By Brendan Shykora
Vincent De Haître was getting dressed for a bike ride on the morning of March 22 when he got a phone call explaining that his path to achieving two of his longtime athletic goals may have been split in two.
The Ottawa native’s Cycling Canada coach was on the other end of the line, in the U.K., where he was stuck and because of the fast-escalating fallout of the novel coronavirus, he struggling to find a flight back to Canada. He had more bad news: Canada had withdrawn from Tokyo 2020.
Two days later, the upcoming Olympic Games were officially postponed until 2021 due to the global pandemic that’s forced the entire sporting world into hibernation, sending athletes aloof from their typical role as a distraction, while much of the world hunkers down at home.
For De Haître, a dual-sport athlete whose personal plans included appearing in both the 2020 Summer Games as a track cyclist and the 2022 Winter Games as a speedskater, the postponement of the Tokyo Games makes for a dilemma.
“It now gives me a lot to think about in terms of being a two-sport athlete,” De Haître said the day after the announcement.
De Haître, 25, made his mark on the world speedskating scene early as the youngest Team Canada skater at the 2014 games in Sochi, where he earned a top-20 finish in the 1000 metre.
He hoped to improve on his results four years later in Pyeongchang, but was held back by nagging injuries.
“I never got to showcase what I could do,” he said.
De Haître has been quick to prove he can fly on the bike as well. Pedaling at the 2017 World Championships (the last De Haître competed in before this year), he finished 2nd in the 1,000 m sprint and in 4th place in the 1500 m. At this year’s World Championships in Berlin in February De Haître set the Canadian record for the 1 km time trial at sea level.
Canada qualified for the Olympic team pursuit – the first time ever for the men’s team – and added a spot in the madison relay. But with a truncated timeline between winter and summer games, De Haître risks spreading himself too thin.
“I could now finally say that I might be a two-sport Olympian if everything works out, or gamble on my chance at an Olympic medal in speedskating,” he said.
The latter option implies taking a break from cycling to focus his energy towards a speedskating medal. De Haître is keeping on the agreed-upon track, at least for now.
“In terms of options I’m already committed to cycling – at least until August, because that’s when the Games were supposed to be.”
Come August, the question will remain whether the seven months or so between Olympic Games will be enough training time to transition his body from one sport to the next.
“I think hypothetically it would be enough time to participate, but I’m not a participant when it comes to speedskating. I know through past performances that I can be a medal (contender) when it comes to the Olympic Games,” he said.
“If I don’t train for speedskating full time, I can’t expect to be at the level that I need to be.”
Training schedules in general have been disrupted. The cycling team had planned a camp in Los Angeles before COVID-19 came into play, after which De Haître ended up in Victoria with two of his teammates.
De Haître drove in from Calgary to Victoria with some rubber bands, a Bosu ball, a weight vest, physio equipment – everything needed to do a training program at home.
“I know all the gyms are closed, so I had my strength coach modify my gym program so I would be able to train,” he said.
Fellow Ottawa cyclist Derek Gee was in his hometown when news of the postponement came through. Now, instead of training in sunny L.A. he’s back to his native climate.
“It’s just a lot of riding in fairly cold weather in Ottawa,” he said.
Gee is one of the national team’s strongest endurance cyclists and has high hopes for the team when the games do eventually roll around.
“We actually had our best ever qualifying ride at the world championships, but the whole world stepped up to another level.”
Canada’s team pursuit placed 11th in Berlin, a result Gee called “super disappointing” after having been one of the top teams in the world leading up to the World Championships.
“The world record got broken three times in that one competition,” Gee explained. “It was pretty amazing to see, and also frustrating.”
With only eight nations getting in, qualifying for this year’s Olympic team pursuit was an especially high bar, and the sport as a whole seems to be speeding up with every major competition.
“Consistently from the last Olympics until now the world record has been broken over and over again, so team pursuiting is really taking big leaps,” Gee said.
Canada’s rise in team pursuit has been years in the making. Its endurance program used to focus more on individual events around the time two-time Olympian Zach Bell was racking up accolades, but Gee says a more recent shift to team pursuit has fully taken over.
“For the last six years the Canadian men’s endurance program has been focused entirely on team pursuit.”
Unfortunately a seventh year will be needed before the fruits of those labours can be seen on the Olympic stage. But while waiting out a pandemic hasn’t been easy for anyone, Gee counts himself lucky next to other athletes.
“I know for a lot of sports, Olympic qualification isn’t done and all their racing has been cancelled, and they can’t even use their facility.”
Another positive is that social distancing isn’t too difficult to manage as a cyclist.
“We’re really lucky that we can train just out on the roads by ourselves.”