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The father-daughter relationship behind the success of rising Canadian tennis star Leylah Annie Fernandez

Sitting on the living room couch at their Boynton Beach home in Florida, Leylah Annie Fernandez and her father, Jorge, are intently watching All or Nothing: Manchester City.

The pair are huge fans of City manager Pep Guardiola, considered one of the greatest soccer managers the game has known. As the intensely cerebral Spaniard breaks down the patterns he wants his players to exhibit on the pitch, Leylah and Jorge sink their teeth in.

“I love Real Madrid but right now we’re kind of taking a break from them and supporting Man City,” Leylah said. “I like Pep Guardiola, his style is kind of like my tennis game so I’m learning from him.”

Learning to use patience to dictate play. Maximizing angles to go for the kill. That soccer techniques have intertwined with tennis strategies is only fitting. 

Leylah’s coach through her formative years has been Jorge, a former pro soccer player of Ecuadorian descent who played across South America. He never had any association with tennis whatsoever, but took on the challenge when he saw a daughter in need.

The two have already seen some of the ups and downs of pursuing a tennis career. From tennis pro being the answer to what she wanted be at the age of nine to thinking there may be more to life than sports within a year, Jorge has stood alongside her through every decision.

It is a most intriguing relationship the two share as Leylah looks to continue her ascension on the WTA circuit after having struggled for lift-off with her tennis aspirations as a child. Jorge’s gut instincts to coach his daughter have helped Leylah maximize everything within her 5-foot-4, 106-pound frame to put her on the cusp of making her name an unforgettable one in the tennis world.

The past 12 months has gone a long way toward that goal. She delivered a straight-sets win over Belinda Bencic, ranked No. 12 in the world, in February last year in a must-win match for Canada at the Billie Jean King Cup (formerly the Federation Cup). She following that up by reaching the first WTA Tour final of her career in Acapulco shortly after.

The Montreal-born 18-year-old is now ranked No. 89 heading into the Australian Open, which begins Sunday in Melbourne. She will open the tournament Monday against Elise Mertens of Belgium, the tournament’s No. 18 seed. It is the fourth major of her young career.

When Leylah first began playing sports at the age of five, she looked a natural at soccer, and though track and field joined the fray along with volleyball – tennis had her heart. She first started playing in their Laval home driveway where the goal was simply to avoid hitting the family car. She worked on her consistency by hitting a ball against the basement wall for hours on end, a practice that had her mother, Irene, stressing over whether the TV or wall would end up with a hole. As Leylah got older, she and her younger sister, Bianca, would ride their bikes to the tennis courts three blocks away.

“It’s the beauty of it,” Leylah said about why tennis appealed to her more than the other sports. “Every time I would watch tennis on TV, it was so beautiful: the way you can create something out of nothing is what attracted me to it. And then the competition: you’re on your own on the court, you make the decisions and if it goes well you get the win and if it doesn’t you lose. You don’t really need to depend on anybody else, you don’t need to depend on your teammate for the winning shot.”

WATCH | Fernandez wins Junior French Open:

16-year-old Canadian Leylah Annie Fernandez beats Emma Navarro 6-3, 6-2, becomes country’s first-ever junior champion at French Open. 1:13

As Leylah’s passion for the sport increased, she found a hero in 5-foot-5-and-a-half Swiss legend Justine Henin on YouTube, inspired by what someone with a relatable frame could do. Henin spent 117 weeks as world No. 1 and won seven Grand Slam titles, including the French Open four times. She also won an Olympic gold medal at the 2004 Games in Athens.

“She’s not the biggest player nor the strongest player but she always found a solution playing against bigger players,” Leylah said. “She had the talent, great hands, slices and drop shots to open up the court where not many could, and that inspired me that I could do it, too, and I want to inspire other kids to believe they can do it, too.”

The modern era has typically favoured taller players in the women’s game. Billie Jean King, at 5-foot-5, won 12 major singles titles and Chris Evert managed 18 at 5-foot-6, but both retired more than a decade before Leylah was born. The likes of Henin have been more the exception than the rule since. Of the 20 highest-ranked players on the women’s tour coming into this season, 16 are listed at 5-foot-9 or taller.

More encouragingly, the other four are world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty (5-foot-5), No. 2 Simona Halep (5-foot-6), and No. 4 Sofia Kenin and No. 8  Bianca Andreescu (both listed at 5-foot-7). They have accounted for half of the previous 10 Grand Slams won — compatriot Andreescu becoming the first Canadian to win a major singles title when she won the U.S. Open in 2019 — and Leylah hopes to join that list sooner than most prognosticators anticipate.

At 5-foot-7, compatriot Bianca Andreescu, right, provides inspiration for Fernandez, who at 5-foot-4 often finds herself battling taller players on the Tour. (Getty Images)

‘Big mountain to climb’

“Finish top 10 in the WTA,” she said when asked about her goals for 2021. “I know that’s a very big mountain to climb but I always think that it’s possible and me, as a player, I can do it.”

Leylah’s parents’ first step to helping her pursue a tennis career began at the age of seven when they enrolled her in a provincial development program in Montreal that was in partnership with the national program. The hope was to help her elevate her game, but they soon saw the challenges of chasing professional aspirations. Leylah, a left-hander, was found to have a flawed forehand technique, was slow on her fitness tests, and struggled with her serve. Losses piled up and before she could realize what hit her, she was cut from the program.

“I thought I was gonna get my weekends back,” Jorge said with a laugh. “She was crying and I’m looking at this little girl, ‘Honey, is this really important for you?’ She said yeah and that she really wanted to play. I said, ‘If you want, I’ll coach you.'”

Honey, is this really important for you?’ She said yeah and that she really wanted to play. I said, ‘If you want, I’ll coach you.– Jorge Fernandez

In the moment, Jorge viewed her fundamental deficiencies as secondary. He may not have known how to be a tennis player, but he certainly knew how to be a professional athlete. He had watched Leylah get coached from the sidelines and could see there were teaching methods she could benefit from. Tennis, after all, has been as traditionalist a sport as any. Perhaps a fresh pair of eyes could be exactly what she needed.

Jorge quickly decided to work on a plan of action, recognizing that if he was going to get the best out of his daughter, he was going to have to stick to his guns. After all, he could relate to the task at hand for Leylah, having signed his first professional soccer contract at the age of 13.

Whether it be coaching or any goal, Jorge’s first step is to write down his objectives and assign timelines. At the top of the list was to make Leylah mentally unbreakable. He knew it was going to require a plan that took not days or weeks or months, but years. By the time she was done her teens, Jorge wanted to ensure he had helped mould someone who could consistently showcase character and spirit.

He also put in time to study parents who have coached their kids to an elite level in tennis. In the women’s game, there’s hardly a better example than Richard Williams, who nurtured his daughters Venus and Serena to a combined 30 Grand Slam singles titles. Serena, with 23 to her name, is arguably the greatest tennis player the women’s circuit has ever seen. Steffi Graf, perhaps her biggest competition in the GOAT debate, finished with 22 Grand Slam singles titles and was also coached by her father, Peter Graf, in the early stages of her career.

Richard Williams hugs Serena Williams, right, after her 2012 Wimbledon championship. Sister Venus, left, is also a Wimbledon champion. (Getty Images)

Steffi and Peter Graf in 1989 after her Wimbledon championship, one of 22 major singles titles the German star won. (Getty Images)

Jorge would spend time watching Venus and Serena’s matches and try to understand game plans not only from each of the two sisters, but their opponents and how they would be countered.

“One of the things [with Richard] was the simplification of the sport,” Jorge said. “I think great salespeople have a way to simplify complexity and just focus on the assets that are going to get you where they’re going to get you. He focused on their power. 

“In the land of the blind the one-eyed-man is king. I had one eye, and I said, OK, since my kids and my wife don’t know better, I’m not going to get criticized too much. I decided we’re going to focus a lot on finesse, mental toughness, and speed. A lot of precision tennis, and every now and again, a knockout punch.”

Leylah’s first taste of Jorge the coach was a rude awakening. She was nine and trying to execute a basic drill of hitting the ball over the net. Unknown to her was a three-strike rule Jorge was going to enforce for repeating the same mistake. As the ball nestled into the net for a third time, she was told to run “suicides,” a high-intensity sprint drill. Leylah was taken aback, but Jorge wasn’t going to have it any other way. He wanted her at what he viewed as maximum output.

You have to be at the red line all the time, and then you find a new red line.– Jorge Fernandez

“You have to be at the red line all the time, and then you find a new red line,” Jorge said, conjuring the markings on a pressure gauge. “You have to be there until the red zone becomes a normal zone, then, the most beautiful thing happens. You become a better player and the mistakes you’re making, you’re no longer making them.

“You have a mental fortitude and what you didn’t think you could do, you now do regularly.”

Jorge recognizes that it’s difficult for kids to grasp the concept of pressure and stress. He felt it was important to convey that in the simple terms kids understand: good gets rewarded and bad gets punished. Leylah would often end up in tears and other coaches would shake their head at Jorge’s methods, but he wouldn’t let up. It was the way he knew best. Having recognized his daughter’s shock, though, he did have a conversation with her immediately after to see how she felt.

“He just wants me to improve, keep correcting, keep competing,” Leylah says now. “He said that’s going to happen a lot, that he’s going to put me in uncomfortable positions during practice and it’s up to me to fight through it and find solutions.

“When I said I wanted to be professional, that’s the place I wanted to go. That’s why he pushes me a little bit more every day, every year.”

While creating a “normal zone” in their coaching relationship, Jorge also wanted to make sure Leylah was never intimidated by the size of her opponent. While Jorge still had the time in Montreal, he played pickup basketball with some friends and decided that he was going to ask one of his muscular 6-foot-4 friends who happened to also play tennis to go up against his nine-year-old daughter.

The instructions for Leylah were to focus on the ball no matter what and just keep the rally going. Jorge watched from her side of the net as the rallies progressed and she was able to keep up. To take the challenge to another level, he walked over to the other side and asked his friend to crank up the power from time to time. Leylah would struggle, but she kept going.

Focus on the yellow fuzz coming at you

Jorge’s message was simple: in tennis, no one can physically hurt you. It’s not soccer where someone can get their cleats stuck into you, or basketball or hockey where someone might take a cheap shot. He felt the key in tennis is to ensure the ball going by you or into the net doesn’t phase you. Leylah left the court that day knowing all she needed to focus on was the yellow fuzz coming at her, not who was hitting it back.

The results speak for themselves. Leylah won her first national tournament, for players 16 and under, at the age of 12. She was soon invited to Tennis Canada’s U14 and provincial program and though she wound up leaving it after just a couple of months, her acceptance into the program gave the family confidence to pursue international tournaments and move to Florida, a renowned hub for tennis talent. Playing in the ITF Juniors, her biggest moment came in 2019 when she was 16, reaching the finals of the Junior Australian Open in January and then winning the Junior French Open a few months later.

Fernandez finished runner-up to Clara Tauson, left, in the Junior Australian Open in 2019. A few months later Fernandez won the Junior French Open. (Getty Images)

“With the help of my dad, him learning with me and my younger sister, too, and also my mom, they were all there and just encouraged me and told me that if I want to stop playing tennis, I can,” Leylah said looking back on her early struggles.

“Tennis is not the only thing in life that’s going to make you happy but, for me, I just kept improving, kept my head down and kept working. With time, a few years later, the results came and more opportunities came my way too.”

For Leylah to fully realize her potential, help with the fundamentals and technical aspect of her game were going to be necessary. In that regard, there was little Jorge could offer. He needed help. He positioned himself more as a head coach, like he knew in soccer, and the right assistants were to be pivotal to Leylah’s growth.

Jorge recruited Francisco Sanchez, a former hitting partner of pros Henin and Kim Clijsters, and coach Robby Menard when the family was still in Montreal. Now it is Frenchman Romain Deridder, who previously worked as the director of ITF team and player development at Proworld Tennis Academy in Delray Beach, Fla.

‘Compliment each other’

“Jorge and I have a really good relationship on and off the court,” said Deridder, who is with Leylah in Australia this month. “I think we compliment each other very well. Obviously, he has been on court with her his whole life so when we started I wanted to learn from him as much as possible and I still do, so I can fit into the team and understand what I can bring and how to approach Leylah.

“We sometimes get into situations that they both lived before and it helps a lot that he knows his daughter better than anyone. Two sets of eyes are better than one.”

Fernandez celebrates winning the second set in her first ATP final at the Mexican Tennis Open last February. She ultimately lost in three sets to Great Britain’s Heather Watson. (Associated Press)

Away from the court, there are movie nights, scarfing down burgers, Leylah making fun of her dad being the most immature person in the room and then both laughing. After dinner, Leylah and Jorge — and more recently sister Bianca — can be found shooting paper towels into a glass to see who can get it in first.

“He actually lets me eat what I want, which is pretty cool that he’s not too strict outside the court,” Leylah said. “The only thing he’s strict about is my schooling, like every parent is, other than that he just says balance your life, you have time to relax and hang out but when it’s time to work, you work. That’s all he wants for me, and to be independent.”

As Leylah has grown and matured, Jorge has stressed the importance of her making her own decisions and being able to live with them. 

He’s not one to control me. I have my opinions, my decisions, he wants me to be independent …– Leylah Annie Fernandez

“He’s not one to control me,” Leylah said. “I have my opinions, my decisions, he wants me to be independent so he teaches me all this stuff but leaves the decisions to me to open up, be a strong, independent woman and live with my decisions, whether it’s a bad one or a good one and dealing with the consequences. At the same time I know he’s always going to be there and be able to support me so that’s great.”

Whenever it’s time to take a break from dad, Irene and Bianca are there for her. Leylah sees her mother’s calming presence and encouraging manner as the perfect complement to her father’s more fiery style. With Bianca, who is pursuing a tennis career of her own and who is also being coached by Jorge, the two can share their experiences together. It was only recently the two stopped sharing a room, but when home, Leylah can be found hanging out with her little sister in her room, extending the closeness that developed.

“She’s the one teaching me sometimes,” Leylah said about her sister. “She has so much energy, we’re always so competitive, every time we’re on the court we’re trying to beat each other or even off the court we want to see who’s better at cleaning or cooking even.”

Leylah opened the 2021 season this past week by losing in the second round of the Grampians Trophy, a tuneup to the Australian Open. She pulled off an impressive 6-3, 6-1 win over 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens in the first round, but then lost to world No. 22 Maria Sakkari in straight sets in gusty Melbourne conditions. 

Every win over the next four months matters even more since a silver lining of the pandemic is that a door has been opened for Leylah to participate in the Tokyo Olympics — an opportunity her ranking wouldn’t have afforded her last year. She entered 2020 ranked 209th. With the one-year delay, qualification for the tennis singles competition has been extended to June 7, 2021, and the top 56 players in the world at that time will be considered eligible.

Olympic dream

“It would mean a lot to me,” Leylah said of Olympic participation. “That was one of my dreams when I was younger, just to represent my family and my country in the Olympics, hopefully get a gold, silver or bronze medal. Obviously, I want the gold medal, but just having that experience would be a checkmark off the book.”

While Leylah has high expectations of herself, Deridder keeps perspective on the Canadian teenager and emphasizes just how much further Leylah can go.

“She is still in development and transitioning from the juniors,” Deridder said. “Her game has so much room for development and improvement in every aspect: mentally, physically and technically. That’s the everyday work and that’s what we are here for.”

Jorge has been spending time more recently working with. It is all part of the process of recognizing that Leylah’s best will steadily come as he slowly lets go and gives more of her to the world. Just as he was the one to bring a fresh approach to her game when she needed it as a child, he is happy for others to keep adding to her repertoire. Leylah may tease him over abandoning her and moving on, but deep down she recognizes why it’s necessary.

“He sees weakness as an opportunity to improve and become your greatest weapon,” Leylah said. “He will always admit his faults, he will always say, ‘I’m not good at this but I can bring someone to mentor you and teach you at the same time so when the time comes and we need to go to a different path…’ 

“He will still know what to tell me, what to teach me, and we’ll keep working together.”

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CBC | Sports News

Ice meets medals: Expect Ivanie Blondin and Canada’s speed skaters to carry on history of Olympic success

For more than three decades Canadian speed skaters from across the country have made their way to the Olympic Oval in Calgary, the mecca of the sport in this country. It’s a place laced with history, prestige and legacy. 

A place that signified you’d made it in the sport in Canada, where Olympic records and gold medals rose from what many call the best ice on the planet. 

Larger than life banners hang from the ceiling, highlighting past giants who have etched themselves into Canadian speed skating lore. Cindy Klassen, Jeremy Wotherspoon, Catriona Le May Doan, Clara Hughes, Kevin Crockett and Susan Auch look down on the ice, a constant reminder of the greatness that has existed in the speed skating program. 

Now, with just one year to go until the Beijing Olympics, the current crop of Canadian speed skaters are hoping to become part of that same elite company, motivated, inspired and pushing themselves to extremes on the backs of those greats who have come before them. 

“Cindy has always been someone I’ve aspired to be. She’s always been someone I’ve looked up to in speed skating,” Ivanie Blondin told CBC Sports. “The history here.”

Blondin talks about Klassen in the most glowing ways. How could she not? Klassen skated to five medals for Canada at the 2006 Olympics — one gold, two silver and two bronze — making her one of only nine Winter Olympians worldwide, and the only Canadian in either summer or winter sport, to win five medals at a single edition of the Games. 

Blondin wants that for herself. She’s a leader on the team now, ready to carry that weight into the next Games. 

Klassen’s unforgettable performance 15 years ago fuels Blondin’s training today. The 30-year-old from Ottawa is a high-powered superstar in the sport who is targeting greatness in Beijing.

Klassen shows off her gold, two silver and two bronze medals at the Turin 2006 Winter Olympics. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Blondin was not happy with her performance at the last Olympics, where she failed to win a medal. And so since then she’s been pushing herself harder than ever to ensure it doesn’t happen again on that big stage. 

But what happens when a pandemic hits and to make matters worse, the ice-making machinery at the Calgary Oval breaks down? That’s exactly what happened this past September. Blondin’s training place, along with the rest of the team trying to build for Beijing, shut down. 

“It’s [lousy] we didn’t have the ice in Calgary. We lost access to all our facilities,” she said. “I guess we should just be grateful this isn’t the Olympic season.”

The Olympics are coming, faster than many of the athletes want to think about.The speed skaters aren’t the only ones scrambling to continue preparations. In the early days of the pandemic, many of the winter athletes felt as though they’d escape its grip with Beijing almost two years away. That grip has tightened and the athletes are feeling the squeeze now, pressured to come up with ways just to keep training. 

After a disappointing Olympics in 2018, Blondin has emerged as a world champion, winnign gold in the women’s mass start last February. (Associated Press)

“We had no weight room. No track. Every week there was something new,” Blondin said. “The main issue was not having ice.”

So the team had to get back to their humble beginnings. 

The story of Canada’s most prolific speed skaters, including Blondin, all have similar and simple starting points — icy, sometimes bumpy, outdoor ovals in cities dotting the frozen tundra. 

Canadian Olympic speed skating heroes would battle the elements in their formative years, zipping around in skinsuits hoping to avoid getting blown over by swirling wind gusts or getting frostbite, striding counter-clockwise in an attempt to cross the line first. 

WATCH | Blondin captures gold in mass start:

The Canadian two-time world champion brought her best to Heerenven and came away with World Cup silver. 2:05

Learning how to battle the elements, be creative and persevere was as much a part of the competition when they first started as learning how to be powerful striders.

“Skating outdoors in a skinsuit in the winter, as small as I am, the wind was pushing me around,” Blondin said, recalling her early days in Ottawa. 

It wasn’t until they had mastered their sport outdoors they could take their skill and strength indoors, to the oval in Calgary, to begin their pursuit of greatness. 

Canada’s long track speed skating program is steeped in history — 37 Olympic medals tallied over the course of all the Games, more than any other Canadian winter sport program. The current team is coming off one of the program’s strongest seasons to date. With 31 World Cup medals, momentum and confidence was at an all-time high. And as they looked ahead to this year, an important year in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, the goals for what they could achieve seemed limitless. 

I actually really, really enjoyed skating outside. It was cold sometimes but I grew up skating outside in Ottawa. It felt like home to me.– Isabelle Weidemann

Then the pandemic hit. And everything stopped. So they went back outside, taking to the outdoor oval in Red Deer, Alta. as well as Gap Lake, near Calgary, just to get some valuable ice time during the course of a seemingly incessant pandemic. 

“I actually really, really enjoyed skating outside. It was cold sometimes but I grew up skating outside in Ottawa. It felt like home to me,” Isabelle Weidemann said. “We never race outside anymore. So I can take those aspects and then come inside and in some ways it’s making it feel really easy because I’ve been doing this harder work outside.”

WATCH | Training on Gap Lake

Tyson Langelaar posted this video of Team Canada’s training session out at Alberta’s picturesque Gap Lake in late November after maintenance and COVID restrictions put a stop to ice time in Calgary. 0:24

Weidemann, 25, is hoping to make it to her second Olympics. She was one of the younger members of the team in PyeongChang, also disappointed by her performance in 2018.

“I have some unresolved goals from the last Games. I don’t feel I skated to my potential,” she said. “I want to perform at my best and show Canada what I’ve been working on. All the hard training.”

The skaters are sick and tired of training — don’t get it wrong, they understand the value of it, but it’s all they’ve had over the last number of months. Now they want to put it to test. They’re leaning on each other more than ever to get through what has been nothing short of a horrible year.

“It’s been really frustrating for me not to be skating,” Ted-Jan Bloemen said. “For me, the periods where I’m not skating, I bridge those periods knowing I will skate again.”

Nothing that resembled normalcy

But for the last number of months Bloemen and the rest of the Canadian skaters haven’t known when they might skate again. Outside of a two-week stint on the Fort St. John’s oval this past fall, there’s been nothing that’s resembled any normalcy.

“I’ve been through some really difficult times this winter. I’m doing much better now but there were dark times. And I’m not the only one,” Bloemen said. 

It’s been quite the journey for Bloemen. If there’s anyone on the Canadian team who fully understands the prestige and history of speed skating, it’s him. Bloemen was born and raised in the Netherlands, the birthplace of the sport. He’s back there right now with other members of the team, competing in a bubble in Heerenveen about 90 minutes from where he grew up, in Leiderdorp.

Ted-Jan Bloemen celebrates his gold medal in the men’s 10,000 metres at the 2018 Olympics. (Getty Images)

The deep roots of ice skating date back more than 1,000 years to the waterways of Scandinavia and the Netherlands. In those days people laced animal bones to their footwear and glided across frozen lakes and rivers. To be a prolific speed skater adorned in the traditional bright orange Dutch colours is what everyone in Holland dreams of, in the same way many young children in Canada dream of one day hoisting the Stanley Cup. 

Bloemen wanted to be one of those great skaters for his home country but was never able to break through. The pressure to make the team was suffocating. He never felt he got a fair chance in their program. 

I didn’t want to be a Dutch guy skating for another country. I’m a Canadian and I’m really proud to be representing this country.– Ted-Jan Bloemen

So in 2014, Bloemen made the biggest move of his life. His father is Canadian, born in New Brunswick, which allowed Bloemen to obtain dual citizenship, move to Calgary and start skating for a country that for years was only known as his competition.  

“I didn’t want to be a Dutch guy skating for another country. I’m a Canadian and I’m really proud to be representing this country,” he said. 

The move was the turning point he needed. Four years later, aged 31 and at his first Olympics, he skated to silver in the men’s 5,000 metres. It was Canada’s first Olympic medal in the men’s event since Willy Logan won bronze in Lake Placid in 1932.

The best, though, was yet to come. Days after that performance, Bloemen won Canada’s first gold in the men’s 10,000 metres. And he did it in an Olympic record time of 12 minutes 39.77 seconds, well ahead of his Dutch rival Sven Kramer.

“I’m just really proud and really lucky. I feel like it’s a really big honour to be the one representing Canada now and being in the spotlight and executing the race,” he said. “I’m very grateful for that. And I know I’m just a link in this great team.”

Young star Graeme Fish

With just one year to go to another Olympics, Bloemen is stressing the importance of team at more than any other time in his career. It’s taken him years to understand that despite the naturally individualistic nature of speed skating, he’s only been able to ascend to greatness because of those who are around him. 

One of the young stars pushing Bloemen is Moose Jaw, Sask., speed skater Graeme Fish. At 23 years old, he’s tracking to be one of the best male skaters this country has ever produced. 

Last February, Fish set the 10,000m world record and captured the world championship title. It’s a nearly unfathomable result considering Fish didn’t move to Calgary to take up speed skating seriously until he was 18. In four years he went from being lapped by Bloemen in that same race distance, to passing him and setting the world record. 

WATCH | Graeme Fish sets world record:

The 22-year-old becomes world champion and new record holder after skating a time of 12:33.867 in Utah. 1:13

“He destroyed me. It was unbelievable,” Fish recalled, remembering a 2017 race. “And then when Ted won in 2018 I was in awe. Now I’m training with him.”

He’s been emulating everything Bloemen has been doing on the ice ever since. And then just three short years later set the world record — a direct reflection of being able to skate with someone who was pushing him every day. 

“We all support each other and every time we step on the ice we want to beat each other. We learn from each other. I’m skating with the Olympic champion,” Fish said. 

Canada’s Graeme Fish celebrates his world record in the 10,000m at the world championships last February. (The Associated Press)

Add Jordan Belchos to this mix, and this trio of speed skating Canadians becomes scary in a hurry as they continue to push each other to the edge. 

It’s a dynamic two-time Olympic champion Catriona Le May Doan knows all about. Born and raised in Saskatoon, Le May Doan also started her career on an outdoor oval. In the early 1990s she burst onto the speed skating scene and was trending toward a medal at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. 

In the lead up to those Olympics, Le May Doan recalls how much skating partner Susan Auch pushed her. 

“We were a tight-knit team. They were all like my family. We used to spend 10 weeks at a time in Europe. We helped each other. We pushed each other,” said Le May Doan, who will serve as Canada’s chef de mission in Beijing, 20 years after winning her second career gold medal at the Salt Lake City Olympics. 

But in 1994, in her specialty race, Le May Doan fell in the 500m. Auch placed second. That silver medal was Canada’s only medal in speed skating during those Games. 

Le May Doan was not going to let that fall define her. And as a team, the Canadian speed skaters spent the next four years relentlessly training, vowing to grab more medals in Nagano. 

Catriona Le May Doan, right, won gold and Susan Auch won silver in the 500m at the 1998 Olympics. Le May Doan attributes their success to how each pushed the other in training and competition. (Canadian Press)

They lived up to their promise. The Canadians put on a memorable show during those 1998 Olympics in Japan, racking up five medals on the long track, the largest single medal haul at the Games to that point. 

Le May Doan won gold in the 500m, doing so with an Olympic record time. She also got bronze in the 1000m. Auch once again got silver in the 500m. Jeremy Wotherspoon and Kevin Overland also brought home medals for Canada. 

Everybody needs to want each other to succeed. You push each other. That’s what we had and that’s what this current team has.– Catriona Le May Doan

“The team needs to believe. You need to believe. You have to get perspective,” Le May Doan said. “Everybody needs to want each other to succeed. You push each other. That’s what we had and that’s what this current team has.”

When Canadian speed skaters have leaned into the weight of all they are collectively, they can be one of the most powerful teams on the planet.

Take for instance that historic 2006 medal haul in Italy. The Canadians skated to eight medals during those Turin Games, thanks largely to the unforgettable performance of Cindy Klassen. 

But she was pushed to that greatness because of teammates like Kristina Groves and Clara Hughes — during those same Games Hughes grabbed gold in the 5000m and Groves silver behind Klassen in the 1500m. There was a high level of competition between them and also an understanding they were making each other better. 

Kristina Groves, left, Clara Hughes, centre, and Klassen all won medals at the 2006 Olympics. (The Canadian Press)

A somewhat similar team followed up that performance with five more Olympic medals in 2010 on home soil in Vancouver. But since those two Games in which speed skaters from Canada produced 13 medals, there has been a steep decline. 

There have been just four medals between the Games in Sochi and Pyeongchang Olympics. And it was Denny Morrison and Bloemen who were responsible for them. 

Many skaters on those teams have talked about how siloed and segregated they were. Because here’s the thing about long track speed skating: there are sprinters. There are the longer distance skaters. There are obviously men’s skaters and women’s skaters. When you start to splinter these groups, things quickly become isolating. And that’s what had happened. 

“You were in groups and there were rivalries. The team didn’t mesh together. But last year, I don’t know what it was. All the groups started meshing together,” Blondin said. “The team was just like a family. It was fun to be around your teammates. We really grew last year as a team and I think that showed in the performances.”

‘Team is so crucial’

They’ve gotten back to those glory days when it was one unified group all wanting the best for one another. 

“Team is so crucial. And last season was the perfect example of that,” Blondin said. “You need your team around you to motivate you.”

This past week, in the Dutch bubble, in her first competitive race in more than 10 months, Blondin alongside Weidemann and Valérie Maltais captured gold in the team pursuit. She followed it up with a silver in the mass start event. And on Friday, the trio took gold and set a track record in the women’s team pursuit.

Even Blondin was surprised by the performance, having told CBC Sports prior to the race that no one should expect podium finishes having been away from the ice for such a long time. 

It was hard during the summer because in a way we went back to our old ways. You couldn’t train together. As soon as we got back together that all went away– Ivanie Blondin

She brought it back to the team dynamic again. 

“It was hard during the summer because in a way we went back to our old ways. You couldn’t train together,” she said. “As soon as we got back together that all went away.”

A team that was ripped apart by the pandemic. That comfort and support had been taken away from the speed skaters, spending the summer and fall months mostly training alone. 

Most of the team is all together again, cooped up in a Dutch hotel preparing for a number of World Cup and world championship races. It’s familiar. Their own speed skating bubble. 

And while they may not have the performances they’d expect under normal circumstances right now, there’s something calming and reassuring about all being in the same place at the same time together again. 

As a team, they’re trusting the process. And they know they’ll be ready when Beijing arrives — with a reminder from their most recent Olympic champion. 

“I still have that feeling,” Bloemen said. “What’s important is to make the best of what we got. And be confident we can execute at the Olympics.”

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CBC | Sports News

DeBues-Stafford foresees future track success after quiet 2020 racing season

In February, Gabriela DeBues-Stafford set Canadian indoor records in the 1,500 metres and mile, and probably had many wondering if 2020 would rival the runner’s 2019 season of eight national marks and 11 personal-best times.

About a month later, she moved back to Toronto from Scotland with husband Rowan just before the sports world would be shut down by coronavirus. By June, COVID-19 restrictions were eased and races resumed, but there wasn’t a track open for DeBues-Stafford to train.

“I could have forced a trip to Europe for some races, but it wouldn’t have made sense for where I was in my training and my health,” DeBues-Stafford, the world’s No. 2-ranked woman in the 1,500, told CBC Sports recently.

Despite not competing outdoors in 2020, the first Canadian woman to run the event under four minutes will carry a 3:56.12 personal best into 2021 and said she’s “in a good place” entering an Olympic year.

“I feel proud about the hard work I put in this summer. I did what I needed to do to set myself up for success,” added DeBues-Stafford, who, after her stop back in Toronto, moved to Portland, Ore., in September to work with renowned coach Jerry Schumacher at Bowerman Track Club.

Debues-Stafford focused on strength and endurance work in the fall rather than race-specific workouts on the track — though the team did some speed work — and is expecting to train at altitude in the new year.

“I’m not as snappy and speedy as a year ago but I definitely feel stronger over longer distances than I’ve felt in the past,” said the Toronto native, who secured equipment to train in her apartment since the team has no gym access. “I’m building a strong foundation for 2021.

“Building up to [the] Tokyo [Olympics] is going to be all about consistency and slowly building the intensity so I arrive fresh and ready to go.”

DeBues-Stafford’s 2019 Canadian records


  • Jan. 4, Glasgow, 5,000 metres — 14:57.45
  • Jan. 26, Boston, mile — 4:24.80


  • July 20, London, 1,500 — 4:00.26
  • Aug. 29, Zurich, 1,500 — 3:59.59
  • Oct. 5, Doha, 1,500 — 3:56.12
  • July 12, Monaco, mile — 4:17.87
  • May 30, Stockholm, 5,000 — 14:51.59
  • Sept. 6, Brussels, 5,000 — 14:44.12

‘I did what was best for my future’

Health will be paramount for DeBues-Stafford, who experienced a relapse of Graves’ Disease — an autoimmune disorder that causes an overactive thyroid — during a break in training in August after a “training effort” racing in a 400 at Birchmount Stadium in Toronto.

“It physically wouldn’t have been possible to do late summer races,” she said.

In DeBues-Stafford’s absence, Faith Kipyegon, Sofia Ennaoui and Laura Muir ran 3:59.70 in the 1,500 while several others clocked under 4:01. Muir and Jemma Reekie, an emerging star who ran 4:02.20 on Sept. 3, had trained with DeBues-Stafford in Scotland since the summer of 2018.

“Some athletes had some unreal seasons dropping crazy times and that’s awesome for them and for the sport, but I’m confident I did what was best for me and my future,” said DeBues-Stafford, who is under contract with Nike through the next Olympic cycle.

“2020 was one disruption after another but I can still take a lot from the experience, knowing I can take that kind of disruption and quickly get back on the horse and do workouts.”

WATCH | Gabriela DeBues-Stafford runs 3:56.12 PB at 2019 worlds:

Canada’s Gabriela DeBues-Stafford places 6th with a time 3:56.12, Sifan Hassan claims gold. 7:02

Becoming a better race tactician was DeBues-Stafford’s focus for 2020 before the pandemic derailed her season.

“The 1,500 is very tactical and you get jostled,” she said. “I was racing so much in 2019 and had so many opportunities to learn that I was able to apply the corrections to my mistakes quickly which was an invaluable experience. I’m more experienced racing at this [elite senior] level.”

These days, DeBues-Stafford is happy being in a team environment where it’s easy to get your “social fix” in a safe way by running outdoors with a teammate.

“Everyone has been super welcoming, and to Rowan as well. He’s been able to sneak in a few runs with us and that is always fun,” said DeBues-Stafford of the former University of Toronto rugby player.

“The West Coast is beautiful, too, which is just icing on the cake. I definitely feel at home and comfortable with the group.”

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Provinces that acted faster had more success limiting spread of COVID-19, data shows

As the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hit many parts of the country, provinces that were quick to act with strict containment measures have been more successful in limiting the spread, a CBC News analysis has found.

Using data from Oxford University that tracks provincial government responses to the contagion, we see within Canada a trend that has been observed in other countries: when authorities are slower to respond to a rise in new cases, it becomes more difficult to bring the spread under control.

“It’s not just about the public health measures. It’s also the timing of implementation of those measures. The timing is one of the most crucial factors,” said Saverio Stranges, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Western University in London, Ont.

The Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker evaluates governments based on several measures, including containment policies (travel restrictions, school closures), health policies (mask usage, testing programs), and economic policies (wage subsidies, debt relief).

After nearly 10 months of pandemic and two waves of infection, the data tells a clear story. Provinces that remained vigilant, particularly those in Atlantic Canada, avoided major outbreaks, while some that dropped their guards have struggled to contain surging case rates.

The ‘false self-confidence’ of the Prairies

Take, for example, the approaches and outcomes of Alberta and Manitoba, both of which have been hit by strong second waves of COVID-19. 

The animation below compares the provinces’ COVID-19 containment measures with their weekly case rates since September. Alberta waited to impose strict measures as its cases rose, spiking to the highest per-capita case rate in Canada so far. 

Manitoba, on the other hand, was quicker to react, and its COVID-19 case numbers plateaued sooner.

A note about Nunavut: because of its small population (less than 40,000 people), even small numbers of new COVID-19 cases appear as dramatic spikes when compared to other provinces.

“Alberta and Manitoba didn’t struggle in the first wave so much, and that set them up with a little bit of false self-confidence that they had it well in hand with very limited measures,” said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto. 

“They should have been terrified about what happened in Quebec during the first wave. That’s what the Atlantic provinces did. They looked at it and they said, ‘Good God, we could be just like that.'”

Epidemiologist Colin Furness says provinces with low case counts in the beginning of the pandemic should have been looking at hard-hit Ontario and Quebec and preparing accordingly. (Evan Mitsui/CBC News)

In July, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, P.E.I., and Newfoundland and Labrador created a bubble around the region that restricted travel from outside provinces. Those who lived within the Atlantic bubble could travel relatively freely, but outsiders were screened when entering and had to quarantine for 14 days. The agreement was suspended in late November as COVID-19 cases increased in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

The Atlantic bubble’s success was part luck

Experts interviewed by CBC News cautioned that there are significant limitations to making any direct comparisons between provinces, partly because there can be vast differences between factors such as health systems and population traits.

For example, outbreaks were more common in more populated areas, so provinces with smaller population centres had an easier task, Furness said.

“It’s not a level playing field,” he said.

Although COVID-19 can spread in rural areas, it needs a superspreader event to really take off, he said.

The chart below shows how strict provinces were in terms of a few select containment measures, according to the Oxford data. The darker the orange, the stricter the rule. Click here for a complete description of each measure.

And there are other differences between provinces that make direct comparisons tricky, Stranges said, including mobility, geography, access to public health facilities, demographics, and the standards within long-term care facilities.

Tighter measures in 1st wave despite higher numbers in 2nd

The Oxford data also reveals a curious pattern: across all provinces, measures to control the spread of COVID-19 were more stringent in the first wave, even if case loads were lower. 

Because it was a new coronavirus whose severity was not fully understood, it made sense to slam the brakes, Furness said.

“In Ontario, we were fining people for sitting by themselves on park benches in March. That’s ludicrous,” he said. “We didn’t know much about how it spreads. We knew that it was potentially massively deadly and we were frightened. What was driving the restrictive measures in March was an abundance of caution.”

But, as the pandemic wore on, provinces also needed to deal with a frustrated public and increasing pressures from the economic sector, Stranges said.

“So, you need to also compromise what is acceptable, because we know that people get tired, especially in our Western societies where people care about their individual freedoms,” he said.

Some provinces tried targeted approaches as cases cropped up in certain settings. Manitoba, for example, restricted travel to vulnerable northern communities for periods in April and September, and barred visitors from care homes in March. But the window for using such approaches effectively can close pretty quickly, said Cynthia Carr, an epidemiologist and founder of EPI Research in Winnipeg, a firm that provides COVID-19 planning services.

“The problem is, with a highly interconnected and interactive society, those targeted approaches became less and less effective as community spread continued,” she said.

Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr says targeted measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 lack effectiveness once there’s widespread community transmission of the illness. (John Einarson/CBC)

Malgorzata Gasperowicz, a developmental biologist and general associate in the faculty of nursing at the University of Calgary, described provincial preparations for the second wave as “flirting with the virus,” as some regions across Canada slowly implemented measures piece by piece instead of using the swift lockdown approach seen in response to the first wave.

Ontario, for example, started with targeted restrictions in certain cities at the beginning of October. But the case numbers continued to grow, and by Oct. 25, the province reported more than 1,000 new cases in a single day.

The government then introduced a new rating system and corresponding set of restrictions for municipalities. Toronto and Peel Region were placed in the lockdown stage on Nov. 23. They were eventually joined by York Region, Windsor-Essex and Hamilton, but cases continued to climb. The Ontario government eventually announced a provincewide lockdown starting on Dec. 26.

Gasperowicz said another factor that contributed to the severity of the second wave in many parts of the country was how quickly some governments lifted restrictions when the numbers started to improve following the first wave.

“The lifting of restrictions is really an essential thing, and it’s why we are in a second wave,” she said, citing the success of the Atlantic bubble and similar efforts in Australia, where restrictions remained in place until daily case counts were down to zero and community transmission was eliminated.

“We know that Atlantic Canada did the best job. Their most stringent measures weren’t lifted before they reached zero new daily cases.… Everybody else opened too early, and then you started to grow again. Slowly, but the growth was everywhere.”

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CBC | Health News

How battling his brothers prepared runner Moh Ahmed for world-level success

Moh Ahmed narrowly missed the Olympic podium in 2016 and three years later earned world bronze after leading late in the race, yet some of his fiercest battles haven’t been waged on a running track.

There were many days spent as a young teen playing basketball at a park with younger twin brothers Ibrahim and Kadar, about two kilometres from home in St. Catharines, Ont., while their parents worked.

“They were feisty and competitive,” Ahmed said in a phone interview with CBC Sports. “They wouldn’t go home until they gave me the best effort they could. They were my brothers but also my best friends.”

Ibrahim and Kadar have watched the 5,000-metre runner become a five-time Canadian champion, national record-holder and now a serious medal contender for the Tokyo Olympics next summer.

On July 10, Ahmed ran the 10th fastest 5,000 in history, bettering his own Canadian record by 10 seconds in 12 minutes 47.20 seconds. 

Two weeks later, he ran a 1,500 in 3:34.89, the fifth-fastest time ever by a Canadian.

‘They inspired me’

All that time spent battling his brothers looks to be paying off.

“It’s a competitive milieu I grew up in that really helped me. They inspired me,” Ahmed said of his brothers, who also played soccer and basketball. “They were always good, making teams and brought that competitiveness home.

“In Grade 7 and 8 I was still immature, in terms of my body. I went to a school with some incredible athletes so I couldn’t make any of the teams.”

WATCH | Mo Ahmed: From humble beginnings … to Olympic podium?:

After getting a taste of the podium at the world championships, Somalia-born Canadian Moh Ahmed is now looking for a Canadian long distance first — a medal at the Olympic Games. 5:11

Ahmed started running track at age 13 and was further inspired seeing track athletes on television at the 2004 Athens Olympics, as well as Canadian sprint kayaker Adam van Koeverden, who won gold and bronze medals at those Games.

“Watching all those races,” he said, “I had goosebumps. I remember running around the basement after each of those races for 15 to 20 minutes. In my Grade 8 yearbook I wrote ‘Olympian’ as my future occupation. I didn’t know what that meant but it’s the fact I was inspired and held on to that [dream].”

Ahmed, now 29, realized his Olympic dream in 2012 in London, where he finished 18th in the 10,000. Four years later, he doubled up in Rio, placing 32nd and fourth, respectively, in the 10,000 and 5,000.

Ahmed’s breakout moment came three months earlier at the Diamond League’s Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., according to Jerry Schumacher, his coach at the Portland-based Bowerman Track Club since 2014. The former University of Wisconsin-Madison standout took the lead with a lap to go in the 5,000 and hung on for a third-place finish in 13 minutes 1.74 seconds.

“I remember thinking he was just scratching the surface and there was better coming,” Schumacher told CBC Sports.

Ahmed went on to earn Commonwealth Games silver in 2018 and last September clocked 13:01.11 for bronze at the world championships in Doha, Qatar.

If there’s a sign the Somalia-born runner is ready for Tokyo, he said his record 5,000 run in July at an instrasquad meet in Portland “felt fairly easy.

WATCH | Ahmed shatters his 5,000m Canadian record:

29-year-old Moh Ahmed of St. Catharines, Ont., won the 1,500 metres race in three minutes 34.89 seconds at the Bowerman Track Club intrasquad meet in Portland, Ore. on Tuesday, July 21. 5:03

“Physically I was ready for it, and mentally and emotionally as well,” said Ahmed, who enjoys writing and poetry away from the track. “I was very much in tune with my body, on top of my stride, controlling my body and emotions, and was able to observe and read the race well.”

He’s kind of like that quiet assassin. … He’s got this quiet confidence but when he comes out [on the track] he packs a big punch.— Bowerman Track Club coach Jerry Schumacher on Ahmed

His brother Ibrahim was able to attend, which gave him extra motivation.

“Every scream, every yell and every shout from [Ibrahim] and [my coach and teammates] had pure encouragement,” Ahmed said. “It was pushing me, propelling me. There’s a deep connection with those individuals and I know how bad they want it for me.”

Better at handling nerves, pressure

“He’s kind of like that quiet assassin,” Schumacher said of Ahmed, laughing. “You don’t expect it [because] he’s a very unassuming guy and humble. He’s got this quiet confidence but when he comes out [on the track] he packs a big punch.”

Ahmed admitted to feeling more confident in his abilities and more experienced in handling the nerves, anxiousness and pressures of racing. He also considers himself among those in the hunt for an Olympic medal next summer in Tokyo.

Only Joshua Cheptegei, who set a world record of 12:35.36 on Aug. 14, has run faster than Ahmed since Jan. 1, while Cheptegei’s Ugandan teammate Jacob Kiplimo (12:48.63) and Ethiopia’s Selemon Barega (12:49.08) are the others to have run under 12:51.

This is the company Ahmed now keeps and wanted, Schumacher said, when he arrived at Bowerman with big dreams but lacking the skills, confidence and development to immediately reach an elite level.

“That’s what he’s always been driving for,” the renowned Schumacher said. “Moh’s competitiveness or competitive instincts have been the same since [Day 1]. But medalling at that level, with those guys, is always hard.”

Ahmed hopes he put enough fear in his competitors in the world final after taking the lead with about 500 metres to the finish, dropping to fifth and working his way back to third on the straightaway at Khalifa International Stadium.

WATCH | Ahmed claims 5,000m bronze at 2019 worlds:

Canadian Moh Ahmed reaches the podium with a time of 13 minutes 1.11 seconds. 3:03

Health will be paramount in the eight months leading up to Tokyo, Ahmed noted.

“My dad once told me, ‘Only a healthy man can go out and seek their destiny.’ If you are healthy and can pile up the mileage week after week, you’ll be prepared,” he said.

American runner Evan Jager remembers Ahmed having “a lot of room to grow” when he joined Bowerman, watching him make big gains the first two years and reset the bar soon after the 2016 Rio Olympics.

“He wasn’t going to be satisfied with anything less than standing on the podium at global championships,” said Jager, a silver medallist in the 3,000 steeplechase at Rio. “Every part of his life was centred around running and people are starting to see his hard work and dedication pay off.

American runner Evan Jager, left, says keeping up with Ahmed at practice “is a tall, tall task.” Jager won steeplechase silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics. (Submitted by Bowerman Track Club)

“I was not shocked and shocked at the same time [at his running 12:47] because of how easy he made it look,” said Jager, who was in the race but wasn’t able to hold Ahmed’s pace and didn’t finish.

“Tough, fun and super frustrating” is how Jager describes battling his longtime teammate at practice these days.

“He’s definitely more confident over the past two years,” Jager said. “Keeping up with him is a tall, tall task. Everyone on the team looks up to him and it just sets the bar even higher.

“I would not bet against Moh to medal [in Tokyo] but championship races are so hard and competitive. Everyone brings their A-plus-plus game to an Olympic final and I have no doubt he’ll do the required thinking and planning to get there.”

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Secret to her success: NWSL commissioner guiding league through pandemic

Just five months into her tenure, National Women’s Soccer League commissioner Lisa Baird navigated a return to sport during a pandemic, negotiated a landmark broadcast deal, secured big-name sponsors and announced a flashy new expansion team in Los Angeles. Now just imagine what she can do for the league in a regular year. 

Ahead of Sunday’s NWSL Challenge Cup final between the Houston Dash and Chicago Red Stars in Sandy, Utah, Baird can almost take a deep sigh of relief (or maybe get some sleep). It’s certainly much different than those dire days of March. 

Baird officially took the commissioner’s role on March 10. The sports world came to halt two days later.

“What was remarkable to me was how quickly the entire sports industry shut down worldwide,” Baird told CBC Sports. “Once [commissioner] Adam Silver had started it with the NBA, around the world it was literally that quick. I think the rest of the industries maybe weren’t as quick as the sports industry to understand the sobering reality of what we were dealing with because of live sports, contact sports and fans.” 

When you look at Baird’s resume — executive and marketing leadership positions at the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committees, the NFL and IBM, to name a few — perhaps it’s no surprise the NWSL’s return has gone safely and smoothly (aside from Orlando’s withdrawal due to positive COVID-19 tests before the tournament). 

What’s been the secret to her success? Just like soccer, a whole lot of teamwork and hustle. 

During the early days of the shutdown, Baird reached out to her contacts in the sports world. She pulled knowledge from more well-resourced leagues, like MLS (she says league commissioner Don Garber was of particular help). She and her team set goals and principles. 

Being a small, nimble league was also plus.

“I could pick up the phone and in a day contact any owner I needed,” Baird said. “I was able to do several Zoom calls with all athletes on the call, working through issues in real time as we were developing it.” 

WATCH | 1 on 1 with Lisa Baird

CBC Sports’ Signa Butler speaks with the NWSL’s new commissioner Lisa Baird about the league’s core values and its return to play. 4:45

Virtual calls

Sitting on one of those first nerve-wracking virtual calls was veteran Canadian midfielder Diana Matheson of the Utah Royals.

“That was a tough situation because she was fielding questions on a tournament people were very unsure about,” said Matheson, the two-time Olympic bronze medallist (you may remember her iconic winning goal from London 2012).

“I was very impressed that she held the call in the first place and also the way she conducted herself. She wasn’t afraid to take our questions, give answers when she had them or tell people when she didn’t have the answers and that she would go find them.”

After a one-month training camp, the teams arrived in Utah ready to play a month-long World Cup style tournament. The short turnaround didn’t hurt the quality of play and viewers took notice. The opening game between North Carolina and Christine Sinclair’s Portland Thorns drew an eye-popping record 572,000 total viewers on CBS, a +201 per cent increase from the previous best of 190,000 set back in 2014. CBS hasn’t given its numbers for its All Access digital service, which broadcasts most games. 

One of the main things that attracted Baird to take the NWSL’s reigns in its eighth season was its values, all which coincidentally have helped the league endure these pandemic times.

“We’re scrappy. We fight to the finish and I think you see that on the field with these players right now. These two teams that are going into the final are going to fight for the finish. We are scrappy, we have spirit and heart and we are not giving up,” she said. 

“We are humble, we are respectful. We, as a league. And I don’t think it’s just the fact that we’re women. We have male owners and coaches, We’re a very diverse league. We’re always going to be that league that’s appreciative of what we have.

“And the third thing is that we’re ambitious and we are leaders. When it’s a normal time, we would have 58 of the best players from around the world playing in our league. We want to own the mantle of being the best professional women’s soccer in the world. We’re grateful that we have some of the best and biggest names, but we have more ambition where that’s concerned.” 

Social issues

Also at its core, the NWSL and its players have always been at the forefront when it comes to social issues, whether it be pay equity or social justice. On June 27, the opening game of the tournament, on national television, they focused their awareness and support to Black Lives Matter. It’s continued through the tournament. 

“I think because we were the first league back there were a lot of people paying attention to what was going on,” Baird said. “It was a very intense time for the players, particularly because they’re in a new environment, they’re in the bubble, we were the first team out. I was so supportive of the freedom of expression, but I was so impressed by the courage of our players to do it. It’s not an easy time to make a stand on social justice. I think what they did was really important. I know our fans were very supportive.”

After last week’s dramatic quarter-finals, which saw the top three seeds ousted from the tournament, including the two-time defending champion North Carolina Courage, there was more intrigue this week with expansion news. 

Los Angeles, with an ownership group featuring A-listers from Hollywood, sports, and the corporate world, will become the NWSL’s 11th franchise in 2022 after Racing Louisville FC joins the fray next year.

“LA is a sports city. The fans have wanted this franchise for a long time,” Baird said. “I’m really excited to be working with them.” 

Tentatively named Angel City FC, the Los Angeles ownership group includes former U.S. women’s national team stars Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach and Julie Foudy; celebrities like founder Natalie Portman, Eva Longoria, Jessica Chastain, America Fererra, Jennifer Garner and Uzo Aduba; and business leaders including Kara Nortman, Julie Uhrman and Alexis Ohanian (and don’t forget the youngest owner, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., yes, the daughter of Serena Williams and Ohanian).  

“Everybody’s like ‘what do you think of a two-year-old in the owner’s room?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know but I think we’re the most family-friendly professional league that I’ve ever seen, so she’s welcome,'” joked Baird, adding “I’ll give a shoutout to my colleague Cathy Engelbert of the WNBA, but we’re pretty family friendly here.”  

With 14 Canadians playing in the league, is there any potential for expansion north of the border? She won’t comment on that just yet, but said this: 

“Canadian fans, if you’re interested in having a team, reach out to us on social media, follow us, make sure that you’re watching us. At the end of the day we’re going to be driven for what’s right for the sport and what’s right for the players, but I pay attention to fans and if you guys are interested, keep that support coming and I’m taking calls.”

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Virus-free U.K. pilot, symbol of Vietnam’s pandemic success, to return home

Vietnam’s most seriously ill COVID-19 patient, a British pilot who at one point seemed close to death, left hospital on Saturday on his way home after a dramatic recovery that attracted national attention.

The case of Stephen Cameron, a pilot for national carrier Vietnam Airlines, became a sensation in Vietnam, where a combination of targeted testing and an aggressive quarantine program has kept its coronavirus tally to an impressively low 370 cases, and zero deaths.

“The odds say that I shouldn’t be here, so I can only thank everybody here for what they’ve done,” Cameron said, leaving hospital in a wheelchair and flanked by doctors holding flowers.

The 43-year-old Scot, who arrived in the Southeast Asian country from Britain in early March, was hospitalized three days after his first flight for Vietnam Airlines, following a visit to a bar in Ho Chi Minh City that became linked to a cluster of coronavirus cases.

Cameron’s illness and the highly publicized efforts of Vietnam’s doctors to save him became a symbol in Vietnam of the country’s successful fight against the virus.

Lung capacity was at just 10%

At one point, medical officials said Cameron, initially identified only as “Patient 91,” had just 10 per cent of his lung capacity and was in critical condition.

By early April, Cameron was on a ventilator and life support machine at Ho Chi Minh City’s Hospital of Tropical Diseases. In May, medical officials were saying that he urgently needed a lung transplant.

With the vast majority of Vietnam’s COVID-19 patients already recovered, the news of a potential first death prompted a national outpouring of support, with dozens of people coming forward as potential lung donors.

State doctors turned the volunteers down, saying donated lungs should come from brain-dead donors.

But under round-the clock care, Cameron improved. By June he no longer required a lung transplant and was taken off life support.

Vietnam spent over $ 200,000 US treating him. Vietnamese doctors will accompany Cameron on the special flight back to Britain, state media said.

“As soon as I get fit, I’m coming back,” said Cameron. “I’m still a pilot — my licence has lapsed, that’s all.”

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While Singapore touts its COVID-19 success, migrant workers face the greatest risk

Singapore has had an enviable record in handling the coronavirus outbreak. Based on the latest figures, the country has had only 21 deaths, or four per million of population, compared to 137 per million in Canada, 251 in the U.S., 482 in the U.K. and 511 in Italy. 

Indeed, Singapore learned lessons from the outbreak of SARS in 2003, when 33 patients died there.

This time, the government was ready with an elaborate testing and contact tracing regime that nearly snuffed out the COVID-19 outbreak at an early stage.

The first case in Singapore was a female shopkeeper who had welcomed a large group of Chinese tourists in mid-January. Health department contact tracers quickly chased down almost everyone she encountered, and ordered them to self-quarantine as a precaution.

“One of the things about Singapore being very small, it is completely wired up, it is all connected through the latest IT system,” said Leo Yee Sin, executive director of Singapore’s National Center for Infectious Diseases. “So it gives this advantage in terms of contact tracing.”

But the COVID-19 wave has a way of exposing a society’s faults. In China, it’s an authoritarian government that covered up the severity of the outbreak. In Canada, it’s a long-neglected long-term care system.

In Singapore, the fault-line has been its guest-worker system.

Reliance on migrant workers

According to Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower, 1.4 million of the country’s 5.8 million residents are migrant workers, mostly from Bangladesh and India.

A large number of them are in construction and other heavy industry such as shipbuilding, and are sometimes paid as little as the equivalent of $ 20 Cdn a day. These workers live in company dormitories, often 10 to 20 per room in unsanitary conditions.

WATCH | A look at Singapore’s efforts to tame COVID-19

Singapore contained its coronavirus outbreak through aggressive tracing, testing and clamping down on its economy, but it exposed some ugly truths about its treatment of migrant workers in the process. 6:18

Most work almost as indentured labourers to pay off the debt they incurred to come to Singapore, and are reluctant to do anything that might jeopardize their stay.

“If a migrant worker is ill, he’s not going to say that he’s ill, because he’s afraid of what happens if he takes sick leave,” said Singapore journalist Kristen Han, who recently wrote an article for Foreign Policy magazine entitled “Singapore Is Trying to Forget Migrant Workers Are People.” 

“His employer might be unhappy, [the worker] might get fined for taking sick leave, he might have his work permit cancelled and then be repatriated.” 

Singapore’s good record on COVID-19 became tarnished when the novel coronavirus entered the migrant-worker population and spread. In early April, the government forced all of the company dormitories to be locked down and the economy ground to a halt.

Migrant workers pray inside their dormitory during the holy month of Ramadan. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

During February and March, the number of new cases never reached more than 100 per day. But on April 20, it peaked at 1,426.

According to the ministry of health, on May 6, infections in dormitories made up 88 per cent of the cases nationwide.

Political scientist Ja Ian Chong at the National University of Singapore said racism has been a contributing factor.

“The infection in migrant worker dorms, I think, is uncovering a lot of the nastiness and, frankly … racism that have been latent in Singapore society for a long time,” Chong said.

“People [are] saying, ‘Well, these migrant workers, they’re dirty by culture … and, you know, they have it good here in Singapore, why are they demanding more? They deserve their lot.'”

‘We will care for you’

In his May Day address, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong seemed to bend over backwards to express his appreciation and concern for migrant workers, saying, “Let me emphasize again: We will care for you just like we care for Singaporeans.”

But that is not quite the case. In fact, special facilities have been constructed to treat infected migrant workers outside of Singapore’s hospitals. 

For the most part, the care is administered through robots, which bring food and medicine to patients’ bedsides. Doctor visits are performed through other robots to minimize human contact.

A migrant worker living in a factory-converted dormitory speaks on the phone. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

There is even a robot dog to lead quarantined workers from one place to another.

These measures seem to have lessened the second wave of infections. Probably because the workers are young and healthy, the death rate in Singapore is still very low. 

Contact tracing app

On March 21, the government began encouraging all citizens to download a new contact tracing app called TraceTogether to their phones.

The app keeps a log on the phone of every other device that shared close contact with the owner over a 14-day period — information that would be turned over to health authorities if the carrier of that phone became infected.

So far, the app has not been a great success.

“We’ve learned that a very small number of Singaporeans, about 1.1 million, downloaded it,” said Han, which “is quite far from the three-plus million that they actually need before it becomes effective in contact tracing.”

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong. centre left, visits the contact tracing operation at Mandai Hill Camp, Singapore. The country’s armed forces are assisting in contact tracing efforts. (Singapore Ministry of Defence)

Many Singapore residents are concerned about the privacy implications of the app. Unlike a similar app in Australia, the location information gathered is not restricted to use by health officials. It can be shared with the police and army, who could find other uses for it. 

Now, because the infection rate among migrant workers is still high, the Singapore government is apparently considering legislation to require all residents to download the app and participate in the program. 

But it’s not clear what proportion of migrant workers even have the smartphones necessary to make the app work. 

As many countries are learning, there may be limits to technology as a solution to an outbreak.

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Not much urgency seen in Japan’s COVID-19 state of emergency — despite some success

(Saša Petricic)

Like the iconic blossoms that fill Tokyo every spring — the pale pink Sakura — much of Japan is currently out of bounds. Roped off, closed or otherwise deemed unacceptable to visit. But unlike authorities in other places in the world, those in Japan have resorted to suggestions instead of commands. Violating them could get individuals a stern look, businesses a public shaming, but rarely a fine. The declaration of a national state of emergency was meant to send a signal, but the change has been incremental.

(Saša Petricic)

Routine behaviour

Physical distancing is a goal, not a national obsession — partly because it runs up against Japan’s rigid work culture, which usually requires long hours in the office. Tokyo’s morning rush hour is lighter now, about 30 to 50 per cent of normal on the trains into downtown. But commuters still rub elbows on benches, escalators and platforms.

(Saša Petricic)

What’s behind the relaxed attitude on Japan’s streets? Infection numbers that are still relatively low by world standards, if growing steadily. There are just over 13,500 cases nationally, less than a third of Canada’s. This even though Japan’s population is more than three times the Canadian population. Total deaths are around 375, fewer than New York is experiencing daily now. Testing is also lower here, as Japan has put more emphasis on its own system of targeted contact tracing.

Business ventures

(Saša Petricic)

Faced with that low sense of risk, businesses like Daisuke Shimazaki’s Tokyo sushi bar choose to remain open. “Of course, I’m afraid,” he said, “but I have to eat. I have to pay my bills and my staff.” Many stores, restaurants and bars have closed for a few weeks, but it’s unclear whether they will stay closed if the government extends its emergency decree, even with an economic support package worth more than $ 1.6 trillion Cdn.

(Saša Petricic)

Fishing has been hit hard, with much lower demand at Tokyo’s normally bustling fish markets. The value of bluefin tuna — a Japanese staple — has tumbled 30 to 40 per cent. That’s prompted some fishermen to stay ashore while others — such as those in Onjuku harbour — keep catching other varieties, including yellowtail, everyone waiting for life to get back to normal and demand to increase to normal levels.

Rural life

(Saša Petricic)

“It’s hard work, but I don’t mind,” said the woman stooped to plant rice near the village of Kamifuse. Except for the masks people wear, life in the countryside doesn’t look much different amid the coronavirus. Infection levels are much lower than in major centres such as Yokyo or Osaka — so much so that people who live in the cities have been asked to stay away from rural Japan to keep the virus from spreading.

Age differences

(Saša Petricic)

Throughout Japan, the most vulnerable — and the most afraid — are seniors. You don’t see many on the streets of Tokyo even though the country has the oldest population on earth, with more than one in four people older than 65. At least 220 of the total 375 deaths are in this demographic, so many older people stay at home.

(Saša Petricic)

Many young people, on the other hand, are still out doing what they usually do. Still out on the surf in Chiba prefecture, east of Tokyo, on a Sunday afternoon. “Just look,” said Akira Sato as he came out of the water with a friend, “the danger is very little for us.” Maybe out on the water, but numbers nationally show those in their 20s to be one of the groups with the highest level of infection.

(Saša Petricic)

Slowly, people in Japan are drifting away from each other, doing more to isolate on beaches in Chiba, as in downtown Tokyo. But the sense of crisis seen elsewhere around the world just isn’t on display here.

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Wickenheiser, 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame class reflect on success at induction ceremony

Hayley Wickenheiser hasn’t had a lot of time to reflect.

The Canadian women’s hockey star — a quadruple Olympic gold medallist and seven-time world champion — retired in January 2017 and quickly transitioned to medical school.

As if there wasn’t enough on her plate already, she then took on the role as assistant director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs in August 2018.

Wickenheiser finally got a chance to look back at her standout playing career, and its impact, on Monday night.

The 41-year-old was among six inductees enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, joining three-time Stanley Cup winner Guy Carbonneau, offensive blue-line dynamo Sergei Zubov and Czech great Vaclav Nedomansky in the players category.

Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford and legendary Boston College head coach Jerry York went into the hall as builders.

“It was not a common thing as a little girl to want to play hockey in the small town where I came from,” Wickenheiser, a native of Shaunavon, Sask., said during her speech. “But my mom and dad believed that a girl could do anything that a boy could.”

Road to success wasn’t easy

Wickenheiser recounted sleeping in a closet for a week just so she could attend an all-boys hockey camp in Regina.

“I wanted to play the game so bad, I didn’t care what I had to endure.”

She went on to play for boys teams in Calgary — there weren’t any for girls, and she’d tuck her hair under her helmet to avoid standing out — but still had to fight.

“I was taking the spot of a boy, and people didn’t really like that too much,” Wickenheiser told the audience at the Hockey Hall of Fame. “I actually developed an ulcer. I wasn’t nervous to get hit or to go on the ice. That’s actually where I felt good. It was when I had to come to the rink and change in the bathroom and then walk through the lobby of all the parents — the comments and the harassment I would often hear.

“Those things gave me thick skin and resilience.”

She went onto have a stellar 23-year career with Canada and played professionally in Europe, blazing a trail at a time when the women’s game was desperately looking for traction.

Wickenheiser, who has medical school exams Wednesday, put up 379 points in 276 games to help secure four straight Olympic golds (2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014) as well as those seven world titles.

Named the MVP of both the 2002 and 2006 Olympic tournaments, the former centre is the seventh woman to be inducted into the hall.

WATCH | Meet the 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame class: 

With induction weekend upon us, Rob Pizzo looks at who will soon have a plaque in the Hall of Fame. 1:32

Carbonneau, 59, won the Stanley Cup in 1986 and 1993 with the Montreal Canadiens, and again in 1999 with the Dallas Stars.

The native of Sept Iles, Que., was an attacking force in junior, but transitioned to the other side of the puck in the NHL, becoming one of the game’s premiere shutdown centres on the way to winning the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in 1988, 1989 and 1992.

Carbonneau, who retired in 2000 and waited 16 years before getting inducted in the hall, finished with 663 points in 1,318 regular-season games.

“I was dreaming about playing in the NHL, dreaming of winning the Stanley Cup, dreaming of scoring a goal in the playoffs,” said Carbonneau, who added 93 playoff points. “But being inducted in the Hall of Fame? Never in my wildest dreams.”

A smooth-skating defenceman with terrific vision, Zubov played 12 of his 16 NHL seasons with Dallas, registering 771 points in 1,068 regular-season games. The 49-year-old Moscow product added 117 points in the post-season, helping the New York Rangers hoist the Stanley Cup in 1994 before doing it again with the Stars in 1999.

WATCH | Vaclav Nedomansky’s defection paved way for many NHLers:

He may not be the most recognizable name going into the Hockey Hall of Fame this year, but as Rob Pizzo shows, his path to get there was the toughest. 3:13

An NHL goalie from 1970 to 1983, Rutherford was named GM of the Hartford Whalers in 1994. He stuck with the franchise when it moved to Carolina to become the Hurricanes, and built the roster that won the organization’s only Cup in 2006.

The 70-year-old from Beeton, Ont., took on the same role with the Penguins in 2014 and helped guide Pittsburgh to titles in 2016 and 2017, making him the only GM to win Cups with two different teams since the league expanded in 1967.

“Don’t let anyone tell you [that] you can’t do something, because that was the story of my career,” Rutherford said. “And the more they told me I couldn’t do things, the more it turned out that I did.”

Nedomansky, 75, starred for 12 years in his native Czechoslovakia before becoming the first athlete from an Eastern European communist country to defect to North America to pursue a professional hockey career in 1974.

He played parts of three seasons in the World Hockey Association before jumping to the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings as a 33-year-old rookie.

“It was difficult, complicated, stressful,” Nedomansky said of his decision to defect. “I’m so happy that I’m here.”

The 74-year-old York, who’s in his 48th season behind the bench, owns five NCAA titles, including four with the Eagles, and has the most wins in U.S. college history.

“I just love coaching,” said the native of Watertown, Mass. “I love the people we coach.”

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