If you want to make a Canadian athlete cry at the Olympics, just ask them about the family they have left behind in Canada.
In the bowels of Tokyo’s Kokugikan Arena, moments after the final bout of her boxing career, an emotional Mandy Bujold made a heart shape with her hands. It was a message to her two-year-old daughter Kate, who was thousands of miles away in Kitchener, Ont.
A day before stepping into ring, Bujold started to cry when asked about being separated from her family.
“Kate is obviously my motivation,” Bujold said, through tears. “My husband sent a video of her with all of this cheering stuff, so it’s nice. I’m hoping he takes lots of pictures and videos when she’s watching so that it’s something we can show her later.”
One of the many rules of these Olympics – dictated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic – is that athletes have had to travel to Tokyo without their families.
For most Canadian athletes competing at these Tokyo Olympics, making it to the world’s biggest athletic stage without the help and support of their families was unthinkable.
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‘Your support system is everything’
They are the one who drove you to early practices, and the ones who helped lift you up when you thought about quitting. They are ones who have been with them from the very beginning of an athletic journey that has culminated here in Tokyo.
“It’s challenging. Your support system is everything, the friends and family that have helped you since you were young,” said swimmer Kylie Masse, moments after winning a silver medal.
“It’s sad to not have them here. My parents have been able to come to every international competition. I am fortunate they have been able to make that journey and this year not having them here is tough.”
WATCH | Kylie Masse wins silver in 100m backstroke:
Canoeist Haley Daniels says having her family by her side was always what she thought her Olympic experience would look like.
“I had always envisioned being able to look up in the stands and see my family. Today, I looked up at the start line to empty stands,” Daniels said. “I think that you work so hard to get here and, although it’s something you achieve, there are so many people who help us get here.”
It’s been especially difficult for athletes who have won medals in Tokyo, who are unable to share the moment with family. It is not just their medal but the culmination of years of family sacrifice and dedication. Even as the Canadian flag is raised and the medal is around their neck, their mind wanders back home.
“I just would like my family to be here. It would be a way for me to thank them for what they have done for me,” said weightlifter Maude Charron, who won gold here in Tokyo.
WATCH | Maude Charron captures gold in weightlifting:
Charron spent much of the past year training in her family’s garage.
“I’m happy but disappointed. They are always there, they always have the right word.”
After Montreal’s Catherine Beauchemin-Pinard captured a bronze medal in judo, there were tears, as she talked about getting home quickly to celebrate with her dad, who suffered a stroke two years ago.
“I am so happy to be able to come home with a medal and show him that I did it,” said Beauchemin-Pinard, who says her father is her biggest fan.
“He was sad that he couldn’t come and I wanted him to be here. I can’t wait to see him and give him a big hug.”
Many athletes competing in Tokyo haven’t seen their families for months. For some, it has been more than a year as COVID-19 restrictions in Canada forced many to travel abroad to train and compete ahead of these Games.
The bronze-medal winning softball team relocated to Florida in January to train ahead of these Games. The virtual connection they have had with loved ones back home continued here in Tokyo.
Like many families of Olympians, pitcher Jenna Caira’s family gathered around the television to watch her perform. Before the pandemic, the family had planned to be in Japan for the Games.
“Everyone just jumped up, we were all sitting downstairs in our family room and we all just jumped up, and we’re screaming,” her mother, Helan Caira, told CBC.
Jenna called her parents shortly after the final out.
“I’ve been carrying with them this entire journey,” she said. “It was just really great to have them a part of it and to watch and celebrate with me.”