Photo: Jean Baptiste Benavent/Cycling Canada
This blog is a part of a series created in collaboration with SIRC and the Paralympic Athlete Transfer Task Force, spotlighting the opportunities and challenges of Para athlete transfer and multi-sport participation.
Part 1 of the series: How "athlete transfer" is opening new avenues for development in Para sport
When COVID-19 hit, like the rest of us, Alexandre Hayward was stuck at home. Hayward, a member of the Canadian Junior National Wheelchair Basketball team, faced the same issue that Canadian athletes of all levels and almost all sports faced: gyms, pools, rinks, and other training facilities were closed, making training difficult.
Hayward had progressed quickly through the ranks of wheelchair basketball after a spinal cord injury while playing hockey in 2012. By 2017, he was captaining the Canadian U23 national team and named Wheelchair Basketball Canada’s Junior Athlete of the Year. Stuck inside, he needed an outlet for his competitive energy.
So, he took up cycling.
“Cycling was always a secondary passion of mine when I was playing hockey, before my injury,” Hayward says. “I’m pretty ambulatory, but because of my disability, I would have a really hard time recovering. It would take me a couple days to get back to normal [after riding]. While training for wheelchair basketball, I never really had time for that.”
COVID-19 lockdowns gave Hayward that extra recovery time and cycling gave him a way to stay in shape while facilities were closed. So, for Alex’s coach, Michael “Frog” Frogley, encouraging Alex’s cycling was a no-brainer.
The more Hayward cycled, the more he liked it. And other people started to notice that he was good at it. Really good.
“Parasport New Brunswick reached out and told me they had a wheelchair basketball player from New Brunswick who just did a mountain bike race held in Fredericton and won,” Guillaume Plourde, then-coach with Cycling Canada recalls. “That got me wondering whether he could be eligible for Para cycling.”
Plourde reached out to Hayward, and shortly thereafter found himself on group calls with Frogley to discuss Hayward’s training, potential, and progression – in both sports.
Hayward is emphatic that it is the willingness of the two coaches to collaborate that fully supported his sporting experience.
“It’s worth highlighting that I was a carded athlete for wheelchair basketball at the time that I started cycling,” Hayward says. “I don’t want to say that at the end of the day it came down to Frog and how he decided to deal with it, but it kind of did. If he had been against me trying out cycling, it would have been really hard to say no.”
Denying athletes the opportunity to explore their potential, even if it means a possible talent loss to his team, goes against Frogley’s fundamental coaching philosophy.
“My philosophy is to holistically maximize the potential of the athletes and teams that I’m working with–not just their wheelchair basketball potential, but all areas of their life. I want to help them be the best student they can be, the best employee they can be, the best person they can be,” Frogley says. “I think because of this, I’m predisposed to be open with regard to athletes trying other things.”
Plourde is used to working with other coaches, as many of the athletes he trains have transferred from other sports. “Athlete transfer” is the term used to describe when a Para athlete chooses to pursue a new sport or get involved in a second sport. Plourde is aware that as cycling is most often a “receiver” sport, he’s coming from a particular side of the equation.
“At the end of the day, it’s always good for different sports to nurture positive relationships between coaches. It increases all of our knowledge and encourages us to communicate, rather than be possessive over athletes,” Plourde, who has recently taken on a new role with the Canadian Paralympic Committee, says.
Frogley, coming from the side of wheelchair basketball—a frequent “donor” sport—couldn’t agree more. In fact, he doesn’t really like the idea of “donor” sports, preferring instead to think of them as “opportunity” or “development” sports.
“I think it’s incredibly important to understand that the sport an athlete first starts in has a huge role to play,” Frogley says, “because if it’s a positive experience, that’s what keeps the athlete in sport.”
Thanks to the willingness of Plourde and Frogley to work together, Hayward balanced training for both wheelchair basketball and Para cycling, all while still pursuing his engineering degree.
“Guillaume and I both really respect Alex’s school, so that was a third piece that needed to be balanced,” Frogley says.
But after focusing on wheelchair basketball full-time in Toronto last summer, Hayward started to question the best path forward for his development.
“I had the best basketball summer of my life. I was arguably the best basketball player I’ve ever been. But I just wasn’t having as much fun anymore,” Hayward says. After candid conversations with both coaches, he transferred his full attention to training solely for cycling.
At his first time trial in May, Hayward hit the standard he needed to compete nationally. At his first Nationals in June in Edmonton, Hayward showed up and surprised the field as a newcomer, winning the time trial and qualifying himself for the World Cup and World Championships in Quebec in August. With this being his first year of high-level competitive racing, Hayward describes it as a true “trial by fire.”
“I guess I’m a cyclist now,” he says with a laugh.
When it comes to Hayward, Frogley notes that it was wheelchair basketball coaches in New Brunswick that initially developed him as an athlete. Wheelchair Basketball Canada programming gave Hayward the opportunity to learn how to maximize himself physically, tactically, mentally, and be surrounded by other high performing individuals.
“All of this preparation meant that when Alex transferred over to Para cycling, he was right on to the podium track,” Frogley says, “Wheelchair basketball didn’t lose an athlete as far as I’m concerned. We contributed to an athlete’s success.”
Hayward, Plourde and Frogley all wish to encourage other sport federations with frequent transfers to understand the critical role they play in providing initial opportunities. Frogley notes that like wheelchair basketball, Para swimming also has a high number of athletes who transfer: “That’s a success on their part. Without that foundational development from swimming, that athlete isn’t going to be as successful when they transfer to, say, Para triathlon.”
For other athletes considering transfer, Hayward’s main advice is just to remain open and honest with everyone involved.
For coaches who might have athletes interested in transferring, Plourde encourages them to ask themselves: “What’s best for this athlete? Can we make them better by exposing them to another sport?”
Though Hayward might not be his athlete anymore, Frogley is still invested, tracking Hayward’s results, and breaking down road races with him just like they would post-game.
Frogley says: “The most important thing another coach said to me was: ‘How do you know when your players are happy? It’s real simple–they’re smiling. If your athletes are smiling, you’re off to a good start.”
When he traveled to watch Hayward race in Quebec, he witnessed what a brutal sport Para cycling is: “It’s about going to the ‘pain cave,’ as they call it, and spending some time there. I’m watching people after they’re finished, and they’re just turning into puddles on the sidewalk. And Alex is there, and he’s just beaming.”