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Next up, Beijing: Quick turnaround for multisport Olympians

Isabela Martel
September 13, 2021

Multisport athletes who compete at both Summer and Winter Olympics face a new challenge. Due to the one-year delay of Tokyo 2020, they have only a few months to prepare for the upcoming Beijing Winter Games.

A smiling Kendall Gretsch holds up a gold medal
Kendall Gretsch became the third American woman to win gold medals at both Summer and Winter ParalympicsImage: Mark Reis/USOPC

There were only a few meters left until the finish line. One competitor was ahead of her, leading the race.

That was the moment when Kendall Gretsch accelerated her wheelchair and delivered one of the most spectacular finishes at the Tokyo Paralympics — maybe even in paratriathlon history. The 29-year-old American left the audience in awe as she took home the gold medal by just one second.

Both in wheelchairs, Kendall Gretsch (right) is just ahead of Lauren Parker of Australia (left) at the finishing line
American Kendall Gretsch (right) edges Lauren Parker of Australia (left) during the Women's PTWC2Image: Miho Ikeya/The Yomiuri Shimbu/AP/picture alliance

One month before that, another athlete, Vincent De Haire, also achieved an impressive result. In Tokyo's Velodrome, the 27-year-old was part of Canada's track cycling team that finished fifth in the men's pursuit.

"We were the best team in the last century for men's Canadian Team Pursuit," he proudly recounted to DW with a smile.

The two athletes spent the last five years preparing for Tokyo. And while they could now be enjoying a well-earned rest, that is not the case. Both multisport athletes, they intend to take part in Beijing's 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics.

In each Olympic cycle, there are a handful of athletes that compete in both the Summer and Winter Games. They normally have up to two years to prepare, but the circumstances are different this time. The COVID-19 pandemic caused the postponement of the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics by one year, which means that now, less than six months separate the Tokyo Summer Games from the Winter Games in Beijing.

The Tokyo Olympics ended on August 8, 2021, while Beijing's opening ceremony will take place on February 4, 2022. Similarly, the Paralympics wrapped up on September 5, 2021, with the Winter version scheduled to take off on March 4, 2022.

Managing the transition

Neither Gretsch nor De Haitre are backing down from the challenge. Both have competed in the Winter Games before, although never so soon after a Summer Olympics. 

Gretsch, who does paratriathlon in summer, switches to sitting cross-country skiing and sitting biathlon in the winter. She won two gold medals in the 2018 Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. With the recent gold in Tokyo, she became the third American woman in history to clinch gold medals in both Summer and Winter Paralympic Games.

De Haitre, meanwhile, exchanges his bike for speed skates when the weather gets cold. He represented Canada in both Sochi 2014 and Pyeongchang 2018.

"I think the biggest challenge is to avoid getting injured," he said.

Four participants in a row race on bikes in the Men's Team Pursuit in Tokyo
Vincent De Haitre finished fifth in the Men's Team Pursuit in TokyoImage: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Transitioning carefully is important because, although different sports may have similarities, they involve different specific strengths and movements. Overexertion when muscles and tendons are not ready is risky.

"Managing the transitions is probably the hardest part," Gretsch explained.

"It's about balance and maybe taking it a little bit easier skiing because your muscles aren't ready yet," the three-time Paralympic gold medalist said of her current preparation after returning from Japan.

In the five years before Tokyo, both athletes did not only train cycling and paratriathlon respectively, but also focused on their winter sports. That meant splitting time between different locations.

For the Canadian De Haitre, it was Calgary for cycling and Toronto for speed skating. Meanwhile, Gretsch, who lives in Colorado, moves to Montana in the winter. Preparations also rely on people from separate sporting circles coordinating. 

"I have two sets of coaches and two different teams. They're all great at working together and trying to find the right balance," the American told DW.

Team USA’s Kendall Gretsch | Paralympics
In Beijing 2022, Kendall Gretsch will defend her two Paralympic titles in cross country skiing and biathlonImage: Mark Reis/USOPC

Besides the physical challenges, there is also the mental aspect to deal with. "I'm used to the physical preparations, but it's a big mental drain preparing for the Olympics, it's so intense," noted Gretsch.

'There's only a few people who've done it'

The decision to compete in multiple sports is additionally hard since most of the competitors dedicate all their energy to just one sport. Still, both De Haitre and Gretsch cannot choose one.

When asked whether they have a favorite, De Haitre told DW, smiling: "It depends on the day." Gretsch replied: "I can never answer to that question. I just like doing both so much."

But one thing is certain: being good enough at two sports at Olympic and Paralympic level — as high as it gets — requires motivation.

PyeongChang 2018 Olymische Winterspiele Eisschnellauf Vincent de Haitre
During winter, Canada's Vincent De Haître competes in speed skating. Beijing 2022 will be his third Winter GamesImage: Getty Images

"It's special to be able to say that I did both," said De Haitre. "There's only a few people who've done it, and it's nice to be part of this group."

Despite the quick turnaround, both competitors expect to be ready for the upcoming Winter Games in Beijing.

"I expect to go back to the level I had. I was considered in my team to be a potential medal contender," said the Canadian cyclist and speed skater.

"I definitely want to build off of my results in Pyeongchang," Gretsch said.