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Tue, August 24, 2004

Verbeek never gave up the fight


Tonya Verbeek's unlikely road to Olympic silver was fraught with detours and potholes.

But there she stood yesterday, on the first championship day of Olympic women's wrestling, a virtual unknown in her own country, wearing the fifth Canadian medal of a most difficult Summer Games.

The expectations -- and there is that word again -- were that Canada would win a medal in the women's wrestling competition here in Athens. Just no one thought it would be Verbeek. No one except her.

She may not come from nowhere, it only seems that way. She barely made the team. She barely fought her way out of Canada. She came here from Beamsville High via Brock University, just another faceless, anonymous Olympian, wrestling in the 55kg class.

"It took me nine years to get back to the top of Canada," said Verbeek, who lost the gold-medal match to Saori Yoshida of Japan. "In '95, I was No. 1. I haven't been since.

"It has been a long way (getting here). I wouldn't change a thing.

"(Almost not qualifying) was very hard for me. You're constantly second-guessing yourself. Your mind plays tricks on you. It's knowing that you have to continue on, and that's all you can do."

Maybe a lesson for the other members of a waffling Olympic team. Maybe a lesson from somebody whose name they suddenly know in the athletes village.

"How many people go through what she has done, sit on the outskirts, not get the opportunity to compete at the world championships, and then do this?" said Marty Calder, her coach, who wrestled for Canada in the each of the past two Olympic Games. "She didn't give up on her training, and a lot of people would have. She stayed diligent, she stayed with it.

"But it's about performing under pressure. It's about peaking at the right time. It's about doing it on your day. It's about a little bit of luck."

Verbeek had all of that go her way -- some pressure, some peaking, some luck of the draw -- and she ended in a match that no one in her sport could have won.

Yoshida has never lost internationally and not for a moment yesterday did she look like this would be her first. She scored points in five of the six minutes of the match, winning 6-0, pre-planning her celebration.

She lifted her coach on her shoulders and paraded him around the mat. She then put him down. It was all orchestrated. "I knew I would win," she said.

No one knew or believed Verbeek would be here, but Calder never lost hope. He was a typical male wrestler years back who thought women's wrestling didn't belong on any stage like this. "I was a he-man woman hater," he said with a smile. "They (women wrestlers) have really changed my perception. They've earned it." He wasn't surprised by the fight he saw in Verbeek: He knew it was there.

"We're fighters," he said. "We battle man to man, woman to woman all the time. That's what we do."

On the podium, Verbeek showed none of the usual Canadian emotion in receiving her medal. If anything, she looked almost expressionless. There wasn't enough time from the end of her match to the ceremony for her to totally digest her accomplishment. She was still thinking of the lost match, still playing it over in her mind.

The big smile came when her parents arrived, with red Canadian flags painted on their faces, for the post-medal news conference and emotional hug.

"It's hard to put a smile on your face knowing you lost," she said. "But I'm totally happy with my performance."

The historical side of the evening was best displayed by the first Olympic gold-medal winner in women's wrestling history. Ireni Merleni of Ukraine was physically shaking as she stood on the podium, with tears streaming down her face. When she was given her medal, she bear-hugged the presenter, a moment announcing the arrival of her sport.


Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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