Asked if Olympics-bound wrestler Leah Callahan is a Newfoundlander, Mariem Gill answers “always,” and then her voice quivers.
The proud grandmother, and Botwood resident, tells a story about Leah claiming a room in her house as a toddler and notes, “the hardest day of my life was the day they left (the province).”
On Aug. 9, Leah has a chance to provide her grandmother, the rest of her family and the whole country with a pretty good day.
She’ll squeeze into a singlet with a Maple Leaf on it and grapple for Canada at the London Olympics.
Leah is in the 72-kilogram class, a field that includes many athletes she’s already beaten.
“I’m definitely being encouraged that I’m a contender,” Leah says on the phone from Calgary, “and have been for a long time.”
She was born in St. John’s 25 years ago this week. She moved west three years later when her parents, Steve and Molly Callahan, accepted teaching jobs. (Her father, a phys-ed teacher, grew up in Labrador City, her mom in Botwood.)
She discovered at age 13 that wrestling was her sport, and by high school knew she might have a future on the mat.
Reared in Mackenzie, B.C., she still refers to Newfoundland as “back home.”
‘It’s definitely sort of home,” she says. “That’s where all our family is.”
And that family couldn’t be happier for their Olympian, who was in Newfoundland for the summer of Grade 9 and attended her first wrestling camp at Memorial University.
Grandmother Lorraine Callahan, who lives in Mount Pearl but is from Corner Brook, is “so proud, it brings tears to my eyes. Words can’t explain it.”
Other relatives feel the same. They’ve long been behind her, and that became evident to Leah when the national high school championships were held in St. John’s in 2006.
She wrestled for B.C., but had a throng of local fans.
“There was a whole section of bleacher basically blocked off with family I knew,” Leah says.
That backing has continued as she’s travelled the Olympic road, winning three national university championships as a University of Calgary student and earning a berth on the Olympic team Dec. 18.
“Everyone has been really supportive from back home,” Leah says. “There was some funding issues. I wasn’t funded and a lot of family from Newfoundland definitely stepped up and helped me out in that regard.”
Becoming a member of the Olympic team was a large day for Leah and her family.
“We were over the top, yelling and cheering,” says mother Molly, who was there. “We were very happy for her.”
Family members back in Newfoundland were over the top, too.
“We were very excited,” says grandmother Lorraine, who watched the match with Leah’s aunt, Cathy Simms.
“We cried and we laughed. We were there with her and sending all our strength to her that day.”
“This whole journey has been exciting,” says Cathy.
It’s naturally been most thrilling for Leah, who describes the experience as surreal.
With a month-and-a-half to go before the Olympics, she’s busy getting physically and mentally prepared. That’s involved travel to tournaments, hitting the weights, a lot of practice and dealing with a range of emotions.
There are days when she feels really confident, like a mature athlete simply heading into another international tournament.
However, there are other times, she says, “you’re like that little kid. ‘Wow, I’m going to the Olympics.’”
“I don’t count down (to London),” Leah says. “I get more nervous doing that.”
Her family is counting down though. They’ll cheer loudly as Leah goes for gold. Cathy suggests her niece’s achievements have even prompted the family to get together more often.
It won’t be like the 2006 high school nationals, but Leah will have a cheering section in London.
Her mom and dad, two brothers, Aunt Cathy and Uncle Clayton are making the trip. Her boyfriend, Jordan Ferguson, will be there, too.
“It’s an emotional time for everyone,” says Molly.
The family, and anyone with an Internet connection, can learn more about Leah next week.
“The Sticking Place,” an interactive documentary about her Olympic journey, will be launched in Vancouver June 27 and available for free at thestickingplacefilm.ca.
CLICK HERE to view the trailer.
“They did a great job,” Leah says of filmmakers Josephine Anderson and Brittany Baxter. “The art behind it all — it’s quite amazing.”
Leah hasn’t been back to Newfoundland in a while, but is heading here with her mom and dad after the Olympics. She’ll spend time with family across the island, in St. John’s and Botwood, and on Pilley’s Island.
Her grandmothers are anxiously awaiting touch-down.
“We’re all going to the airport, of course,” says Lorraine of the Callahan side of Leah’s family.
“I can’t wait,” says Mariem Gill, whom Leah will visit in her Botwood home.
“I can’t wait because I will turn 80 in September, and they’re all hoping to get home,” she said.
Leah says her parents instilled a Newfoundland mentality in her over the years, and she’s grateful they did.
“I find that, back home, people have a different sense of humour and they don’t take themselves as seriously — that type of character … which has really helped in sport.”
She’ll soon find out if that Newfoundland mentality helps at the Olympic level.