Olympic dream finally on target

Politics kept Annex pentathlete out of 2008 games, but she’s back for 2012

It may have taken four years longer than it should, but the Annex’s Donna Vakalis will finally get a chance to compete at the Olympic Games.

While the Modern Pentathlete qualified for the 2008 games in Beijing while competing for Greece, she ended up being dropped from the event by the sport’s international federation in favour of an Australian.

“No athlete from Oceania had met the criteria of a minimum base score required by all athletes competing at the Olympics,” said Vakalis, who lost her spot to Aussie Angela Darby. “This rule was quietly waived after the qualification period ended by the International Federation (breaking their own rules) because they wanted representation from all continents.”

According to Vakalis, the federation could not publicly admit to this, mounting a defence of the ineligible Australians using “lower-level competitions and even posting false scores to the [Modern Pentathlon Federation’s] website.”

And while Vakalis decided to appeal, her decision came too late.

Instead, she was made a reserve athlete and was given an official Greek uniform but would have been limited to marching in the opening ceremonies — an opportunity she declined.

But those bitter experiences did not quench the Olympic dream that burned inside her.

Vakalis returned to Toronto, completed her master’s degree in architecture, reconnected with her Canadian training peers and continued to compete in the sport she loves which combines swimming, running, show jumping, fencing, and shooting.

“I think my motivation for training and competing stems from an inner drive to fulfill potential — a potential to be stronger, faster, better — and the arena of sports politics occupies some place on the periphery,” Vakalis said.

Earlier this year Vakalis won the Guatemala Open, an Olympic qualifying event, for her first career win.

“I knew I needed a good result there, and so did everyone else who was there,” she said. “We were midway through the qualification year, and opportunities to score a lot of points were becoming fewer and fewer.”

Vakalis was particularly strong in fencing and swimming in Guatemala.

“There was a bit of drama because I drew a horse that had a pretty bad round right before me … but then we had a perfect round, and my coach was just cheering loudly.”

In August she finally gets to make her Olympic dream come true, only instead of competing for Greece, she’ll be one of two women wearing the maple leaf.

To make sure she’s ready, Vakalis has taken a leave of absence from the architecture firm and has been training endlessly in the last month.

“Her schedule is crazy. I don’t know when she’s available until the week or the day before,” said Peter Ho, Vakalis’ fencing coach, who has trained her for two years. “I need to be flexible too.”

In training, Vakalis focuses on the more physically demanding events, and has a window of about two hours and four times a week for fencing.

“We need to be careful how we train her because we can’t demand her as much as the others. Her body is quite beat up by the end of the day,” said Ho.

Vakalis admitted fencing may be her weakest sport but the training schedule is improving her stamina for it.

“The fencing is always first in competition, and usually I will come out of the pack somewhere in the bottom half of the group,” she said. “During the day, it’s a matter of me climbing back up to the top. If I can start off the day in a better situation, having a better fence, it can make it that much easier.”

And with 2008 far off in the distance, Vakalis has never been more ready.

“I think that we’re always learning,” she said. “I would rather turn it into an experience that’s unforgettable, and that pushes me forward. Why waste your life? It’s so short.”

About this article:

By: Perry King
Posted: Jul 20 2012 2:06 pm
Filed in: Sports
Edition: Toronto