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Canada Games Alumni Profile

Megan Van Heyst

6/6/20

by: Christopher Séguin

Persevering Through a Pandemic - The Megan Van Heyst Story

March 12, 2020, was always destined to be a day that Megan Van Heyst would never forget.

Triathlon Manitoba’s 2019 junior athlete of the year had accomplished something that most could only ever dream of doing before their high school graduation.

She had just self-published a book. 

Specifically, a 326-page, science-fiction novel called ‘The Collected’ that took nearly three years to write. The culmination of these efforts was supposed to be a joyous occasion for the 17-year-old from Stony Mountain, Man., but instead the moment was bittersweet.

“I’ve always loved reading and writing. I started writing this [novel] at 15, and it’s always been a dream of mine to publish a book,” said Megan, who hopes to qualify for the Niagara 2021 Canada Summer Games. “It finally got published [on March 12th], which was a little disappointing when COVID-19 came around and the stores shut down.”

By that Thursday in March, the outbreak of novel coronavirus was evolving rapidly in North America. Just 24 hours before Megan’s book was officially published, the World Health Organization had declared the situation to be a pandemic, which triggered Triathlon Canada to act quickly and share a travel advisory with its athletes the following day.

The message was ‘return to Canada as soon as possible if you are abroad’, which meant to Megan’s coach, it was time to go home. 

 

Megan Van Heyst and the Manitoba Triathlon Centre Team, in Wisconsin
Megan (third from the right) poses for a photo alongside coach Gary Pallett (middle) and the rest of the Manitoba Triathlon Centre team on June 2, 2019, in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin.

Gary Pallett, who has been the Manitoba Triathlon Centre (MTC) head coach since 2000, was in Florida when the advisory was sent out. He was there with two of his other athletes, when the final race of their trip, the 2020 Sarasota PATCO Triathlon Junior North American Championships scheduled from March 13-15, was postponed.

“The pandemic has sure been a challenge to everyone. I was coaching a couple of races in Florida when things really started to happen,” said Pallett, Megan’s coach of about five years. “Megan and my other athletes in Manitoba needed to go and get their bikes, and any equipment they had stored at the [University of Manitoba in Winnipeg] without any coaching assistance. I was back on March 16th and had to spend the rest of the month in self-isolation having come back from the United States.”

As Pallett arrived back home, the situation was already escalating in Manitoba. In the days that followed, Megan and her teammates could no longer train at public facilities, the province declared a state of emergency, and Triathlon Manitoba suspended all of its events, having already done the same with its programming.

“During that two-week stretch, I think everyone was in a period of shock,” added Pallett. “But I think Megan and her family were able to deal with this adjustment better than most, as she was used to problem-solving around training barriers, whereas most were not as prepared for a change.”

Megan lives the furthest from Winnipeg of any athlete in Pallett’s training program. Her parents, Dave and Lauri, drive about 40 minutes to and from the University of Manitoba regularly, so that their daughter can train at the university’s facilities as a member of the MTC team.

Megan shown competing in the Junior Female Elite competition
Megan shown competing in the Junior Female Elite competition at the 2019 Pleasant Prairie Cup Triathlon in Wisconsin, U.S.A., on June 2, 2019.

When Megan lost access to those public facilities, like any other athlete, she found it difficult to train. The senior from Stonewall Collegiate didn’t know exactly what to do, and to make matters worse, her competition schedule for 2020 was beginning to shrink as races were being cancelled, making it difficult to stay motivated.

“At first everything kept coming in, it felt like waves that kept slapping me in the face,” said Megan. 

“The first few weeks were really difficult to get into some training. I was doing very limited stuff because I wasn’t sure exactly how to train from home.”

Further compounding the problem, Megan lacked access to a pool. Without it, there wasn’t anything she could do to progress in her swimming during the pandemic — something that bothered her father, Dave. Having seen first-hand his daughter train tirelessly before the country-wide shutdown, Dave worried Megan might lose some of her swimming ability unless he took action.

So, he began brainstorming ideas.

“The thought occurred to me ‘boy it sure would be great if we had one of those endless pools or swim spas where people swim against the current.’ So I started going on the internet and looking at stuff,” recounted Dave.

“While I was looking at it, I noticed that some of them, if you are a stronger swimmer, the current maybe isn’t enough and they use a tether to hold you in place. So you’re swimming in place, kind like on a treadmill. So I thought, if we had an above-ground pool, you could kind of do the same thing with the tether.

“And that’s kind of what I ended up doing. I actually bought this 12-foot wide and 30-inch deep pool at Canadian Tire. Just a cheap $140 pool. And I framed up the structure to make it smaller but deeper, and also to kind of hold it in place. And it’s worked out surprisingly well.”

Megan swimming, while tethered in place, in the training pool that her parents built for her in the family’s garage
Megan swimming, while tethered in place, in the training pool that her parents built for her in the family’s garage in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, using a pool liner and some lumber.

Dave’s ingenious, yet simple idea came to life within about a week. By the first weekend of April, he had built his daughter an octagonal pool in the garage that was 10-feet wide and three-feet deep. The pool has no current, but Megan wears a belt over her wetsuit that is tethered to a wall, which allows her to swim in a stationary position. 

“Well it’s not the same as swimming in a pool, because you can’t go as hard in the workout, and I don’t have a coach to correct me on my technique,” said Megan. “But I can slow things down and concentrate on certain things that I’ve been needing to work on, and I can take videos to send to my coach. 

“So although it isn’t better than before [the pandemic], it’s certainly really good that I can use this in the meantime.”

Around the same time Megan started using this new pool, Pallett also adapted to the times. In order to help his athletes who were stuck at home, the MTC head coach began conducting virtual training sessions through Zoom. On a weekly basis, Pallett organized three bike sessions and assigned his athletes three runs, while another coach conducted two strength workouts. 
“I'm not very good with the newest technology, so it was my executive director who recommended the Zoom sessions. We added them to the training program for the beginning of April,” said Pallett. “We had [originally] planned a two-week training camp in Tucson, Arizona for the last week of March. So, Zoom wasn't a great trade-off, but it was the best alternative.”

Megan  taking part in the female triathlon relay event during her first-ever Canada Games in Winnipeg, Man.
Megan (on the right) taking part in the female triathlon relay event during her first-ever Canada Games in Winnipeg, Man., back in 2017.

Finally able to get in all the sports she needed, Megan ramped up her training, and in the absence of an event to target in 2020, she turned her attention towards next year’s Canada Summer Games in Niagara to stay motivated.

“After all the races this year had been cancelled, [Niagara 2021] is the big race that I’m working towards right now. I want to get there,” confirmed Megan. “That’s the next goal for me and the next step. I really enjoyed the Games [in 2017], so I just want to go again.”

Despite being just 17 years old, Megan already has plenty of multi-sport games experiences. She most recently won a silver and bronze medal at the 2019 Western Canada Summer Games in Swift Current, B.C. She also attended the Manitoba Games in 2016, and as she mentioned earlier, the teenager from Stony Mountain was first exposed to the Canada Games when the event was hosted in her home province three years ago.

“When the [2017] Games were held in Winnipeg, I was selected as [Manitoba’s] second alternate,” recounted Megan, who was 15 years old at the time. “But then during the individual race, there were several crashes, and three [other provinces] weren’t going to have enough athletes to participate [in the relay]. So, they needed all of [Manitoba’s] alternates. And I was told you need to race tomorrow, and it was really exciting.”

In light of those circumstances, Megan stepped up and competed for Newfoundland and Labrador’s team in the female triathlon relay competition at the 2017 Canada Summer Games. They placed seventh, but the result didn’t matter, the experience was enough to inspire her to try and recapture that.

Megan (middle), from Stony Mountain, Man., takes a picture alongside her Newfoundland and Labrador teammate
Megan (middle), from Stony Mountain, Man., takes a picture alongside her Newfoundland and Labrador teammates who she competed with during the female triathlon relay event at the Winnipeg 2017 Canada Summer Games.

In 2021, Megan hopes to proudly wear her provincial colours and follow in the footsteps of other elite Manitoban triathletes such as Sarah-Anne Brault, Tyler Mislawchuk and Kyla Roy, who each medalled at previous Canada Games.

However, with Niagara 2021 still over 400 days away, Megan and her parents have other plans first. The 17-year-old will soon graduate from Stonewall Collegiate in a virtual ceremony, before heading to the University of Manitoba in the fall to pursue a Bachelor of Science. While there, she plans on continuing with her athletic career and continuing to train with the MTC program, despite the lack of a triathlon program at the U of M.

“There is no triathlon yet at U of M, but I am hoping to do some cross-country running as a Bison,” added Megan. “I would also like to try and gather some interest from other students to join the Western Canadian Triathlon Circuit.

“I know triathlon is a lifetime sport, so I’ll just adjust my training and expectations with myself from season-to-season so that it really fits with me for each moment in time.”

In the meantime, on top of her training, Megan continues to enjoy her interests outside of triathlon despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Naturally, this includes that writing hobby of hers that resulted in her first-ever publication. 

“I’ve always tried throughout my life to not put all my energy into one thing,” said Megan. “So although triathlon was getting harder to do, and [my] school closed, I do have other things that I am enjoying doing at this time.

“I like to paint and write, ride horses and stuff. So, now I have several things I get to do that are a little bit different. So, at least that’s nice.”

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