In what she calls “the final straw” moment, Hayley Wickenheiser had to clear her conscience and say something.
Confronted with two vastly differing scenarios playing out at exactly the same time, Wickenheiser found her two worlds — sport and medicine — colliding.
It’s her unique position of being a six-time Olympian, member of the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission and doctor-in-training that allowed Wickenheiser to speak her truth with conviction and start a global movement, one she could have never imagined.
Since the beginning of January, Wickenheiser, an aspiring emergency room physician in her final year of medical school at the University of Calgary, has been inside Greater Toronto Area emergency rooms, seeing first-hand the escalation and severity of COVID-19.
It was in one of those hospitals, about two weeks ago, when she had a moment that moved her so profoundly.
“Being involved in a situation where a young airline pilot was severely hypoxic and had to be intubated,” Wickenheiser told CBC Sports, describing the process of a breathing tube being inserted in the patient’s throat.
“I just watched the anxiety of a lot of my supervising doctors try to grapple with how to keep themselves safe while having to deal with these patients coming in. I’m not treating these patients but I’m watching what’s happening. I feel like I’ve watched this pandemic from the front lines a little bit.”
She could feel the stress and fear rising within the hospitals she was training in — “a free-floating anxiety” in the words of a friend of Wickenheiser who has been an emergency doctor for 20 years.
WATCH | Hayley Wickenheiser explains why she had to speak out:
The next morning after that very real and unsettling experience of being in the emergency room with the pilot, Wickenheiser read the International Olympic Committee headlines, insisting the Games in Tokyo would be going ahead as scheduled in July.
She couldn’t believe what she was reading.
“It was so incredibly tone-deaf. It wasn’t about the health and safety of the athletes. It was about everything else,” Wickenheiser said.
“The conflict that I had wasn’t about speaking up. It was how to do it in the lens that I sit, which was a foot in medicine and a foot in sport and what I had seen in the last few months and what I heard from my friends.”
Wickenheiser reached out to Canadian Olympic Committee president Tricia Smith, as well as Olympic champions Mark Tewksbury and Beckie Scott, both who have extensive experience with the IOC.
“I called Beckie. At the IOC level I always ask myself what would Beckie do when it comes time for conflict? I told her that,” Wickenheiser said. “I couldn’t have lived with myself if I let this go by another day. This was wrong. We talked about it and after I got off the phone, I knew exactly what I had to do.”
In what has become a now famous and movement-starting tweet, Wickenheiser sent out a message on her Twitter account.
“I think the IOC insisting this will move ahead, with such conviction, is insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity. We don’t know what’s happening in the next 24 hours, let alone the next three months,” she said.
I’ve given this a lot of thought, and over the past few days my perspective has changed. I was voted to represent and protect athletes. As an IOCAC member, 6x Olympian and Medical doctor in training on the front lines in ER up until this week,these are my thoughts on <a href=”https://twitter.com/Olympics?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@Olympics</a> : <a href=”https://t.co/vrvfsQZ1GO”>pic.twitter.com/vrvfsQZ1GO</a>
In the hours and days that followed, the message traveled around the world. Wickenheiser quickly heard from IOC officials.
“They were not happy. They felt I needed to get approval from them before I spoke out. I countered with I didn’t know free speech had to go through the IOC,” Wickenheiser said.
“I wasn’t elected by athletes of the world to be told what to say. I think I have a very unique lens on this situation and felt quite confident I knew what I was talking about.”
Wickenheiser says it was remarkable to watch how the Canadian sport system rallied in the wake of her message, ultimately landing on pulling Team Canada from competing in the summer should the Games go ahead as scheduled.
Two days after the COC’s decision, the IOC announced it was postponing the Olympics until 2021.
“I’m so proud. I’m so proud of Canada,” she said.
“I will say it’s not the first time Canada took the lead. During the Russian doping scandal, it was Canada that led the charge there. I feel like many times Canada on the international stage is not afraid to say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done.”
On 276 occasions over her career Wickenheiser led Team Canada into battle on the ice — on the frontline for 23 years alongside her teammates, draped in the maple leaf. She recorded 168 goals and 211 assists during that time, earning her a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame this past fall.
While all her golden moments bring great pride to the Shaunavon, Sask., native, it’s perhaps in this moment Wickenheiser finds herself most proud about what’s unfolding in her home country.
“As much as I was on a hockey team for my whole life, I feel like truly all of Canada, we are a team right now. We have to be caring for each other and pulling for each other,” she said.
“It’s personal to me. I love Canada and I feel there’s no other country in the world I would want to be going through this in. I’m just really proud our politicians to the grocery clerks who are trying their best. I really believe that.”
They were not happy. They felt I needed to get approval from them before I spoke out. I countered with ‘I didn’t know free speech had to go through the IOC.– Hayley Wickenheiser on IOC’s response to her tweet
Wickenheiser is doing everything she can to get the best information to her family, friends and even people she hardly knows during grocery store encounters.
“I was at the grocery store the other day and I walked in and there were these young girls at the cashier I see all the time. They looked at me and they had gloves on and they said, ‘are we going to be safe?'” Wickenheiser said.
The captain saw it as a teaching moment and right there in the middle of the grocery store gave a 10 minute tutorial on how to safely put the gloves on and take them off to protect themselves.
“I started crying in the grocery store. And then I went back two days ago and they had plexiglass up and they were wearing masks and gloves,” Wickenheiser said. “We all clapped our hands and had a cheer. The manager of the store was there too. They took extra measures.”
Wickenheiser says she’ll continue to be relentless in sharing important information and hope with as many people as she can during this global pandemic.
From instructing her parents, who two weeks ago returned from Hawaii to self-isolate, to her son who is safe and immersed in his university studies in Vancouver, to her friends and really anyone who will listen, Wickenheiser is once again taking up the call to lead a team.
“It’s incredibly emotional for me maybe because it is so personal. I have spent hundreds of hours in the emergency rooms with these people who are on the front lines, now putting their lives and families at risk to save other people’s lives,” Wickenheiser said.
And she’s doing all this while spending every waking moment outside of phone calls and messages to continue studying medicine, aware that at any moment she might be shoulder-tapped, this time without a stick but personal protective gear, to suit up and take up a frontline battle for Canada once again.
“I’m trying to learn medicine because who knows how long this is going to go on and when someone like me as a trainee might be called upon,” Wickenheiser said.
‘Obligation to be ready’
“Like what’s happening in Italy where they put 10,000 doctors out there without finishing their final exam. So I feel it’s an obligation to study every day and stay on top of everything just in case there’s a place I can be more useful.”
In the meantime, Wickenheiser says she continues to be so grateful for all the work being done by her friends and colleagues in the medical field who are working around the clock to save lives while protecting themselves.
“I have such respect. I know how much they care. Those frontline responders are the people I know. And that’s the life I have lived other than sport,” Wickenheiser said.
“If everybody truly heeds the advice of our medical people and wash their hands, I know we’re going to see the light.”