Gold medalist Erica Wiebe turned a postponed Olympics into an opportunity to get her MBA.
The reigning Olympic wrestling champion and Smith MBA student shares her experience.
By Hailey Eisen
It’s easy to imagine how disappointing it would be to spend years preparing for the Olympic Games, only to have them postponed. While Canadian wrestler Erica Wiebe was set to compete in the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games last summer, the global COVID pandemic upended her plans, along with those of thousands of other Olympic athletes.
The reigning Olympic champion in the women’s 75kg wrestling event had qualified for the Games at the Pan American Olympic Qualification tournament in March 2020 — just a week prior to the announcement that the Games would be postponed for a year.
Faced with disappointment and uncertainty, Erica decided to use the opportunity to do something completely different.
“The week before the qualifying event, I actually interviewed for the Executive MBA program, something I had wanted to do since I came home from the 2016 Olympics in Rio,” Erica recalls. “My plan had been that, if I got into the program, I would defer acceptance and start in 2021.”
But with the Olympics postponed and a year of unknowns ahead, Erica was thankful when the Smith School of Business program director called and asked if she’d consider starting the MBA that year. “I saw it as an opportunity to bring some structure to my days, something to focus on other than sport — and a huge challenge amidst the uncertainty of everything else,” she says.
In June 2020, Erica joined the first-ever virtual opening residential session of the 17-month, team-based Executive MBA Americas program, a partnership between Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business and Cornell University’s SC Johnson Graduate School of Management. For the past twelve months, she has been studying business from the comfort of her home in Calgary — while also competing in wrestling tournaments internationally and preparing for the rescheduled Games, which begin on July 23.
“When I won the gold medal in Rio I knew that I was just scratching the surface of what I was capable of.”
Earning two MBA degrees from two of the world’s top business schools while preparing to represent Canada at the Olympics has been physically and psychologically demanding, but Erica has always thrived in the face of a challenge.
Erica loved sports — all of them — starting at an early age. She first tried wrestling in her Grade 7 gym class, and joined the co-ed team in Grade 9. While she’d primarily been a soccer player, and once imagined herself playing soccer through university, she fell in love with wrestling. “It was technical, tactical, physical, mental, and I loved every aspect of it,” she says.
At 18, Erica moved across the country – from her home in Stittsville, Ont. to Calgary – to train as a member of the Dinos Wrestling Club at the University of Calgary. “It was the best wrestling program in the country and I wanted to put myself in the position to be my best,” she says. “In fact, that’s exactly what I’m doing with the MBA, participating in one of the best programs in Canada to help pave the way for goals outside of sport.”
Eight years and two degrees later, Erica made her Olympic debut at Rio 2016. “When I won the gold medal in Rio I knew that I was just scratching the surface of what I was capable of,” Erica says. While she knew she wanted to compete in the next Summer Olympic Games, she also wanted to challenge herself in other ways. So, in 2018, she accepted a flexible work position with Deloitte. The opportunity allowed her to apply and bolster her skills in strategy and high-stakes decision-making — skills that translate well from wrestling to the business world.
With consulting experience and a Bachelor of Kinesiology and Honours Bachelor of Arts in Sociology under her belt, earning her MBA made a lot of sense to Erica. Plus, she was eager to be part of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s (COC) partnership with Smith School of Business. As part of this partnership, up to 1200 scholarships are available to eligible national team athletes through Game Plan, Canada’s total athlete wellness program designed to help athletes thrive on and off the field of play.
“I took all the things I use to structure my training and I applied them to these MBA sessions.”
Typically a blended program, with interactive online classes every other weekend and three in-person residential sessions interspersed throughout the program, the Executive MBA Americas was forced completely online due to COVID-19. “So far we’ve done the whole thing online, including the residential sessions, which meant we were on Zoom for eight hours a day for two week stretches,” Erica explains.
For someone who is used to being on the move, it took great stamina to get through these virtual sessions. “I took all the things I use to structure my training and I applied them to these MBA sessions,” Erica explains. “I prepared like I would for a training camp, ensuring I got quality sleep, used the 15-minute breaks to do yoga or walk, drank three liters of water a day, and optimized my performance in every way I could.”
She also bought herself a road bike and has taken up cycling. “Being able to get on my bike and feel the wind on my face has been the biggest thing that protected my mental health over the past 12 months,” she says. “There’s great power in getting outside and moving your body.”
With so much uncertainty in the world due to COVID-19 – restrictions, facility closures, travel bans – impacting her ability to train and compete, Erica is thankful for the distraction the MBA has provided. “What an amazing time to be stuck in class for 14 hours over a weekend,” she says. “These classes have given me the structure and focus to help make sense of what’s going on around me.”
“I’m not done with sport and I’m just getting started on my business journey. There is a whole realm of possibilities.”
Erica has deferred three courses between now and August 8 to focus on final preparations to compete in Tokyo. “I’ve been so lucky that teachers and staff at Smith have been incredibly flexible throughout this journey, ensuring I have everything I need to excel.”
After the Summer Olympic Games, she will return to her studies. “Beyond all of this,” she says, “the short answer is I’m not done with sport and I’m just getting started on my business journey. There is a whole realm of possibilities.”
Asked if she has advice for other athletes considering the MBA program, Erica says: “Whether you’re an athlete or a woman in business considering this program, if you’re worried you can’t handle it or it’s going to be too much, or maybe you won’t belong, those are all the right fears to have and it means it’s exactly the right program for you.”
While this whole year has pushed her to uncomfortable places, she says she’s definitely coming out stronger — and more prepared to compete in the Olympic Games this summer. “Today I am feeling better, stronger, and so much more ready to compete than I could have imagined.”