It takes a village (Part 1): How Sather Clinic staff support Canadian athletes preparing for the Olympics

Sports medicine physician Terry De Freitas reflects on providing medical care for Canadian athletes and preparing for the Olympics

Danica Erickson - 15 July 2021

As a family physician and director of the Sport and Exercise Medicine physicians at Glen Sather Sports Medicine Clinic, assistant professor Teresa De Freitas is part of a team of healthcare professionals working with both athletes and active individuals who enjoy sport and exercise. She regularly works with high-performance athletes including the Edmonton FC and Taekwondo Canada. She has also worked with medical teams on large-scale athletic events such as the 2019 Canada Winter Games and the Alberta Summer Games in 2016 and 2018.

This summer, De Freitas will experience the pinnacle of providing medical care in the sporting world, travelling to Japan as part of the core medical team for almost 400 Team Canada athletes during the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games. The extensive application process to be part of the medical support team is its own competition and she considers it an honour to have been selected as one of the seven physicians. “It’s definitely a highlight in my career in sports medicine to be able to go and help these athletes. I find it so satisfying to be there for them so they feel secure and safe when they have a medical person that they know.”

Despite the pandemic bringing scrutiny to the games, De Freitas is still looking forward to the experience because she knows an abundance of caution is being taken. The teams have adopted the training-bubble approach used in professional sports and have training protocols in place. All individuals involved are tested for COVID-19 prior to travel, teams purchase their own portable testing units, and all core medical team members are trained to use a testing device approved by Health Canada that will be available. Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) medical staff have also been provided with rapid antigen tests, masks and hand sanitizers, and access to a wellness program.

“They’ve been really supportive of us,” says De Freitas. “The Canadian Olympic Committee is very positive. They’re a great organization to be a part of. They are very inspiring. In fact, throughout this whole COVID thing, sometimes reading what they say about inspiring their athletes can be inspiring to us in health care.”

For the world-class physicians at the Glen Sather Clinic and those from clinics across the country, caring for Team Canada Olympic athletes begins before the athlete's arrival in the host country. Well ahead of the games, the team physicians will find out about any prescription medications or supplements being taken by the athletes. This will help them determine if athletes have been exposed to anything that is considered a banned substance. Once the physicians arrive at the competition site, about a week ahead of the start of events, they get to know the individual athletes. This includes learning about any chronic injuries or sleep issues they may have, and ensuring athletes’ nutritional needs are met. The medical team members also investigate any environmental factors within venues, such as humidity levels, ventilation or water quality that could affect the athletes. While doing everything they can to minimize risks for the athletes, members of the medical team are also asked to escort them to anti-doping tests and deal with emergencies.

In addition to knowing what’s happening with environments in the host country, the medical staff keep up-to-date on what’s happening in Canada. This was especially important when De Freitas was in Costa Rica for the Pan American Taekwondo Olympic Qualification Tournament in early March of 2020. While the athletes were focused on competing and completely unaware of what was transpiring back home, De Freitas watched the COVID-19 situation deteriorating rapidly. The Canadian athletes wanted their qualifying points, but she wanted to get them on a plane and home as quickly as possible. On the third day of the competition the Costa Rican government stepped in. “They told us, ‘OK, you can have your tournament, but you have to be out of the venue by five o’clock and we’re shutting it down for the next day.’ Well, what sporting event is ever on time?” she says with a laugh. “We were giving out medals in the street because we hadn’t had time for the medal ceremonies. It was just crazy.” The team returned home on the 11th of March and they had to quarantine.

Travelling to care for athletes may not always be glamorous but it can result in great learning opportunities and unexpected relationships. When De Freitas accompanied Taekwondo Canada to Peru for the 2019 Pan American Games, she joined Canada’s taekwondo and boxing teams and their support staff in a dormitory at Peru’s Naval Academy, about two hours outside of Lima. While they didn’t get to be part of the larger PanAm village, they did learn a lot about the history of Peru and had an up-close encounter with an historical four-masted battleship being outfitted with a crew and preparing to sail into Lima for the opening ceremonies.

Being in the same off-site location meant that De Freitas got to know the Canadian boxing team members, and she hopes she will get to work with them as well as taekwondo athletes in Tokyo. The athletes on the two teams became friends and cheered each other on at their respective events while in Peru. When two Canadian boxers made it into the semifinals and the medal rounds, Taekwondo Canada athletes donned their team gear and went to support them. The two groups of athletes even began trading training notes and learning from each other.

“It was really fun,” she says. “This is what it’s all about. This is the point of multi-sport games—to make those connections and cross those paths.”