This is an article published August 22nd, 2014 by Kerry Gillespie from the Toronto Star.
When athletes talk about the road to the next Olympics, they usually are talking about the intense training and competitions they’ll use to test themselves along the way.
For Ben Hayward, the road to Rio includes something else — an actual road, and lots of it.
Which is a little odd for an athlete who makes his living navigating whitewater in a kayak.
But Canada’s top-ranked slalom kayaker says he needs to live in Europe to compete and train year-round among the world’s best kayakers. And the only way he could afford to do that was by combining his two biggest expenses: transportation and accommodation.
So, putting three years of architecture studies at Carleton University to good use, and with some creativity and the help of a friend in Wales, Hayward spent a week building a home on the back of an old truck.
The contraption has been dubbed ‘the Hobbit van’ because of its distinctive round wooden door and smallish interior.
This summer, he put more than 5,000 kilometres on the vehicle, driving between kayaking World Cup events in England, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Spain and Germany.
He has big plans for a kitchen, and he’d eventually like to add solar panels or a wind turbine so he can live off the grid. For now, however, there’s not much inside the van other than a bed. The extra space came in handy when he decided to fill his new home with 14 kayaks belonging to competitors to help pay his fuel costs from England to Slovenia.
His distinctive mode of transportation is now parked at a friend’s place in Germany while Hayward finishes out the competitive season in North America.
This weekend, he competes in the Minden Hills Open, an international test event for the upgraded venue that will host the debut of slalom kayak and canoe at the 2015 Toronto Pan Am Games. He’ll compete at the Canadian nationals at the end of August and the world championships in September in the United States.
After that, he’ll head to “paddling heaven” in Germany, where the best whitewater training courses and toughest training partners in the world will be found. And when it gets too cold there, he’ll head to warmer courses in France.
“I think the caravan in Europe is what will make the difference between just making it into the final and being a medal favourite,” Hayward said.
The 24-year-old from Edmonton didn’t originally intend to build his own house. He tried to buy a camper van but couldn’t find one that fit his requirements, particularly price and reliability.
“They were complete beaters,” he says.
There’s not much point in saving money by driving to a World Cup if you can’t make it there.
Regardless, building a $1,500 shell of a home on a $3,500 truck was never just about the money; the challenge of solving a problem appealed to Hayward.
Which is exactly what he does every day on the water.
Slalom kayak, unlike a lot of sports, is an even split between brain and brawn.
“It’s a very thinking sport, but you also have to be very fit,” he said.
There’s no world record because each whitewater course is different. It’s essentially a 400-metre, water-covered obstacle course.
“We have to race it blind . . . we don’t get a chance to practice it,” Hayward said of competition courses.
All he can do is look at the rapids, assess how the water is moving and map out what he thinks the fastest route through the 18 to 24 gates will be.
Then, he has to calculate the odds. The fastest line — it usually takes elite men approximately 90 seconds — often comes with risky angle, where the slightest mistake means a missed gate and precious lost time.
A week ago, in the last World Cup of the season, Hayward was on a top-three time in the semi-final run until his paddle got stuck in a crack.
“It was a heartbreaking move . . . I ended up coming last.”
His world ranking heading into the race was 10th and he could have jumped to fifth if he’d managed those last few seconds differently, he said. Instead, because that race was worth the double points, he dropped to 24th.
The Canadian’s kayaking career began in 2002 when he took up the team sport of kayak polo in his hometown of Edmonton. At the 2004 Alberta Summer Games, at the age of 14, he was introduced to the slalom event. He took to it immediately, and by the time he was 18 he was on the senior national team.
“Since 2002, I’ve probably taken more paddle strokes than footsteps,” Hayward said.
He has struggled with injuries in both shoulders and, after he missed the 2012 London Olympics, opted to have surgery on his left shoulder.
After six months of recovery out of the boat he came back, surprising himself with three top-15 finishes.
“That was with no training, just having a body that didn’t hurt,” he said.
This year he raised his game again, making two World Cup finals, finishing seventh and ninth.
Hayward is convinced that spending more time training with the best paddlers in the world will get him those final few strokes he needs to make a podium.
That’s why his architecture degree is on hold (though he does hope he’ll finagle some credit for his van) and he plans to make the most of every moment he has leading into the 2016 Rio Olympics.
And he won’t just be working on the water. He’ll have to spend time raising money to finish his home on wheels, keep it on the road and buy groceries to fuel his 6,000-calorie training days.
“Sometimes it’s nice to dream of being fully funded, but I think it’s kind of cool to be roughing it and find really creative ways to make this work,” Hayward said.
“I’m excited by a lot of it. The website design, the video editing, building my own caravan, I think it’s building some really cool skills.”
And, as one of his videos shows, he can even flip under the water in his kayak and catch a fish with his bare hands.
His crowd-funding efforts at vanstarter.com haven’t attracted a $5,000 title sponsor for his van or even a $2,500 promotional sponsor yet, but his offers of everything from handmade cookbooks to kayak lessons have raised $10,000 from individuals.
“That’s the most mind-blowing thing,” he said. “It’s such an overwhelming thing to get so much support from people who are just excited by what I’m doing.”
Hayward is hoping his Hobbit van becomes his vehicle to Olympic glory.