I think when most Americans think of sports, they think of the three big ones, baseball, basketball, and football. There’s also the
weirdos people who follow hockey and soccer, and then there are others who follow tennis or golf.
Most of these fans are following either pro athletes or big-time college sports athletes, and that should come as no surprise, since that’s where the media focuses most of its attention.
But perhaps because I was a swimmer, I’ve always been partial to athletes who competed in the “non-revenue” generating sports, such as rowing, cross country, and of course, swimming. There is little to no hope of “going pro” in these sort of sports, and most of the athletes are doing it because they love the sport.
Today’s Wall Street Journal had a great profile of one such athlete, Ben Hayward, Canada’s top-ranked slalom canoeist. For the past two years, he’s been on a permanent road trip through the sport’s European hotspots to qualify for this summer’s Olympics.
What made the story interesting is how Ben gets around Europe.
Ben drives a 2005 British-made flatbed truck, roughly 15 feet long, with a hand-crafted, green-roofed, wooden cabin fastened to the back and giant maple leaves painted on the side, which he has christened the Hobbit Van. The interior of the van is 77 square feet. (The story has an interactive 360 degree photo of the interior, along with audio, and a short video of Ben putting his kayak inside the van.)
Hayward has been living in the Hobbit Van since 2014. The van solved his desire to be closer to slalom kayaking’s elite in Europe, to be able to easily move from one competition to another, and to do it on the cheap, too.
Hayward funded the building of his custom van through his crowdfunding website, Vanstarter.com. The site continues to fund about half of his budget, while Sport Canada and some sponsors provide the rest.
He trains in Southwestern France with a team called Kayak in PY, a group of kayakers from countries with small or nonexistent whitewater programs. He and other Olympic hopefuls from countries like Argentina, Venezuela and Belgium pool their resources to pay for coaching and physiotherapists.
Hayward’s most prized possession in the van is his king-size mattress, which was donated by the 2012 men’s kayak gold medalist from the London Olympics. The bed is such a rare luxury for traveling athletes that Hayward won’t even join the Canadian national team when it stays in hotels.
At the time the story was written, it was noted that Hayward must advance to the finals of the next two World Cup events in France and Spain this month to punch his ticket to the Olympics in Rio.
Whether he makes it to Rio or not, he will return to Ottawa this fall for the final year of his architecture degree, as part of a two-years-on, two-years-off program.
Ben Hayward is the type of athlete that I admire. They are willing to put in the long hours of training needed to excel at the highest level of their sport, and they aren’t doing it for money or fame, but simply for the challenge and the love of their sport.
I wish him the best.
Update: It looks like Ben will not be going to the Olympics…
— Ben Hayward (@bengrh) June 10, 2016
I am sure he is disappointed in the outcome, but it seems like he gave it all he had, and that’s a victory that many people never experience. He’s got a bright future ahead of himself.