Wheelchair basketball star Erica Gavel chronicles her journey to return to the Paralympic Games with Team Canada. The Ph.D student from Prince Albert shares how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed her training, travel and personal life.
If I’m being honest, spending the first part of 2021 in Saskatchewan wasn’t something I planned or thought I would do. But some of the greatest things in life start with no plan at all and this was one of them!
During the last weeks of January, while on a walk in Toronto, my sister called to tell me my father had a heart attack (he’s currently recovering well and is going to be fine). When I heard this, I knew I had to come back to Prince Albert and Saskatchewan. But I had no idea how I could make training, my PhD studies and other commitments work. Little did I know this would be one of my favourite training phases of my athletic career.
Throughout my entire athletic career, especially in the last 10 years, I have always had the greatest support in Saskatchewan, and to be frank, anything I have accomplished and will accomplish is because of them. In 2012 when I sustained my career-ending knee injury, I had a group of people who never let me quit – Bruce Craven, Rhonda Shishkin, Heather Hynes, Lisa Thomaidis, Dr. Kent Kowalski, Nancy Lackie, my cousin Brett Wells and my great friend Dalyce Emmerson are just a few. When I told them my family situation in January, all offered to help and assist in whatever way possible.
Throughout my entire athletic career, especially in the last 10 years, I have always had the greatest support in Saskatchewan, and to be frank, anything I have accomplished and will accomplish is because of them.Erica Gavel, on her support in Saskatchewan
Within 24 hours, a high-performance training environment geared toward wheelchair basketball that was in support of my PhD work was created. Bruce set up training and physio through Craven Sport Services and Dr. Kowalski, who is a sport psychologist, scheduled bi-weekly appointments to help monitor my wellness. Heather helped source additional resources and physiological testing. Dalyce and Brett offered me places to stay and Nancy and Lisa were there for me when I needed them – something I’ve learned to lean on.
My Saskatchewan community stepped up in unthinkable ways. Saskatoon’s Greg and Olivia Yuel and Balal Anwar offered their empty warehouses for me to train and Frank Dunn Toyota in Prince Albert sponsored me a car so I could get to training and appointments. The community I have found in Toronto including my PhD supervisor, Dr. Heather Logan-Sprenger, and the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario helped me organize my research and make working from Saskatchewan feasible.
This training experience and the sense of community spirit I have felt has been the greatest ever and something I will remember for the rest of my life.
While I have always appreciated the support in Saskatchewan, now more than ever, I realize the impact these people have had on me. When I travel and train in different locations, I think about these people a lot. Less about their technical expertise, but about the way they treat their athletes and how they genuinely want to see them succeed.
In all honesty, these people are like family to me – I have never been prouder to be from Saskatchewan. It’s very difficult to describe, but when the going gets tough, these people get going, and they bring you along.
Over the last three months, the quality of my training has been exceptionally high and I have been meeting personal bests each week. To be back in Saskatchewan has been special to me and I’ve savoured every second of it – it has been a really long time since I have been this in love with my training. Although I’m going to miss my time here, I am excited to be back with my team where we will start to prepare for the Tokyo Paralympics in August.
In the next four months, my team will be in a training camp doing everything we can to be prepared to bring a medal home for Canada. With the travel restrictions because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unlikely that we will have any international games before Tokyo. Although that is disappointing, there are positives. With a reduced travel schedule, we will have more time to work on our weaknesses and miss less training days. We are expecting nothing less of a gold medal and that is exciting to me.
As always, I would like to thank the incredible people who have always supported me. Without you, this wouldn’t be the incredible journey it has been.
Throughout my sporting career I’ve experienced a lot of challenges — injuries, relocation, learning a new sport, balancing academia, but nothing can compare to this pandemic and the stress it has caused from a performance standpoint. From first hearing about the virus, to the postponement of the Paralympics, to training through restrictions with the utmost limitations, it’s been a challenging, yet rewarding journey.
I will never forget the day we got back from Japan and the virus started to make international news. In February 2020, our team attended a tournament called “Osaka Cup”. While COVID-19 was just starting to make headlines, it was deemed safe by the World Health Organization and they were able to carry on with the tournament. However, a couple weeks after we returned from Japan, life was halted and things started to become very, very turbulent.
From a research standpoint, I was halfway through a big project that had to get shut down. In terms of basketball, practices were cancelled, and gyms were closed. “At first, I was in utter shock — I really didn’t know what to do but thought things would pass and the Games would go on — I was wrong.”
Upon the postponement of the Games, I had mixed emotions, I was relieved that we didn’t have to focus on performance and try to navigate this pandemic from a training standpoint, but was disappointed and stressed about having to go through another Paralympic year.
Leading up to the Games, training and tournament expectations are much higher than an off year — the lifestyle can be very hard and stressful. While I was worried about things at first, I had solace after Bruce Craven (my sport scientist) and PhD supervisor (Dr. Heather Logan-Sprenger) contacted me the day after the announcement. Essentially, both Bruce and Dr. Logan-Sprenger explained that this is the new reality, and we need to keep moving forward. From a training standpoint, Bruce switched up my program and made it home based. Dr. Logan-Sprenger did this as well for academia — we both saw this as an opportune time to study for my Candidacy Evaluation.
Over the next seven months, my days were quite simple. I would wake-up at 5:30 a.m., ride my bike for two hours, go to the gym, then spend the next eight hours studying for my exam. We also had team meetings, video sessions, and virtual team bonding. It was a really weird experience, but I learned to thrive and love my routine. I was improving from a basketball standpoint, got to spend the entire day learning and felt good about my exam, and had genuinely accepted things.
The COVID-19 lockdown also gave me time to focus on relationships and improve communication with my boyfriend.
“While a lot of disappointment came with COVID-19, I am grateful and feel like I made most use of the time — I am better person, athlete, and student.”Erica Gavel, on COVID-19
Although the new date is set for the Paralympics and the International Paralympic Committee and Tokyo Organizing Committee claims that the Games will be on, there is a lot of stress around this. We have yet to receive a plan..
To stay prepared, our team is still training. Thankfully, the Ontario Government has a High Performance Exemption, meaning that National Team Athletes identified for Tokyo and Beijing 2022, can still use the Canadian Sport Institute and train — thank goodness! But, the circumstances are still stressful.
Personally, I have been working with my sports psychologist and University of Saskatchewan Kinesiology professor, Dr. Kent Kowalski, to stay motivated. “Some of the things we focus on are gratitude, enjoy the journey, and regardless of what happens, everything will be okay.”
If there is one thing that I have learned over the last 10 years, rarely do things go according to plan and the only thing to do is keep going…. “Surrender to what is, let go of what was, and have faith in what will be” – Sonia Ricotti
My name is Erica Gavel and I am a member of the senior women’s wheelchair basketball national team. I am proud to be a Paralympian, who attended the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Summer Games.
Over the last three years, my team has been focused on obtaining a spot at the 2020 Tokyo Games and, fortunately, we did that this summer by winning gold at the 2019 Lima Parapan Am Games. This experience has been one of my favourites in my career, I am now focused on helping my team reach our potential and medalling in Tokyo.
“I, personally, learned a lot about high performance, what it takes to do well at that level and how important it is to take games one day at a time.”Erica Gavel, on her 2016 Paralympic experience
Rio was a great experience and I have amazing memories. Although my team did not reach our goals in Rio, I, personally, learned a lot about high performance, what it takes to do well at that level and how important it is to take games one day at a time.
Looking ahead to Tokyo, I have and will implement a lot of lessons learned from Rio. Coming home from those Games, I modified my training, my perspective, and approached things differently. Since Day 1, I have been fixated on being the best I can be on the court and in life.
While high performance sport is hard, it is important to find the fun and inspiring part about competing at that level — especially, when waking-up at 5 a.m. to train.
I am the most motivated I have ever been. Given that we have officially qualified and Tokyo is still months away, I am trying to take things one day at a time and enjoy the process. From my perspective, the journey is much more important than the outcome.
But the Games cannot come soon enough!
Eric Gavel was born and raised in Prince Albert. After playing basketball with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies for four seasons, an injury forced her to pivot to wheelchair basketball. A part of Team Canada for the last 6 years, Gavel represented Canada at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. She currently lives and trains in Toronto, Ontario.