Michael Woods came agonizingly close to opening Canada’s medal account on the first full day of competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The Ottawa cyclist finished fifth in a thrilling men’s road race Saturday at Fuji International Speedway on a day that also saw Canadian athletes take to the diamond, the court and the beach.
Woods, an outstanding climber, led over much of the challenging 234-kilometre road course framed by the iconic Mount Fuji that featured ascents as high as 1,451 metres.
He was part of a competitive chase group over the final kilometres of the race that descended from the Kagosaka Pass. He aggressively pushed the chase group trailing eventual gold-medal winner Richard Carapaz of Ecuador, but in the end finished milliseconds out of a podium spot.
“Disappointed that I didn’t medal today because I felt like I was one of the strongest guys, but proud of how I raced,” Woods said.
Woods finished the race in good company as part of a group finishing one minute seven seconds behind Carapaz. Wout van Aert of Belgium and 2021 Tour de France winner Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia, a pair of cycling heavyweights, took silver and bronze respectively. Decorated Dutch rider Bauke Mollema was fourth.
The strain was visible on the competitors’ faces as they approached the finish line, with the gruelling nature of the race compounded by the Tokyo heat.
“Certainly it played a massive factor,” Woods said of the heat and humidity. “I was shocked at how easy it was to get separation on that final climb, because I think everyone was cooked.”
A smattering of pre-opening ceremony events gave way to a full slate of contests on a sweltering Saturday that also saw the first handful of medals awarded.
China took the early lead in the medal standings with four (three gold, one bronze).
Canada, meanwhile, saw victories in beach volleyball and softball, and mixed results on the tennis court.
The women’s softball team bounced back from a loss to the top-ranked U.S. squad with a 7-1 drubbing of Australia in Yokohama.
Jenna Caira of Toronto was outstanding in 4 2/3 innings of relief pitching, while Jennifer Salling and Erika Polidori each drove in two runs.
Caira struck out three, gave up just two hits and didn’t walk a batter to get the win as Canada improved to 2-1 at the six-team tournament.
“I have an extreme amount of respect for Australia,” said Salling, 34, from Port Coquitlam, B.C. “They’re gritty — they fight, they battle, they compete until the very end.
“Just a great win for us.”
Canada has never won a medal in Olympic softball, while Australia and the U.S. are the only countries to stand on the podium at all four Games where the sport has featured — 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008.
Canada will now turn its attention to the Olympic hosts for the fourth of its five round-robin games Sunday.
Canada’s team-sport success continued with the women’s soccer team’s 2-1 win over Chile in Sapporo. Janine Beckie made up for a missed penalty early in the game by scoring both Canada goals.
The Canadians improved to 1-0-1 at the tournament and next face Britain on Tuesday in Ibaraki. It will be the final group-stage game for the Canadians, who are looking for more hardware after claiming bronze medals in the previous two Olympics.
On the beach, Melissa Humana-Paredes and partner Sarah Pavan earned their first win, defeating the Dutch duo of Katja Stam and Raisa Schoon 2-0.
Pavan and Humana-Paredes have been dominant since they first partnered together five years ago, reaching the finals at 14 international events and winning seven.
A world title in 2019 qualified the duo for the Tokyo Olympics two years ago, then the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the Games by a year.
“We have been waiting for this moment for so long,” said Pavan. “Last year was a roller-coaster of emotion.
“But we stayed disciplined and motivated and accountable — not only to each other, but to our federation and to our sport and everyone who’s been supporting us.”
Pavan and Humana-Paredes will play Germany’s Julia Sude and Karla Borger on Monday.
In tennis, Leylah Fernandez needed three sets to win her Olympic debut on a mixed day for Canadian players.
Fernandez, an 18-year-old left-hander from Montreal, defeated Ukraine’s Dayana Yastremska 6-3, 3-6, 6-0 in just over two hours on a hot afternoon at the Ariake Tennis Park.
In women’s doubles play, the seventh-seeded duo of Gabriela Dabrowski of Ottawa and Sharon Fichman of Toronto dropped a 7-6 (3), 6-4 decision to Brazil’s Laura Pigossi and Luisa Stefani.
Dabrowski still plans to play in the mixed doubles draw later in the tournament with Montreal’s Felix Auger-Aliassime, who will face Britain’s Andy Murray in his opening singles match Sunday.
In the pool, the relay team of Penny Oleksiak and Kayla Sanchez of Toronto, Taylor Ruck of Kelowna, B.C. and Rebecca Smith of Red Deer, Alta., advanced out of Saturday’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay heats into the final Sunday morning, which is Saturday evening in Canada.
Mac Neil and Katerine Savard of Pont-Rouge, Que., swam into Sunday’s 100-metre butterfly semifinals on opening night at the Tokyo Aquatic Centre. The final is Monday.
In rowing, Caileigh Filmer of Victoria and Hillary Janssens of Cloverdale, B.C., were first in their women’s pair heat and advanced to Tuesday’s semifinal. The men’s pair team of Kai Langerfeld of North Vancouver, B.C., and Conlin McCabe of Brockville, Ont., also qualified for its semifinal with a third-place finish in its heat.
Jill Moffatt of Bethany, Ont., and Jennifer Casson of Kingston, Ont., finished second in their lightweight women’s double sculls heat to move on to the semifinals.
Canada’s women’s eight finished second in its heat behind New Zealand and will move on to a repechage.
The men’s four, women’s four and lightweight men’s double sculls will also compete in a repechage. The men finished fifth out of five boats in their heat, while the women were third. The lightweight men’s double sculls boat was also third.
In water polo, Canada dropped an 8-5 decision to Australia in Group A action. The Canadians next take on Spain on Monday.
Canada fell 7-1 to Germany in men’s field hockey. The Canadians next take on Britain on Monday.
On the court, the Canadian men’s volleyball team opened with a tough 3-2 loss to Italy. Next up for Canada is host Japan on Monday.
The Canadian Press
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