Former T-Bird Mark Pearson’s journey to the Tokyo Olympics

When Canadians are asked about hockey at the Olympics, they picture ice rinks and tons of gear. For Mark Pearson, he thinks of a turf pitch with a wooden stick and shin pads. However, they have a thing in common: wearing the red-and-white for Canada proudly on the world stage.

Pearson represented Canada in this past Summer Olympics in Tokyo, playing on the Canadian Men’s National field hockey team. For the former Thunderbird, it has been a long journey, with experiences and hurdles that he could never have seen coming.

A beginning like many others

His story begins like many other Canadian boys. “I was first and foremost a Vancouver Canucks fan and had skates on as a youngster,” Pearson laughed as he recounted the very start of his sporting career. Instead of continuing on with ice hockey though, Pearson found himself gravitating to field hockey instead.

“My parents, they both emigrated, one from Ireland — my mom — and my dad from England, and they played the sport growing up. And the sport is semi-popular in Vancouver, most of the national team members come from the west coast,” he said. “So when they came to Canada, they’re thinking to themselves, ‘how are they going to meet people and make friends’, and sports are such a great vehicle to do that, so they both joined a local field hockey club.”

“I guess you could kind of say it’s a little bit in my blood”

Growing up in Vancouver, where the climate and surroundings allow for sports year-round, Pearson found himself exposed to a bit of everything. “[I] grew up playing ice hockey and soccer in the fall. And then it was a choice ... between field hockey and baseball in the spring, and, you know, I didn’t really have a choice in the matter,” he joked.

Perhaps playing field hockey, where 11 men stand on a pitch with sticks, represented the best of both worlds for Pearson.

['auto'] Courtesy Mark Pearson

College days, at home

Staying in Vancouver and attending UBC was a relatively easy choice. “UBC was an amazing and still is an amazing vehicle for aspiring field hockey players,” Pearson said with a smile. “The sport has a West Coast bias, so many of us are from from the area.”

The UBC men’s field hockey team has a long and storied history in the area. They have been a dominant force in the past, claiming 10 titles in 12 years from 1955-67. It was also the work of former UBC athlete and geology professor Victor Warren that helped field hockey become an official Olympic sport.

Even to this day, the Thunderbirds send many alums to the Canadian national team, with 13 current students or alumni on the Tokyo 2020 roster.

The field hockey team at UBC, while a varsity team, does not compete in U Sports. Instead, they participate in the Vancouver Men’s Field Hockey League. For Pearson, he felt that this league helped with his development. “It just kind of got me from that age group hockey that I played growing up ... to that next level of playing against men, with young guys, [and] competing in the Vancouver Men’s League against some of the top clubs like West Vancouver, Vancouver Hawks, India Club and United Brothers.”

It wasn’t all just about the sports though. “For me, just from a personal level … getting out of your parent’s house and just, maturing a little bit, exploring who you are and figuring out who you are, like UBC was amazing for that,” Pearson grinned. With the varsity schedule keeping the team together for long periods of time, it was no wonder that many bonds were created. “As a newcomer to UBC, [field hockey] helped me make friends. And suddenly, I’ve got 16-18 buddies that I can go to the Pit with on a Wednesday night.”

“I only look back fondly on my time at UBC.”

The Maple Leaf comes calling

As a 19-year-old still attending UBC, Pearson earned his first cap at a major international tournament, playing for Team Canada at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. It marked the start of a long-tenured career with the Red Caribou.

“It’s taken me to some amazing places and some amazing countries,” Pearson said. The local boy really hadn’t left the Vancouver area when it came to his hockey career. It is amusing for him to look back on that, 15 years later, having spent extensive time traveling the world with Team Canada as well as a long professional career in Belgium, Germany and India.

The new perspective he gained with these experiences also helped with playing with different teammates from different backgrounds. “On our team of 20 players [in India], there was 12 from India, and then eight from other countries. So, it was an Aussie, an Austrian, Canadian, a Kiwi, a German,” Pearson laughed, sounding like the start of a joke. “You can imagine trying to bring that group of athletes together.”

But for Pearson, that was the magic of sports. “I think that’s just what sport does is you have to kind of educate yourselves on the other cultures, and then come together and try and win some hockey games.”

An injury, and the end of the world

During the 2019 Pan-American Games in Lima, six minutes into the Gold Medal match, Pearson cut inside for a scoring chance, before collapsing to the turf in a heap. He had just ruptured his Achilles tendon. With months to go before the Games, and Pearson saying how this cycle may be his last, he was understandably emotional. He didn’t know if he’d ever put the Maple Leaf on again.

He returned home and went under the knife immediately. Pearson knew that he was in good hands. “The surgeon, Dr. Boyer in New Westminster, I mean, in his words, he’s operated on more Olympians than anyone else in Canada,” Pearson smiled. Though the physiotherapists and doctors said that he would be ready for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the timeline was always going to be tight.

Standing on the sidelines on a cold October 27, 2019, Pearson was still in a walking boot as Canada beat Ireland to clinch their qualification to the Games in North Vancouver.

And then, the world came to a standstill as COVID-19 rapidly evolved into a global pandemic. Team Canada announced that they would not be sending a team if the Games were to be held in 2020, and shortly after the Games were officially postponed.

For Pearson, it was a mixed blessing. “I’ll be honest, the pandemic did take the pressure off a little bit,” he said, giving him more time to get back into competition form. However, with that came drawbacks to how he was recovering. “You weren’t going into physio clinics for a few months there, so I was sort of cut off from my medical staff.”

“I wasn’t really able to rehab in the same way.”

The most frustrating part though was the waiting just to get back to his feet. “With an Achilles, because it’s such an important tendon in the body, and there’s very limited blood flow down there, you really need to not put any weight on it for three months,” Pearson described, comparing it to an ACL injury where the rehab process began immediately. “That was maybe the toughest phase was that first three months where you’re just kind of waiting for things to heal.”

But, as the pandemic stretched from one month to one year, so too did the time Pearson’s Achillies had to regain its strength. It wasn’t long before he was back on the pitch training, preparing for the Olympic Games once more.

['auto'] Courtesy Mark Pearson

The Olympic experience

With the Tokyo Games being held with case counts high and vaccine rates low in Japan, many parts of the usual international festival of sport were changed. For one, international fans and volunteers were barred from attending, and athletes were forced to leave the Olympic Village two days after their competition.

Still, in the face of a pandemic, it was some semblance of normalcy and a target that Pearson could work himself towards. “We were very lucky that we’d already qualified,” he said, with the International Hockey Federation holding the spots as they were before the pandemic. “So for our team, it was more about narrowing in from 24-26 guys at training down to the 16 athletes that are going to go to Tokyo.”

The Red Caribou made it over to Europe for some much-needed preparation games prior to the Olympics, with most of the team having not played in a year. But even as they arrived in Japan for the pre-Olympic training camp, it was much, much different than Pearson remembered.

“I’m in Okayama, Japan in the staging before Tokyo … and, you know, we were essentially prisoners in the hotel, we were not allowed to leave,” he recounted. “It sucks as an athlete. When you go to the field, normally, you’re allowed to go for a walk or something around the hotel, just to stretch the legs, but we were literally just confined to our hotel bedrooms.”

Pearson did maintain perspective though. “Again, there’s could be much worse, you’re still going to the Olympics.”

Canada had a rough go at things during the Games. They finished bottom of the pool, losing four and drawing one. Pearson tallied three goals, against the Netherlands, Belgium, and South Africa.

“This one was the sort of the pandemic Games, totally different. No friends, no family, no fans,” he said. “Our results were frustrating, were disappointing. We had patches and phases of every game where we’re playing with and better than some of the best teams in the world. But then, our problem for years has been consistency. And when you take 10 or 15 minutes off in a game, good teams are going to punish you.”

However, it wasn’t just the results on the pitch that mattered the most. Pearson drew on his first Games to show just what these Olympics meant to him. “My first games in 2008, I was a young guy, still at UBC, 19-20 years old. [I was] so excited to be there. Beijing, the sights, the sounds, Yao Ming, it was pretty overwhelming,” he laughed. “And I played well, the team underperformed, but it was just sort of that first case when I was still a little bit immature, didn’t read necessarily know exactly who I was.”

In the years following, Pearson has become a fixture of the Red Caribou, part of the furniture. It was the longevity that allowed him a different experience in Rio, his second Olympics. “We missed out on going to London, we had a few guys retire so that, we had a new kind of core group of guys, myself, Scott Tupper, [Antoni] Kindler, [David] Carter, guys that all went to UBC as well,” he said.

“For us, it was just sort of the culmination of years of hard work.”

And it’s not to say Canada didn’t have a lot to be proud of. “I mean, we have aspirations beyond just qualification, but it’s really hard,” Pearson said. “There’s lots of great countries out there, and we’re by no means a world power.”

“You’re never sure if you’re going to get back to those Olympics.”

“For us, it was just sort of the culmination of years of hard work.”

— Mark Pearson

Parting wisdom

Having completed his Bachelor’s of Arts at UBC, Pearson has also wrapped up a Masters of Sports Management from the Johan Cruyff Institute in Barcelona. He currently works as a business development specialist for the Canadian Olympic Committee.

He’s been around the block and then some with the Red Caribou, and his main advice is to “embrace every opportunity,” he replied instantly. “I think that’s first and foremost, you know, follow your passion, for sure.”

Pearson again references his time in Beijing, where he, in his own words, “put horse blinders” on himself and focused solely on the sport. “I think it’s important to know who you are as an individual or to take the time to sort of think about who you are as an individual, and what makes you tick,” he said. “For me, stopping to smell the roses a little bit, embracing the experience is something that I think makes me enjoy the experience more, but also just to feel more comfortable.”

Pearson did have a good story about the last bit to that. “One of the skills that I have, probably better than most, would be the backhand shot,” he said. “When I was 16 years old, I went to my first junior training, and I didn’t know how to do it, I’d never been shown how to do it, and I was really embarrassed,” Pearson laughed.

“I was like, I’m never gonna let this happen to me, so I just worked on it constantly.” The results were clear too. “Suddenly, it’s like an important tool in my arsenal that’s been a deadly weapon for the last 10 years,” he chuckles.

“If you have deficiencies, don’t be shy to work on them because it’s amazing how quickly you can turn around with a bit of hard work and perseverance.”

“If you have deficiencies, don’t be shy to work on them because it’s amazing how quickly you can turn around with a bit of hard work and perseverance.”

— Mark Pearson