Sports

Vancouver Island's Olympic athletes, in photos

We checked in with the athletes who live, work, and train on the Island as they prepare for the upcoming games

By James MacDonald
May 14, 2021
Sports

Vancouver Island's Olympic athletes, in photos

We checked in with the athletes who live, work, and train on the Island as they prepare for the upcoming games

By James MacDonald
May 14, 2021
James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Sports

Vancouver Island's Olympic athletes, in photos

We checked in with the athletes who live, work, and train on the Island as they prepare for the upcoming games

By James MacDonald
May 14, 2021
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Vancouver Island's Olympic athletes, in photos
James MacDonald / Capital Daily

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games, athletes around the world were thrown into a sort of limbo: competitions were cancelled, workout facilities were closed, and team training sessions were suspended to keep athletes and coaches safe. At the same time, athletes had to deal with the disappointment and uncertainty that came with the cancellation of an event for which they had been preparing for months.

With its lakes, forested mountains, and the ocean, Vancouver Island is an ideal location for some of Team Canada's elite athletes to live and train. Photographer James MacDonald spent time with some of the Island's Olympians to see how they have been coping and training throughout the past year.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Kai Langerfeld

Men’s Pair Rowing

12 years

"I have lived on Vancouver Island for 25 years now. I love living here. It’s a beautiful place to call home, with plenty of things to do outside. Anytime I’m away travelling, I’m always excited to come back here.  Being able to train full time on the Island is great because I’m close to home.

"We have had the last two years of competition cancelled now. The only event we are going to be participating in since 2019 will be the Olympics. We took close to four months off away from the training center in late March of last year and were responsible for training on our own. Since being back last summer, the entire team has been operating in smaller training groups while trying to minimize contact with people outside of our training environment.

Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily

"Hearing the official delay of the Tokyo Olympics was not a real shock as the situation had been developing for a number of months. For me, personally, it wasn’t a big deal at all; it was just something I was going to roll with and to try and enjoy the situation and the time away from the training center. The only negative part was knowing that we would have to complete another full winter training cycle in Victoria which can be pretty harsh.

"The only adjustments that I have had to make are the same as everyone else in the world. Wearing a mask, social distancing, etc. We are preparing for this spring and summer just as we would any other. We have just put in a very solid six months of training where our fitness is at a world-class level. We are following our coaches’ training plan and are continuing to try and improve every day until we leave for Tokyo."

***

Conlin McCabe

Men’s Pair Rowing

National team 2009-2021

"I first moved to Vancouver Island in 2011 from Brockville, Ont., after going to school in Seattle. The Island is the best place to train for a summer sport in Canada. There are a lot of great amenities here for athletes.

"At first everything closed down and it was impossible to do anything. Now, we have the ability to get on with our daily training. We just have protocols to follow to mitigate the risk of spread. There have been no events, so just intra-squad battles to prepare for the upcoming games.

Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily

"The delay of the games was shocking at first; I didn’t think it was an option. Now, we’ve used it as an opportunity to improve all of our weaknesses and build on our strengths. We had a forced break with the first lockdown, and since then we have been building speed and fitness to prepare for the games. Typically, before an Olympics, we would race the world cup circuit in Europe to prepare; that's not an option this year, so it will make the racing at the Olympics that much more exciting."

***

Haley Smith

XC Mountain Biking

11 years

"I have been coming to Vancouver Island in the winters since 2014. This year, my husband and I made the move permanent as of January in order to have a more stable living situation amidst the pandemic. We truly love it here: the mountain biking is the best I’ve found anywhere in the world, and the winter climate is obviously the best in Canada for a sport that doesn’t use snow. My skills have progressed astronomically since coming here, just by virtue of the terrain that’s available to ride. Traffic is generally friendly and safe, which is a concern for us given we ride so many miles on the roads for training. The resources available to us with CSIP (Canadian Sport Institute Pacific) and the active, outdoor culture make living out here a no-brainer for us.

"The past year has looked different, to be sure. We obviously haven’t had the racing opportunities or schedule that we would typically have, and so we’ve had to modify our short-term goals and training. We really bumped up the volume last year to make use of the time to build an even bigger engine/base and tackled some weaknesses that I don’t often have the time to address in a competitive season. Now that we’re looking at a slightly more normal competitive season—the European season, including all of our world cups, seems to be proceeding as normal (minus spectators)—we’ve ramped things back to extremely high intensity.

"On a personal note, I really struggled with my mental health last year because of the pandemic and am still sort of rebounding from that. I can’t really explain what the delay of Tokyo was like. When it happened, I just powered through: I dove into training harder, set alternative goals, and just kept moving forward. It wasn’t until later that I realized I hadn’t addressed the emotions associated with it, and I was left with deep feelings of apathy and despair. The pandemic really shook my foundation, in terms of how I viewed the world and my place in it, and actually just the general stability of life. I think I’ve adjusted to the situation better now, and I feel like I’m resisting things less. I’ve grown more comfortable with the instability and insecurity of pandemic-living, and I’m able to roll with things a bit more, so that’s helped.

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"I’m planning on being based in Europe for the entirety of the summer to minimize travel and COVID risk, and we’ll leave in the middle of April. Right now, we’re just preparing for that and ensuring that we have all of our safety measured dialed. In terms of training, we’re going full-gas! The goal is to be firing on all cylinders by Tokyo, and, with such a long break from normal racing, it will likely take a few races to shake the cobwebs off. Whatever happens, I’ll be grateful if we can do our jobs and race our bikes in a safe and responsible way this summer."

***

Mathea Olin

Surfing

I’ve been surfing for about 10 years but I’ve been playing and body boarding since I could walk

"I’ve been living on Vancouver Island pretty much my whole life. I love it. I love our coastline that spoils us with good waves; I love all the adventurous humans that live on the Island. For training, I’m very lucky—we have waves all year round so I pretty much get to surf every day of the year. On land training, such as strength and conditioning, there’s not much, but I have a really great little set up at home where I can do all my training, and I’m also very fortunate to work with the Red Bull trainer Damien.

"In terms of events, I’ve only competed in one event, which was our Canadian Hometown Showdown, which I ended up winning. But having this year at home not travelling was actually pretty amazing. I got to surf some waves I’ve dreamed of surfing on our coastline, and due to being home for a whole year, I got them on a few magic days. My general day when I’m not out camping and searching for waves on our coastline is wake up, meditate, coffee, look at the swell. Then either do a warm up and go surf, or get a couple hours of school done. But my days are usually filled with training, school, and family adventures.

"Tokyo was postponed a year, and so was our Olympic qualifier. I was used to travelling to compete and train pretty much all year round, so I really just took this extra time at home to get even more in tune with myself, my surfing, my equipment, and take my surfing and on-land training to a new level. I am feeling extremely prepared and confident after this year at home getting to work on myself, and I am really excited for what the spring and summer have in store!"

***

Mariah Kelly

Track and Field: Women’s 1500m

Competing since 2007

"I have been fortunate enough to live on Vancouver Island since the fall of 2015. It was quite the journey getting here, but boy, was it worth it. Vancouver Island is truly a runner’s paradise. There are endless dirt and gravel trails that run into the depths of the wilderness in all directions all over the Island. When you are targeting some heavy mileage it is so great to have access to soft surfaces. And the fact that those soft-surface trails have some of the most breathtaking views I have ever seen makes this place unbelievable. Not only is the landscape breathtaking, but the fact that the national hub is situated in Victoria really just makes Vancouver Island the most ideal place to train as a middle-distance runner. There is a mild climate all year long so you can almost always train outside and access a track which makes avoiding injuries a lot easier.

"The biggest change was the lack of competitive events. In BC throughout the summer and spring of 2020, there were no events. We were unable to race and our only option to race was to leave the country which we were being urged not to do. In the early winter we did some more time trials and then myself and my coach Heather Hennigar made the difficult decision to travel outside of the country for the first time in almost a year. We made this decision because, unfortunately, there were two indoor racing opportunities in Canada and they were both in Ontario, but because I would have been coming in out of province I was unable to compete due to safety regulations.

"When the announcement first came out about the postponement I was devastated. It is difficult to get news like that when for four years you have been preparing for this Olympic year. It was even harder to snap out of Olympic year mode after feeling like I was so deep into it. I thought in the moment I found peace in it pretty quickly but upon further reflection I realized I really didn’t. Instead, I poured all my frustration and anger into one of my biggest six-week training blocks ever recorded and I did it on a bad Achilles. In hindsight, it was really stupid, but I realize now I did it because I was trying to avoid dealing with the real problem.

"2020 was definitely a year of growth, change, and self reflection for me. At first the postponement of the Olympics felt so devastating, but later I realized it was exactly what I needed in so many ways. I had a year to slow things down, spend time with my husband and really dig deep into some issues I had been running from for years because I finally came face to face with them and could no longer run or hide. The Black Lives Matter movement was a big one for me. It made me realize how ignorant and selfish I had been living my life. I am not sure why it took me so long to realize it but I am sure glad I did.

"Learning how selfish and self-centered I had been in my personal life led me to reflect even further upon my professional life. I have been training with a training group for five years now and throughout that time I have experienced some interpersonal conflicts, all of which I have been aware of. For years I avoided addressing the real problem and looking myself in the mirror and asking myself the hard questions, but I got to a point where all that was left was the truth. And the truth was I was an egocentric, self-centered athlete who refused to see any of these issues from anyone’s perspective but my own. My insecurities and desperate need to prove to myself that I belonged at the Olympic level took me away from realizing what was really important—the only thing that really matters in life: love.

"This world moves so fast that sometimes it makes it really easy to get caught up in your own life. I was consumed in mine for as long as I can remember. I was blinded and blocked off from seeing what other people were going through. I think I shielded myself from it because I was too afraid to take it in but now I am more afraid of continuing to walk through my life blind. Running in circles around a track as fast as I can is what I love to do. It is my sacred place where I feel most in touch with myself, where I feel the most free. But it is not the most important thing.

"The impact we leave on another and how much we are willing to give of ourselves in order to help someone else for the greater good, is the real beauty in life. A special magic we all have the power to give and be a part. Creating and being a part of that magic is my focus now."

***

Nate Gray Wolf Riech

Para-Athletics 800/1500m (T-38)

I’ve been involved in Para Athletics since 2018 & athletics since 2007

"I’ve been training on Vancouver Island since September 2018. This place has always been a mystical place for me, personally. Prior to moving here, my uncle (Trevor Harrison) went to Shawinigan and played for team Canada Rugby. In addition, Victoria was the location where my mother (Ardin Tucker) became the 2000 Olympic Trials champion in the pole vault.    

"Training on Vancouver Island has been amazing—having the hub has made my job so much easier. I have access from everything from the HP Gym, treatment, mental performance, physiologists, coaches, teammates, nutrition, and treatment. Not to mention the endless amount of running trails and amazing local running community.

"I’ve always believed in an integrated model of training, which is what I have here; I believe my success on track is a direct reflection from that. Coming here, that’s the only way I was planning on staying. A big part in moving here was allowing my uncle to be involved with the treatment and strength training side of things as he has been right by my side in keeping me healthy since my paralysis in 2005. Plus, his expertise is invaluable as he’s worked with everyone from Grant Hill to Kobe to Blake Griffin.

"I believe Heather Hennigar, Geoff Harris, and Sandeep deserve a lot of credit as well—they bring great expertise, but also a growth mindset where they’re constantly learning from others. Heather and I had a feeling out process initially, but after our first meeting I knew she was the right coach for me. Outside of training I love Victoria’s coffee scene and Island lifestyle. I can see myself living and training here long-term.    

"Initially, when the pandemic hit, everything became solo. The only thing that was open was the track, but none of my coaches could be there. I was doing everything from runs to lifts on my own, but let’s be real being on Vancouver Island has had such amazing perks as we are a bit isolated from everyone else, which means lower COVID cases. I feel as safe as you can during a global pandemic.

"As for my day to day, things just take a bit longer as we have a morning COVID questionnaire that we have to fill out prior to training, as well as cleaning protocol post-gym sessions. As for race opportunities, there hasn’t been much until recently, but in track there’s always so many things to work on. I really honed in on my weakness which happens to be the aerobic side of things, so lots of long intervals on the track and trails.  

"Honestly everything shifted this year, so not too much has changed as in the timing. The planning has become a bit more complicated with quarantine and isolation protocols. I’m in the best shape of my life aerobically right now. I opened my season with my fastest opener ever, just missing my personal best in the 1500m. In saying that, I have so much work left to do, especially on the sharpening side of things.

"I believe I just have to adapt on the fly. It’s a daily thing, new things come my way each day, but I have confidence I will be able to roll with the punches because of my life experience and team I have behind me. Preparations have been going great—I have great belief in my coach Heather Hennigar, and I believe she’s the best coach in the world. I just have to do my part on the track and keep enjoying the process. I have most certainly relied on my roommates and teammates during this time—I don’t think I'd be where I’m at without them."

Correction at 2:30pm on May 15: An earlier version of this article identified Kai Langerfeld as Conlin McCabe in a photo, and vis-versa.

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