Paris often recalls romantic imagery, a place of wanderlust, history and culture; of good food with even better wine, often etched at the top of many bucket lists.
It used to symbolise a place of adventure, a point on a map that if you could just get there, your passions and dreams felt immediately closer to coming true. But now, like the rest of the world, it is facing the ongoing battle against the novel coronavirus and those dreams feel worlds away. For Ashley Lawrence, it’s a sentiment shared — after all, passion was what led her there too.
The 24-year-old reigning Canadian Soccer female player of the year found herself living across the globe after ending a successful collegiate career at West Virginia and signing with Paris Saint-Germain Feminines (PSG) in 2017.
PSG has faced an uphill climb since its founding in 1971 but has started to make its mark, playing in France’s Division 1, arguably the best women’s league in the world. Over the past decade PSG has become fierce competition for Olympique Lyonnais Féminin — one of the elite women’s teams in the world.
With bronze medalist also added to her list of accolades after the 2016 Rio Olympics, Lawrence had her sights set on her Olympic return in Tokyo like many fellow athletes — a dream that is now put on hold.
“I was in Paris when I heard Canada’s Olympic decision and initially it did not sink in. I asked myself ‘What if the Olympics continued without Canadian athletes competing?’” said Lawrence. After speaking to teammates and witnessing the reactions trickle in from other Canadian athletes, it “heightened the emotions,” for her.
“I realized that it was bigger than sports and Canada made a courageous decision,” she said.
A Brampton, Ont. native, Lawrence made the decision to stay in Paris where she lives rather than return home to Canada when the outbreak first began in hopes things would return to normal. But, things only progressed.
In France, the death toll has climbed to a reported 14, 393. Rungis Food market, one of the world’s largest markets, just south of Paris where she lives, has been transformed into a morgue as the death rate climbs.
It’s an astounding dichotomy to grapple with. Lives and dreams of many are coming to their final end each day from the virus, while athletes just mere miles away in top health and athletic condition are fuelled by dreams and hopes of their own. The circle of life has never been quite so confronting. It’s a reality Lawrence knows all too well.
Before the Olympic decision was made, Lawrence, like many of her fellow athletes, was faced with the incredible challenge of trying to focus and prepare at elite levels in an environment wrought with chaos and uncertainty.
“I tried to continue my training but restrictions in Paris continued to grow. There were numerous times when I made the decision to run sprints on concrete because all parks and fields were closed,” explained Lawrence.
Training options became increasingly limited as the city put safety restrictions in place in an effort to fight the spread of COVID-19. But, the pressure remained.
“The pressure elevated to maintain my form. Ultimately, it was not the right conditions to train in and I could not imagine what other athletes had to go through,” said Lawrence.
France, like many places in Europe have put in place lockdown restrictions, such as limiting freedoms to only necessary trips to grocery stores and pharmacies, and the need for documentation that explains when you left and why.
Now, like many of us Lawrence is staying home, trying to keep up with training while limiting social interactions and waiting for some clarity on what the future holds.
“I try to stay active and I also find moments to watch a series or a movie from time to time. Both PSG and the National have sent home programs that help me stay in form, while being inside,” she said.
Outside of connecting with family and friends over video chats every few days, Lawrence has been able to find a silver lining in all of this and is using this time to focus on personal development.
“I have been surprisingly enlightened during this period of confinement. The lifestyle of a professional athlete is non-stop and it has been nice to be in one place; stability. This period of confinement has brought a new perspective,” Lawrence explained.
Meditation and reading have helped her stay connected to herself and offered a new way to look at what is going on around her. “I try to maintain an atmosphere of gratitude for my health and the things like food and shelter. I am reminded of what really matters and although, it’s not easy to stay inside for a long period of time, the sacrifice is for the health of others,” she said.
In a world that feels increasingly bleak each day, where our biggest test of team work comes at a global scale, this sentiment is refreshing and reminds us of what it might actually mean to have a champion’s mindset.
It’s difficult though, to think of the uncertainty of the future without reflecting on the past. For Lawrence, it’s a past rich with trials and tribulations, of physical and mental exertion all accumulating in great moments of triumph. At the top of her list? Her bronze medal win with Team Canada at the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro.
“We had just been knocked out by Germany in the semi-final match and had a game to play against the host nation to medal. The atmosphere was a sea of yellow all singing and cheering on Brazil. I could barely hear my teammates next to me — that game showed what Canadian grit really is.”
Whether it’s the summer of 2021, or another date entirely, when the Olympics do return and Lawrence finds herself out on that familiar pitch ready to put her grit to the test once again, it’s not a far stretch to assume they’ll mean that much more. A symbol of hope, of optimism, a signalling that we — not only as a nation but as a global community — are united and will overcome.