Chasing Olympic dreams in both cycling and speed skating seemed lofty but not outlandish when Vincent De Haître first envisioned it. But when the pandemic pushed two Olympics into one six-month timeframe, the task began to sound daunting.
De Haître initially planned to make his Summer Olympics debut as a track cyclist last August at the Tokyo Games, before returning to speed skating with an eye on making his third Winter Olympics appearance in February, 2022, with Canada’s long-track team in Beijing.
When the Tokyo Games were delayed a year – shrinking the time between the Summer and Winter Games to 180 days from 544 – it threw those plans into disarray. And so De Haître, a dual-sport athlete from Cumberland, Ont., plotted a new course to tackle two Games inside of one year.
“I said I was going to do it, I’m currently doing it and I don’t plan on changing my mind any time soon,” said De Haître, 26. “I know that if I put in the work and I’m clear with the coaches about what needs to happen, that they trust that I will do what it takes to perform.”
De Haître was provisionally chosen for Canada’s Olympic track cycling team last summer before the Tokyo Games were postponed, after earning his spot on the four-man team-pursuit squad. A Canadian men’s team has not competed in that event at a Summer Olympics since 1976. The postponement stretched out his time to prepare on the bike, but would leave him little time following Tokyo to recover and get back into speed skating ahead of Beijing.
From there, it has taken collaboration between Canada’s track-cycling and speed-skating teams – including regular Zoom calls between their coaches and medical staffs – to make sure he’ll be fine-tuned for both sports, without becoming injured or overworked.
De Haître has alternated training stints in Ontario and Alberta, working out on a stationary bike, back roads and even a velodrome. He’s navigated the injuries that come from transitioning between cycling and skating. Calgary’s Olympic Oval has been without ice for months because of a mechanical failure, so he trained at an outdoor skating oval in Red Deer during a frigid pandemic winter.
If all goes to plan, De Haître will join a group of only 12 other Canadians who’ve competed in both Winter and Summer Games, two of whom he knows personally: Clara Hughes, the long-track speed skater and road cyclist, and Georgia Simmerling, the skier and track cyclist.
“Georgia said, ‘Just don’t do both at the same time, like focus on one sport at a time,’ ” De Haître said with a chuckle. “But, I’m really short on options here now.”
De Haitre skated in the 1,000-metre and 1,500-metre long-track races at the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics, so he is used to competing as an individual. However, his cycling event in Tokyo requires team work, and he’ll be one of four Canadian riders taking laps around the Olympic velodrome for the four-kilometre race.
Jono Hailstone, Cycling Canada’s men’s track endurance coach, who had to revise plans for De Haître so he could also train in skating, called the situation “a coach’s worst nightmare.”
“Every single other competitor from every nation is training full time for one sport, and then one of your athletes wants to basically train 50 per cent of their time for skating and 50 per cent for cycling. It’s not ideal in any sense,” Hailstone said. “We needed to find a way to make this work. We didn’t want to lose the guy completely. We got on the same page with his skating coaches and they’ve been so accommodating, because Tokyo comes first on the calendar.”
De Haître fills a niche role in Canada’s track cycling team-pursuit strategy. The race begins with four teammates on the start line and they take turns riding at the front. Because he has superior anaerobic capacity and is more muscular and powerful than most endurance cyclists, De Haître begins the race at the front. His teammates fall into line behind him, and he brings them up to speed gradually before he moves to the back of the line. This protects for the more traditional aerobic riders to lead the quartet later in the race. A team’s final race time is taken when the third rider crosses the finish line, so only three need to cross.
“We use Vince’s anaerobic capacity at the front of the line to take a lot of the workload in the first three laps,” Hailstone said. “His second turn at the front, he’ll go as fast as he can for as long as you can – like one lap or so – and then pull away. It’s a strategic decision that we never even try to get Vince to the finish line. That’s the way the sport is going now.”
De Haître will focus mostly on cycling for the last 100 days before Tokyo. But he spent the past five months with stints training at the velodrome in Milton, Ont.; in Calgary where he lives; and at a rental place in Red Deer near the outdoor skating oval. (He had some financial help from his parents). He tested himself – while skating in wind and biting cold – against current national team skaters.
“Vince is one of the few people I would say could roll with this,” said Canadian long-track speed skater Jordan Belchos. “He has a lot of good insights and information he’s absorbed from track cycling that he tries to apply to speed skating, which can be really helpful as far as aerodynamics and all the small details that they focus on.”
When he temporarily left speed skating after the 2018 Olympics to focus on cycling, he was fresh off some of his best skating results, including a silver medal in the 1,000 metres at the 2017 world single-distance championships. But he knew while he was gone, other Canadians would improve and push for spots on the team.
After a short rest following Tokyo, he’ll return to skating. He says his goal in track cycling is for the team pursuit to make the final. In Beijing, he wants another shot at the medal that eluded him at his two Winter Olympics.
Any number of things could derail his quest for two Olympics in six months, from injuries to fatigue or mistakes in competition.
But he says he’s “getting maximum fun out of every training session. I think that the staff that know me, they have really shown me a lot of respect and help towards it and they truly make me feel like they believe I can do it,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be doing it at all if I didn’t think I could pull it off.”