Road To The Olympic Games

Olympics·SOLITUDE OF SPORT

How isolation is helping an Olympic race walker find his stride

Athletes are used to moving around a lot. Between competitions and training programs, the travel demands are extensive. This change of pace forced upon everyone by the physical distancing measures looks different for all of us. For Olympic race walker Mathieu Bilodeau, it has meant eight straight weeks at home, for the first-time ever.

Canada's Mathieu Bilodeau may be better suited than most to face physical distancing

Mathieu Bilodeau sits beside the Bow River, soaking in the warmer temperatures of spring. (Kelly VanderBeek for CBC Sports)

The plane was about to lose contact with Canadian soil, en-route to Paris, France when the pilot aborted with an abrupt stop followed by a sharp left turn on the runway in Toronto. Passengers onboard were confused and many scared. Sadly, the pilots explanation over the PA didn't help alleviate anyones' worries.

The pilot asked that all Americans disembark because of U.S. President Donald Trump's latest update, implementing strict travel restrictions on U.S. citizens.

Among the roughly 60 people left on the plane was Canadian Olympic speed walker Mathieu Bilodeau. He was left to choose whether or not to continue to France for a competition that hadn't yet been cancelled.

He chose to fly; after all, he had an Olympics to prepare for.

That was Thursday, March 12. By Sunday, he was back in Canada. 

"Everything came so fast. I was in France enjoying a French baguette and the next day I was back on a plane(s) for roughly 50 hours. Then, the next day, I was working," Bilodeau said.

Mathieu Bilodeau is training for next Olympic Games, which would be his second as a race walker. (Kelly VanderBeek for CBC Sports)

So, when did the news sink in? That was Wednesday.

"I was like, oh my god, I was in the best shape of my life," he explained with shock in his voice.

Keep going or call it a career?

Working toward his second Olympic Games, Mathieu had a decision to make. He took two weeks off to reflect. 

"Maybe I should retire, maybe I should keep going? So, I was back and forth for about three weeks. But then, two weeks ago, I put my feelings aside and just keeping training," Bilodeau said. "If Tokyo happens, I'll go; if not, I'll focus on Eugene 2022 [the IAAF world championships]."

He feels he may be better suited than many to face forced physical distancing and change.

With Canmore’s iconic peaks behind him, Mathieu Bilodeau is keeping stride as he trains. Note: no physical distancing rules were broken in the making this image, this is Bilodeau photographed in a digital multiple exposure. (Kelly VanderBeek for CBC Sports)

"I'm struggling to be honest, to juggle [work and sport]," Bilodeau said. "[But] it's always a struggle, so this doesn't change much to me. I already had balance, so knew how to adapt to this new reality."

It doesn't hurt that Bilodeau's a mature athlete of 36 years, married, and his athletic career has seen nothing but change. With professional aspirations, he's dabbled in skiing, swimming, running, and triathlons. 

However, it was less than two years out from Rio 2016 that he found his stride. He began race walking and set his sights on the Olympics. Not surprisingly, many people said he wouldn't make it.

Bilodeau's response was "I'll show you," and he did.

During our time together, a town normally overrun with tourists and outdoor enthusiasts, we saw more elk than we did humans. On the upside, who needs spectators when you have elk to keep you accountable? (Kelly VanderBeek for CBC Sports)

However, Rio didn't go as hoped.

"With my [Did Not Finish result] in Rio I feel like I need to keep going," he explained. "I still have the passion, you know. The butterflies and like you want to be the best."

So, training has started again, in earnest. 

Training in place

Athletes are used to moving around a lot. Between competitions and training programs, the travel demands are extensive. This change of pace forced upon everyone by the physical distancing measures looks different for all of us. For Bilodeau, it has meant eight straight weeks at home, for the first-time ever. Thankfully, his wife of nearly seven years, Marie-Pier Blais, has always been his best training partner.

No cars here in Canmore, Alta., just walkers and bikers. (Kelly VanderBeek for CBC Sports)

"She's following me, basically. She's 100 per cent here for me, so that's pretty good," he said with a smile. "She's always on the bike, following me, giving me my fuelling. Even in Vancouver and training camps, she's there, on her bike." 

WATCH | How Mathieu Bilodeau has adjusted to life during the pandemic:

Race walker Mathieu Bilodeau of Canmore, Alta., was on an airplane that was about to take off when the COVID-19 lockdown changed his itinerary. 6:22

Professionally, Mathieu is an accountant (CPA) and his wife is in human resources, both with Deloitte. "We're pretty lucky," Mathieu says as they work mostly from home, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

In essence, not much has changed for Mathieu other than having to stay home and spend more time walking. 

"With this virus, maybe it's a gift. I have more time now," he says smiling. Although, he went on to describe training in Canmore, Alta., as  difficult.

Putting in the long hours of sport-specific training is still a new concept for this lover of cross-training. (Kelly VanderBeek for CBC Sports)

"Every time I look at my watch I'm like, 'oh my god, I'm so slow, why?' Then I load my route on my apps, and I'm like 'ok, I was climbing pretty intense!'"  

Bilodeau says for him to get better at his sport, he needs more focus, and the fact that the games have been pushed back may benefit him in the long term.

"I'm not close to [Canadian race walking star] Evan [Dunfee] yet, but with an extra year, I think maybe we can prove that we Canadians can be the best walkers on the planet," he said.

"I'm just trying to put all the chances on my side, and if Tokyo happens, I will have better tools and better volume in the specific way of walking." 

Hitting his stride, Mathieu's sights continue to be firmly set on his walk toward Tokyo. Now, it's just a longer road than expected.

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