No Repeat: Rio Olympic wrestling champ Erica Wiebe eliminated early in Tokyo

A five-year effort to return to the top of the Olympic podium ended in about five minutes Sunday for Canadian wrestler Erica Wiebe.

Estonia's Epp Maee jumped out to a quick lead and hung on for a 5-4 win in their first-round matchup at the Makuhari Messe Hall. It was a fairly surprising early exit for the defending champion, who couldn't recover from a slow start.

"My only goal today was just to compete at my best, and I think I did that the last two minutes of the match," Wiebe said. "That wasn't enough today."

Her formal elimination from the women's freestyle 76-kilo draw was finalized a short time later. Wiebe had a slim chance of falling into the repechage for a chance at bronze, but that hope was dashed when Maee lost her next match.

"This is a new competition," Maee said of facing the Rio Games champion. "The previous result doesn't matter. It was a new match, it was a new day. We were both there to win."

Maee, a two-time world bronze medallist, led 3-0 at the break and added another deuce early in the second round. Wiebe, from Stittsville, Ont., scored a takedown and picked up two more points by turning Maee's shoulders towards the mat.

The Canadian tried valiantly in the dying seconds to score with a step-out or takedown but Maee stuffed the attempts.

"I know how (Erica) can move and I know the pressure she can apply on people and I felt that she had not done that right from the start," said Canadian coach Paul Ragusa. "It took a little bit to settle in to the match, that's it."

Wiebe had to adjust her training plans during the pandemic, bringing weights and a wrestling mat into her basement. When facilities were shut down last year, the Calgary-based athlete trained outdoors on the grass and often shadow-wrestled by visualizing attacks.

"I definitely have been off the mats more than I have cumulatively over the past probably 10 years," she said. "So it's been a challenge to do that."

Ragusa noted that high-performance programs in European countries had more options last year for travel and training, adding many teams were able to hold regular camps.

Wiebe, meanwhile, had limited training partners and finite travel options at times.

"We had to really adjust our plan based on quarantines and that," she said. "We created a good solid environment for ourselves. In the current circumstances, we were able to do what we could and be the best prepared that we could be for this tournament."

Wiebe resumed competing late last year but battled knee and ankle injuries in the lead-up to the Games. She was determined to persevere, no matter the challenge.

"I like to live my life being delusionally optimistic," she said. "So I had a Plan A to Z, for every single outcome. You've got to catastrophize your situation. You've got to think, `What's the worst-case scenario and how do I work back from that to still be successful?"'

Wiebe said she tore her medial collateral ligament last December and tore her lateral collateral ligament a month later. A badly sprained ankle - suffered a few weeks ago in her last match before Tokyo - left her in a walking boot.

"She was prepared here," said Ragusa. "It wasn't impacting her. She wasn't 100 per cent but I don't think that ankle impacted her movement here."

Wiebe, who won world bronze in 2018, didn't have her usual jump in the opening round. She lost time when she got caught in some positions and struggled to generate offence.

"I think she tweaked her knee pretty bad on the first takedown, the same one she injured," Ragusa said. "I think that impeded a bit of the movement. But at the end, she still got the takedown.

"So she's still moving. I don't think she had any excuses."

Maee fell to Japan's Hiroe Minagawa, who advanced to the evening semifinals against Germany's Aline Rotter Focken. Five-time world champion Adeline Maria Gray of the United States was to face Kyrgyzstan's Aiperi Medet Kyzy in the other semifinal.

Medal bouts were scheduled for Monday.

"I felt so ready," Wiebe said. "My team, despite all the challenges, we came together and we found a way to train and compete in every single moment.

"I'm so proud and so grateful to be here today."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 1, 2021.