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Bruce Arthur: A one-and-done Olympics isn’t easy, especially during COVID-19. But hopefully it gets easier

Bruce Arthur: A one-and-done Olympics isn’t easy, especially during COVID-19. But hopefully it gets easier
Sports
TOKYO—Penny Oleksiak started the last leg of the relay in second place and ended up third, but she wasn’t bothered. It wasn’t a final, it was just the road there. The Canadian women’s 4x100-metre freestyle team won bronze in 2016 and, with Oleksiak and Taylor Ruck still on the team, they didn’t have to exert themselves too much to qualify Saturday, not quite. Still a ways to go.

“It differs for everyone,” said Oleksiak, who actually swam the second-fastest 100 free of the relay heats in 52.38, behind only the Netherlands anchor who passed her. “Like some of us are pretty much going all out so that we can get a spot for tomorrow, and some of us are kind of just trying to get us into a spot for tomorrow, so I think that’s it. It depends on the person.”

“I think we all kind of just went out there and did our best to get into the final. It wasn’t supposed to be anything major, and I think we all definitely have a bit more speed going into tomorrow on a full night’s sleep so we’re just excited for that.”

A lot of the biggest swimmers get to race a lot: it’s a perk and pressure of being a big-time Olympian. And even in a COVID-19 year, Canada’s four best 100-metre swimmers seemed happy, positive, infused with adrenalin. They have a shot.

And then there is Tess Cieplucha. You probably haven’t heard of her. Not many had, even when she won a Pan Am Games gold in 2019 in the 400-metre individual medley. She is a kid from Oakville, lifelong swimmer, got a scholarship to the University of Tennessee, studying. Got the Pan Am win. Pretty good.

Then at the Canadian trials, with the faster Sydney Pickrem in the next lane, she swam her best ever time, 4:37.26, and just barely qualified for her first Olympics at age 22. She got to go.

And once she got here, the Olympics weren’t quite what she was told about by teammates. The social aspect in the athletes village? Much reduced, . The opening ceremony? When you swim on Saturday, you don’t go march in a hot and humid stadium.

So Cieplucha swam Saturday, the first day. She struggled, finished sixth in her heat, and was eliminated. One race, and it’s over.

She wasn’t the first athlete out. In martial arts, your Olympics can end in a flash. As Tariq Panja of The New York Times pointed out, a Malawian judoka named Harriet Bonface had her Olympics end in a 14-second, 10-0 loss to Brazilian Gabriela Chibana. But, in martial arts, some competitors can wait to see if whoever beat you becomes a finalist, and you can qualify for the repechage and a second chance.

If this was a typical Games, this wouldn’t be the end of Cieplucha’s Olympics. Being a swimmer is usually one of the best gigs here because they race in the first week, and after your race you normally don’t have to go home.

But because these are a pandemic Games, the Olympics have asked Olympians to fly home within a day or two of their final competition. Canada aims to do it pretty fast. It is possible that, after working for years, after dedicating her life to the sport, Cieplucha’s Olympics could involve a bare few days of training camp in Japan, a glimpse of an athletes village filled with masks and other impediments, skipping the opening ceremony, and her one race, with her friends and family on the other side of the world. And then back home.

“We’re still working on when I fly home — I might be flying home earlier than the rest of the team, I’m not sure yet,” said the bright-eyed, beaming Cieplucha, who just got her degree in geology and environmental study. “The whole experience here has been really different from what I’ve been expecting and what I had heard from past Olympians, from past Olympics, with COVID restrictions and everything.”

“It’s unfortunate,” MacDonald said. “But, you know the point is Tessa knew that coming in, and she’s just absolutely ecstatic that she has an Olympic experience, you know?”

And she is. In some ways, Cieplucha’s answers were classic first-time Olympian stuff. She wasn’t as nervous as she thought she would be. She was so excited to swim. She is just trying to take in the experience and hopes to take the good and the bad from this, as she has for the past several years, which helped her get here. She wouldn’t have been here without her parents, and every coach, all the way back.

Every story like this is unique, and the same.

And then she said something just different enough. The 22-year-old who just swam slower than her trials time, who finished sixth in a six-person heat, who might have to fly home Monday and become a one-day Olympian unless they keep her as an alternate because you never know what COVID can do, spoke about the struggles of this pandemic Olympics.

“I hope we can use all the challenges from this one,” she said, “to make all the other years even easier.”

It’s funny. Sometimes amid everything that is happening, you get a little lesson of the Games. This thing is hard: hard to reach, harder to master, and so much more difficult this year, just like almost everything else. Hopefully, for everyone, it will only get easier from here.

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