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The Dinos’ influence: UCalgary athletes take on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

By Rodrigo Verney, August 6 2021 —

Every four years, the world has an opportunity for the best of the best to prove themselves in a 16-day-long competition on the biggest sports stage of them all — the Olympics. Every four years, we see new rising stars, eager to prove themselves as well as great winners setting records for generations to come. May that be Usain Bolt running 100 meters in nine and a half seconds, or Matthias Steiner winning the gold medal and dedicating it to his deceased wife in an emotional win in Beijing, the desire to win ties every competitor at every level.

To represent your country in such a high profile competition is already an achievement in itself, but to bring back a medal is a huge honour. Canada’s history in the Olympics is noteworthy. Although Canada dominates the Winter Olympic Games, they have qualified for nearly every summer games. The only two times they haven’t been presented was in 1896 when they didn’t compete and in 1980 when they were boycotted.

Even though Canada has a great history of qualifying for the Olympics, our athletes haven’t been at the top of the podium as much as they used to. From the turn of the century until now, Canada’s Olympic team has had the gold medal around their necks 13 times in the last five years of the competition — not including the Tokyo Olympics as it is still going on. In fact, Canada’s last breakout appearance was at the 1984 Los Angeles games, when the Olympic delegation won 10 gold medals. 

Graph showing the number of gold medals Canada has won // Rodrigo Verney

However, just like any other country, the road that brought them to the Olympics doesn’t matter now. Once in the competition, it is their strength, ability and drive that will set them closer to the ultimate goal. This hasn’t been better illustrated than at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics where many Dinos, current or former students, have helped Canada get closer to the podium in some way. The history these athletes had with the Dinos seem to be translating well onto the big stage.

To see how the Dinos influence is present at this year’s Olympics, look no further than the modality that opened the podium for Canada. The women’s 4x100m freestyle relay team won silver Sunday morning — Saturday evening in Canada — to open up Canada’s accolades and present the Dinos’ power to the world. The team included Rebecca Smith who has committed to the University of Calgary and the Dinos athletic association. She is currently enrolled in the Faculty of Nursing. Her international experience is a factor that gets a lot of coaches and fans excited for the next season of varsity swimming. Smith is not new to competition as she has a track record that matches her reputation. She has been an important piece of Canadian relay teams ever since she made her senior national debut in 2017. She went on to win seven different medals in the span of three years, one silver and six bronze. The silver medal she got at the Olympics not only reflects her competitive background, but accentuates her ability and mentality in and out of the water. The whole U of C community is excited to see how this new chapter of her career will play out. 

The Dinos influence in Tokyo doesn’t stop there. As former U of C varsity volleyball duo Jay Blankenau and Graham Vigrass are now part of the illustrious National Men’s Indoor Volleyball Team. In an interview with their alma mater, they reflected on their time together and answered questions regarding their expectations and goals for the Olympics. Both Blankenau and Vigrass have participated in the 2016 Rio Olympics and have learned a lot from their time on the biggest stage for volleyball.

“[2016] helped me to know, ‘Okay, I’m nervous, but so is the guy on the other side of the net,’” Vigrass said about learning to control his anxiety.

Vigrass learned most of his teamwork and abilities from his time with the Dinos where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in June this year. Previously playing for the Canuck Volleyball Club and Western Canada High School, Vigrass is notorious for his time with the Dinos when he lead the team to win the 2010 Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) Men’s Volleyball Championship where he got the honour of being named CIS Championship MVP. In the next year, as defending champion, he led the team to a bronze medal at the same championships while being named the CIS Men’s Volleyball Player of the Year. He also represented Canada West at the The Lieutenant Governor Athletic Awards for the top male university athlete in Canada.

Blankenau is not new to the spotlight either. The elite athlete graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 2012. His time with the Dinos was marked by many accomplishments. He lead the team in 2010 CIS tournament. With an impressive win over Alberta (3-2) and Trinity Western (3-1), he capped off a noteworthy 2009-2010 season. He wouldn’t stop there. Blankenau came back the following season with the same drive he had before, recording 651 assists — a feat that got him nominated for the first team Canada West all-star.

Even with a very impressive resume, both players have had elite competitive experience and this is something that no training can teach. That veteran perspective will always be valuable to any team. Not only have they been on big stages together, these two have had ample time to develop their chemistry — an important attribute that can strengthen a team beyond normal expectations. The duo is looking to double their efforts in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and take Canada’s much deserved gold. 

Team Canada has many Dinos up its sleeve this year, but U of C’s influences are far from over. The Dinos are also represented on the coaching front, as Dinos wrestling head coach Mitch Ostberg and women’s volleyball head coach Christine Biggs are part of Tokyo’s Team Canada coaching staff. Similarly, the 2016 Rio Olympic champion wrestler, Erica Wiebe, was also featured in the games and even though she was eliminated in the eighth final, had an amazing run, leaving everything she had on the mat.

Wiebe represented her alma mater and wore the red and yellow to many championships. She had amazing seasons during the four years she was a Dino — from 2008 to 2012. To be an Olympic competitor is already an achievement, but Wiebe gave every inch of herself this year. This is the drive and power that leaves us mesmerized when we turn on our TV’s in the evening. 

It is very cathartic to have this amalgamation of Dino talent and history representing the Canadian flag. It just goes to show how important it is to cultivate the athletic culture that we have built and incentivize newcomers to join this rich history in sports. These athletes have made it into the biggest stage there is. They deserve all of the support and celebration we can provide. The Gauntlet and the U of C community wish the best of luck for them. Congratulations to everyone involved in this amazing feat. Rex couldn’t be prouder.

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