SANTIAGO — Canadian boxers Tammara Thibeault and Wyatt Sanford had tickets to Paris in their hands Thursday at the Pan American Games.
The top two boxers in each weight class qualified for the 2024 Olympic Games, so semifinal victors were awarded white and gold souvenir tickets.
"That felt so good to have that ticket to Paris," Sanford said. "It's been a lot of years, the majority of my life working for this."
Said Thibeault: "An actual ticket, so I'm very excited. I'm ready to go home and frame it, so pretty happy about it. It's just the first step. We still have a lot of work to do before we get to Paris."
Thibeault, from Shawinigan, Que., meets Panama's Atheyna Bylon for Pan Am Games middleweight gold Friday. It's a rematch of their 2022 world championship final, which Thibeault won.
Sanford, from Kennetcook, N.S., faces Mexico's Miguel Angel Martinez for the men's light welterweight title.
Thibeault and Sanford will return to the Olympic boxing ring a second time in their careers. Thibeault reached the quarterfinals and Sanford was eliminated in the round of 32 two years ago in Tokyo.
"Most people dream of having one opportunity, and we're getting a second chance," Sanford said.
The 26-year-old Thibeault defeated Citlalli Vanessa Ortiz of Mexico by unanimous decision in her semifinal.
"I still have a fight tomorrow. Enjoy this for a little bit. Recover, rest and then get back on it tomorrow," Thibeault said.
Trailing after the first of his three rounds, 24-year-old Sanford came on strong in the second to take control and defeat Brazil's Yuri Falcao.
"Anyone that's watched me fight knows I usually end up losing the first round, but with my cardio and determination I was able to come back and win the second and third so we can advance onto the next round," the Canadian said.
Thibeault's bronze medal at the 2019 Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru was upgraded to silver over a year later because of an opponent's doping violation. Thibeault feels she's come a long way since Lima.
"I've evolved as an athlete, as a boxer," she said. "Technically, tactically and also in physical maturity."
Thibeault and Sanford were among five Canadians attempting to punch tickets to Paris on Thursday.
A sixth, Victoria's Bryan Colwell, couldn't compete in his semifinal. The 33-year-old lost his men's 92-kg semifinal in a walkover.
He was deemed medically ineligible to compete because of a cut over his right eye sustained in his quarterfinal bout.
"I have put in 15 years to get here. It's been a long time coming," Colwell said. "Not the way we wanted it to go down, but I still have two more opportunities to qualify. Puts me in a good position within the program."
Colwell, Montreal's Junior Petanqui, Charlie Cavanagh of Saint John, B.C.., and McKenzie Wright of Oakville, Ont., earned the bronze medals that go to semifinal losers at the Pan Am Games because bronze-medal bouts aren't fought.
"The bronze medal is pretty bittersweet to be honest," said Cavanagh, whose nose was bloodied in a loss to American Morelle McCane in the women's 66-kg class.
"I really wanted that gold medal and more than anything, I wanted that ticket to Paris, but this is my first major Games and I'm so appreciative to be here representing Canada."
The women's 57-kg and 60-kg were the only divisions in Santiago in which the top four boxers qualified for Paris. Canadians didn't advance beyond the quarterfinals.
Qualifying for Paris was more straightforward than Tokyo for Thibeault and Sanford.
The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out Tokyo qualifiers, so they earned their spots via world ranking mere weeks before the opening ceremonies. Both boxers will have more time to rest, plan and train for Paris.
"That's given us a few months to get prepared and start studying opponents already qualified," Sanford explained. "We don't have to do the two other qualifications, so we have more time at the gym to nitpick on those minor things, to make sure that we have a major impact."
Thibeault is six feet with a long reach. She doesn't sit on her corner stool between rounds. Standing up and sitting down feels like a waste of energy for her long levers.
"I might as well just stay standing right?" she said. "I can stand up for 15 minutes. I do it at the gym, so why change my routine when I get into fight mode?"
Petanqui lost his semifinal to Ecuador's Jose Rodriguez on points in the men's 71-kg division. Jennifer Lozano of the United States beat Wright in a women's 50-kg semifinal.
Boxing Canada didn't send a team to the men's or women's world championships this year.
Canada joined a multi-country boycott to protest both the inclusion of Russian and Belarusian athletes and how the International Boxing Association operates.
The International Olympic Committee voted in June to strip the IBA of its recognition as the world governing body of the sport because of governance, finance and ethical issues.
The IOC administered boxing in Tokyo and will do so again in Paris. Boxing remains on the Olympic program in Los Angeles in 2028.
"Boxing Canada did a great job of finding alternate tournaments for us to compete at, but ultimately it was disappointing and out of our control that we couldn't go to the world championships this year, along with a lot of other countries," said Cavanagh, who was a silver medallist in 2022.
"I definitely believe that could be a factor in us not feeling as prepared as maybe we would have if we had gone to that tournament."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2023.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press