manyurova, she kept the same strategy she had all day and every day: “Push the pace, keep my hands on her, pressure her, break her, make her want to quit.”
There was also the welcome familiarity of the mat.
“The wrestling mat is the same size as the one I practice on every day, There’s a little bit more lighting but I just went out there and wrestled and had fun today.”
That attitude was evident even before the start of her gold medal match when she bounced into the arena.
“I just wanted to kind of unleash everything that I’ve put in the last eight years,” she said, with emotion evident in her face and voice. “We work really hard and to not put it all on the mat, that’s the worst feeling.”
In June, Wiebe had visited her old elementary school, Holy Spirit, in Stittsville, Ontario. While there, she made the students sing O Canada with her (“in both official languages” she was sure to note). When she stood on the top step of the podium and saw the maple leaf raise and the national anthem play in her honour, it was those students she thought of.
But she was also still processing everything that had happened over the course of the day. She told the story of American wrestler Dan Gable, who won gold at Munich 1972, and about how he felt shell-shocked during his podium moment.
“Now I know what that feeling is like because today I was just so in the zone,” Wiebe said, relating that after she won her semifinal, she wasn’t even sure it was the semifinal and that she was guaranteed a medal.
“It was like I had laser focus on what I needed to do. I didn’t ever think about being on that podium and singing O Canada. I just thought about my hand fighting and getting body position and getting head position and keep my hands moving, keep my feet moving and that’s what I had on repeat in my head all day.”
“So when the match ended, I was still not sure really what happened and now I have this nice heavy reminder around my neck.”