Every elite athlete goes through it.
At some point, no matter what sport you play, there comes a time when your body or mind can no longer compete with the best of the best.
Father Time is the undisputed, undefeated champ.
For a Chilliwack native who not long ago was among the very best speed-skaters on the planet, that time has come. What follows is a two-part story on how and why Alec Janssens decided to hang ‘em up.
Twenty-five years old seems absurdly young to retire from anything, but Alec Janssens is doing just that.
The Chilliwack native is hanging up his skates and saying goodbye to his first true love, ending a 14-year run with the Canadian national speed-skating team.
‘I met you so long ago, and we have done so much more than that gangly 11 year old would have ever imagined,” Alec wrote in a blog. “I loved you, and still do. You were my first, and certainly not my last, but it is time to move on and see other people.’
It’s a breakup that he’s seen coming for a while, even if it took a long time to admit it.
The beginning of the end can be traced back three full years to the 2014-15 season. The Sardis Fliers alum was coming off his best year of international competition, highlighted by a 19th place finish at that year’s ISU (International Skating Union) World Single Distance Championships.
Alec was considered one of the best long-track speed-skaters on the planet until one fall changed it all.
“Near the start of the 2015-16 season, the week before World Cup trials, I had a pretty bad fall where I went over the mats and had a concussion,” Alec recalled. “At first it was supposed to last eight to 10 days and I was still going to be able to skate the trials.
“But the thing about concussions is they don’t know too much about it.”
Eight to 10 days is a ‘typical’ recovery timetable for 80 to 90 per cent of ‘minor’ concussions. For Alec, eight to 10 days turned into two to three weeks which turned into two to three months.
“The hardest part is it’s an invisible injury,” he said. “People look at you and they think you’re just fine, not realizing that the two hour walk you just took completely annihilated you and you had to go home for a nap.
“The roller coaster unpredictability is also really hard to take.”
Alec was infuriated and frustrated, feeling improvement for two weeks, upping his training in response and suffering a relapse that left him back at square one.
“Starting the whole process again,” he said. “All I wanted, all I prayed for was a timeline or someone to tell me I was fixed, but the further you go down that road the more you realize that nobody has an answer.”
Every concussion is a different animal.
Some people get migraines which Alec never had. But he did have a near-constant mild headache. Some people are OK with lights and can’t handle noise. He was the opposite, taking refuge in darkened rooms.
“The unpredictability and not having any answers is the toughest thing to go through,” he said. “Going through it, I said many times, ‘I’d rather have a broken leg,’ because broken bones heal in six to eight weeks. It sucks and it’s painful, but you know what to expect and you know when you’ll be back.”
The mood swings and emotional impact were incredible and the disruption to his normal routines was almost unbearable.
“I couldn’t go out for a casual beer or go into a crowded restaurant,” he said. “If you’re following a full concussion protocol seriously, I couldn’t be on my cell-phone. I couldn’t watch TV. I couldn’t even read.
“I was thinking, ‘How useless can I be? Not only am I no longer an athlete, I can’t even be a functional human being right now. It really takes its toll on you.”
It took six months before he was able to start any level of training again. But he still couldn’t go full tilt and was never able to get race ready. Alec despaired as one World Cup event went by, then another, then another.
“Before I knew it I’d kissed the whole season goodbye,” he said.
When he was injured, Alec was desperate to have a light at the end of the tunnel, and started planning an epic solo journey. When he was finally healthy he loaded his bike with four bags and a tent and he rode. And rode. He rode from Chilliwack to Vancouver Island. Down the coast and the Olympic Peninsula. Through Oregon and into California, ending up just outside of Los Angeles.
“While everyone else was kicking back, partying and enjoying their well deserved rest, I was covering about 130-150 kilometres a day and I got into unreal shape,” he laughed. “I came back feeling great and when I got back to Calgary and started training, I was crushing everyone on the bike.
“I was feeling awesome and felt unbelievable, and I was back on the bike going down this pretty long downhill in Calgary when I heard a click.”
A mechanical malfunction sent Alec flying. He landed with a crack (broken collarbone) and a thud (another concussion).
“Thankfully this concussion lasted only about six or seven weeks and the collarbone healed up at the same time, so I was able to get back to training and get back to peak shape,” he said. “I put in a few months and by the end of the summer my test results were matching my previous personal bests.
“But I had a real hard time putting together good, consistent races.”
When doubt creeps into an athlete’s mind, when confidence is eroded beyond a certain point, sometimes there’s no getting it back.
It’s impossible to give more than 100 per cent, but if anyone came close it was Alec, who pushed through training with unmatched focus and intensity.
But the stellar results from training didn’t show up in races.
After a solid start to the season Alec started struggling and in November he experienced a quiet epiphany.
In the past, whenever that little voice of doubt crept into his head and suggested giving up, his answer was always an emphatic ‘f—k no!’
Now, Alec was less resolute and that’s when he knew the end was coming.