Ottawa – Competing in a near-empty Shaw Centre in Ottawa on Saturday, University of the Fraser Valley wrestler Brad Hildenbrandt came up short in his bid to qualify for the Olympic Games.
The Pan-American Olympic Qualification Tournament was one of the rare sporting events that went ahead last weekend amidst measures to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The event was closed to spectators to minimize the risk of spreading the virus, and only team members, essential staff and limited family members were permitted.
Hildenbrandt participated in the in the men’s 130 kilogram Greco-Roman division, needing a top-two finish to punch his ticket to the Tokyo Olympics. The Surrey, B.C. product was eliminated in the quarter-finals, though, dropping an 8-0 decision to Leo Dalis Santana Heredia of the Dominican Republic.
“It was a little strange to be honest with you,” Hildenbrandt said, reflecting on competing in a near-empty venue as the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a wave of sports postponements and cancellations across the globe. “It was weird watching the news that week, watching everything getting cancelled and wondering if it was even going to happen . . . I just tried not to focus on it.”
Hildenbrandt, primarily a freestyle wrestler, switched his focus to the Greco-Roman version of the sport after emerging as the winner in the Greco heavyweight class at the Canadian Wrestling Trials in December.
Training full-time for Greco included local training sessions with former Greco national champ Kevin Marshall over the Christmas break, and spending the entire month of February in Havana, Cuba in search of elite training partners. He honed his craft at the Cuban national training centre alongside wrestlers from Cuba, Argentina, the Dominican Republic and the United States.
Focusing on Greco also meant stepping away from the UFV wrestling team in the midst of his fifth and final season of university wrestling eligibility, giving up a chance to earn his fourth straight Canada West and U SPORTS heavyweight titles – a decision Hildenbrandt did not take lightly.
“While I was Cuba, I was talking with Coach (Gurjot) Kooner, keeping up with the U SPORTS championships,” Hildenbrandt noted. “I was happy to see everyone do well, but it was frustrating not to be there. I looked at my bracket and it looked tough this year, and that would have been fun for me. I went (to Cuba) for a higher purpose, but it did feel like I was missing out a bit.
“For me, (wrestling Greco) was definitely something out of my element,” he added. “The odds weren’t great for me to make it (out of the Pan-Am qualifier to the Olympics), but I decided to commit to it. . . . I’d really only been doing Greco seriously for two months, and most of the other guys (at the Pan-Ams) have been doing it for 10 years.
“It’s been a great experience. Sometimes it is more about the journey than getting there. I’ve learned a lot – traveling to another country and experiencing that way of life.”
After this semester, Hildenbrandt has just a handful of courses remaining to complete his General Studies degree at UFV. As for his future in wrestling? That’s yet to be determined.
“I’m going to take a lot of time to reflect, especially with no practice right now,” said Hildenbrandt, a three-time Cascades male athlete of the year award honouree. “If I continue with wrestling, I need to commit for the next four years to make the Olympic team. A lot of reflection right now, and figuring out what I want to do moving forward. I don’t have an exact answer yet.”