Around the rings in 180 days: Vincent De Haître’s seemingly impossible goal to compete in Tokyo and Beijing

It’s a goal so lofty and steep two-time Canadian Olympian Vincent De Haître isn’t quite sure he’ll be able to get to the top.

But he’s going to put his body through “hell” trying to do it. 

De Haître is a dual-sport athlete, a cyclist and speed skater nicknamed “Quadzilla” because of the size of his quadriceps and whose favourite saying is “uphill is the quickest way to the top.”

Within the next 12 months, he hopes to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in July with Canada’s cycling team and then six months later, in February 2022, on completely different equipment, line up in the Beijing Olympics as a member of Canada’s long track speed skating team.

For the 26-year-old from Ottawa, it’s too tantalizing not to try. De Haître is just wired differently. In the same way that 12 other Canadian Olympians were — the select few high performers who have successfully competed in both Summer and Winter Olympics for Canada over all the years. 

It was already going to be difficult enough for De Haître trying to get to Tokyo after having competed at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang. A couple of years isn’t a lot of time to prepare in the best of circumstances. He could have never predicted a pandemic was going throw everything into disarray for himself and thousands of other Olympians worldwide.

It’s forced him into training another year on the bike, with skating interspersed in between. It’s also trimmed the already slim window in between Games by a year, making the switch from bike to skates in Beijing seemingly impossible. But he’s willing to try. 

Vincent De Haître with his bike on the velodrome in Milton, Ont. (Alexandra Sienkiewicz/CBC Sports)

Quick turnaround between Games

There are 180 days between the closing ceremony in Tokyo and the opening ceremony in Beijing. The thought of that quick turnaround sends De Haître into a bit of a panic. 

“People have done it. But trying to do it at the same time in the midst of a pandemic is just about the hardest way you can do it,” he told CBC Sports. “If you know a pandemic is coming, don’t try to do two sports at different Olympics.”

His love for both sports goes back to when he was 10 years old, when he was skating and BMX’ing around Ottawa. Does he have a favourite?

He laughs, almost anticipating the question, and responds the same way he has his entire life.

Whichever sport I’m doing at that time is my favourite. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. I love cycling and skating and going fast.– Vincent De Haître

“Whichever sport I’m doing at that time is my favourite,” De Haître said. “The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. I love cycling and skating and going fast.”

Now he’s attempting to turn his two loves into history, competing in the Summer and Winter Olympics in two different sports in one of the shortest amounts of time between the two an athlete has ever attempted. 

Trying to wrap his head around all of the training programs, nutritional plans, physiotherapy sessions is nothing short of mind-numbing. So he’s trying to keep it simple. 

De Haître who normally resides in Calgary, is living in a rented accommodation in Red Deer, Alta. his parents are helping pay for — it’s the only place he’s able to speed skate right now. 

He did have the choice of traveling from Calgary to the outdoor oval in Red Deer and then back most days, but that would have meant about three hours in a car. For someone who has been battling back injuries for years, that was never going to be an option. 

So, like so many of us in this pandemic, he’s cooped up alone. His only outlet is going to the track to skate — alone —  throughout the week. He says it’s a small price for trying to achieve his goal.. 

“There are pros and cons to everything. I don’t have a coach around. But I don’t have to drive a lot,” De Haître said. 

These are some of the most crucial days in a seemingly never-ending journey for De Haître as he’s now decided to make some technical changes to his skating. He’s never had downtime like this before to work on the little things.

De Haître has already competed at two Olympics as a speed skater – in PyeongChang in 2018, above, and Sochi in 2014. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Rough blueprint

“I feel pretty [lousy.] But that’s what happens when you’re trying to make a change,” he said. “My brain says that’s not how we’re supposed to be doing this. And then it all supposedly clicks.”

That word — supposedly — is used a lot when De Haître talks about the plan he and a small village of people have come up with to get him to both Olympics.

He does have somewhat of a blueprint to work from; De Haître has competed in two Games as a speed skater already — Sochi in 2014 and then four years later in PyeongChang. He switched to cycling during some of those off-seasons. 

In Sochi, he posted a top-20 finish in the 1,000 metres and was named Speed Skating Canada’s long track rising star of the year. Then that summer he competed at his first major international event in track cycling — the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow — where he finished fourth in the team sprint and seventh in the 1 km time trial. 

But the Commonwealth Games aren’t the Olympics. And there wasn’t a pandemic. 

Cycling told me they needed me to attend all training camps. It was pretty much the same for skating. I had to be committed to both.– Vincent De Haître

At the 2018 Olympics, De Haître was suffering from a severe heel injury that held him back and left him wondering what might have been. So in a lot of ways, De Haître had to make the best sales pitch of his life to two sets of national teams that he could be an asset to the cycling and speed skating teams while in Tokyo and Beijing. 

He did most of that negotiation on a 14-hour road trip from Victoria to Calgary last March, just a week before the Olympics were postponed. He was coming home from a cycling training camp that had just been cancelled in the early days of the pandemic. That’s when he started calling his coaches, high-performance committees and all other support staff to start mapping out what it would take to get to Tokyo and Beijing and if it was even possible.  

De Haître trains with Canada’s cycling team at the velodrome in Milton, Ont. in November. (CREDIT)

Wear and tear on body

“By May there was some clarity,” he said. “Cycling told me they needed me to attend all training camps. It was pretty much the same for skating. I had to be committed to both.”

De Haître committed at that moment. Since the summer he’s been splitting his time between training outdoors or indoors on a stationary bike and also training for skating, in less than ideal conditions with restrictions changing almost daily. 

Now, in what would be considered the cycling off-season, he’s fully devoted to the ice until at least March. All the wear and tear and different use of muscles is taking its toll on De Haître.

“Your body adapts and develops tissue. That goes away when you’re not using it. And then when you go back to that, you’re not as strong,” he said. “My legs are strong from cycling but I didn’t have the body to handle it. If you take a Honda Civic and put a V-8 [engine] in it, there are other things you need to do to that car to make it work.”

Keeping his body together is a monumental task that his physiotherapists are not taking lightly. De Haître couldn’t be more grateful for it. He estimates that a normal turnaround time for what he’s putting his body through would take months. His physiotherapists have trimmed it down to a few weeks. 

I’m motivated by how many people are surrounding me. It reinforces they have belief in me that I can do this.– Vincent De Haître

“It’s really intricate. It’s easy to get lost in all the details. But in the simplest form, there are a lot of people helping me make this happen,” he said.

“It’s really motivating. There’s pressure. I feel pressure. But I’m motivated by how many people are surrounding me. It reinforces they have belief in me that I can do this.”

De Haître has already been named to Canada’s cycling team, which provides him some relief in a time when it’s hard to get any concrete answers on anything. But he’s far from being in the clear.

Perhaps what’s most incredible about this double Olympic-sized task is that by the time he competes in Tokyo, it will have been more than a year and a half since his last competitive cycling race. 

As soon as he’s done competing in Japan, he’ll have four months to prepare for Canada’s Olympic speed skating trials to try to make it onto the team for Beijing. And to make it even more remarkable, when he finally gets back to skating, he will not have competed in a competition since the 2018 Olympics. 

The margin of error is immeasurable. Any setbacks or injuries now could derail the entire thing — and he’s already had a career littered with injury and setbacks. There can’t be many missteps along the way now and De Haître knows it. 

“I have to make it work to my advantage. That’s how athletes need to work in their heads so they can believe in themselves. You have to find a way to make this an advantage,” he said. 

“I believe the work [with] we’ve done, I can make this work.”

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