Straddling boundaries is what Donna Vakalis does. Vakalis’ undergraduate degree in Arts & Science at McMaster University let her “dabble rigorously.” She then came to U of T to complete a Professional Masters in Architecture with the aim of keeping “one foot in the sciences and one foot in the arts.”
As the 2008 Olympic Games approached and Vakalis realized that she would not make the Canadian Olympic Team, she traveled to Greece to train for her event, the Modern Pentathlon — the very definition of interdisciplinary.
Modern Pentathlon is a combination of epée fencing, swimming, horse riding, running, and pistol shooting (the last two became a single event after the 2008 Olympics).
“What’s distinctive about it is that the profile is much, much higher in Europe,” says Vakalis. “I’ve been in a taxi cab going from somewhere in Greece, say in Athens, and it’s surprising to me that the taxi cab driver knows exactly what pentathlon is. That differs from here where someone who is somewhat familiar with sport will not even know that this is an Olympic event.”
That has everything to do with funding. In Canada, according to Vakalis, “there’s no money to create an infrastructure to promote it and recruit, but without promoting it and recruiting more talent they’re not going to produce the results that will give them funding to further promote and recruit.
“There’s a lot of good will in the pentathlon community, and people who would talk your ear off about how great the sport is, but those people are not paid anything and they also have full day jobs.”
Vakalis came to pentathlon both early and late. She swam from a young age, and began riding while spending time on a friend’s farm in Carlisle, Ontario. She eventually attended a national tetrathlon (pentathlon without fencing) and won competition.
However, she then quit: “At the time I didn’t get the bigger picture of life balance and I just thought ‘I need to do other things, so I quit sports.”
Vakalis didn’t get involved again until graduate school in 2005, when she joined the fencing and triathlon clubs, “not with an aim of going into pentathlon, but because I missed just doing things and I also wanted to escape from the architecture desk.”
She found she was training increasingly hard. Vakalis started running cross-country the next year, and finished an OUA all-star.
Vakalis placed third at a pentathlon national competition in 2008 and hoped to compete internationally with the aim of qualifying for the 2008 Olympics. But, it was 2007 and the question remained, “How to do it?”
It was too late to qualify for the Canadian national team, so she contacted the Greek team who offered to pay for her training and give her somewhere to live. So Vakalis moved to Athens.
In Greece she found herself living first in an office space, then what had previously been a building where teens would go to party. But she made the best of it and “had some adventures cleaning it up and making it into a livable space.”
Much of her time was spent elsewhere though, training and competing in European competitions. In 2008 she was in Beijing as an alternate for the Greek team, but didn’t get to compete.
Vakalis returned to Toronto, where she spent the next year writing her thesis. She thought she would stay on the Greek team, but it soon became apparent funding would not be forthcoming and, although she faced a similar situation with the Canadian team, she found herself in increasing contact with them. Her approach was simple: “I don’t know how it will work, but I’ll make it happen somehow.”
Luck was on her side. This past summer Vakalis received help from an unusual source. She’s an avid consumer of podcasts, one of which is Jordan, Jesse, Go! a comedy podcast hosted by Jesse Thorn and comedian Jordan Morris. Upon learning that she had clinched a spot as one of thirty-six women who would compete in the pentathlon in London 2012 and would be returning to U of T in the fall to start her PhD in civil engineering, Vakalis called in to inform Thorn and Morris as part of a regular segment called “Momentous Occasions.”
When they heard her news, they sprang into action. “Jordan and I both thought that the fact that one of our listeners was going to the Olympics was the most amazing thing ever,” says Thorn. “It occurred to me as soon as we got Donna’s email and voicemail that if she was a modern pentathlete there was probably something we could do to help her out.”
The duo had her on their show and soon after launched a campaign with a purpose as simple as its title: “Buy Donna a Laser Gun!” Vakalis’s laser gun — used in the shooting portion of pentathlon — had broken in competition and she needed a new one, but the cost was prohibitive.
A total of $5070 came in, surpassing the hoped-for $2900 and providing enough not only to buy the gun but also to fix Vakalis’s fencing gear. Vakalis remembers waking up to emails saying money was pouring in, and thinking “No way, it’s working!”
Thorn wasn’t surprised, but was grateful that listeners pitched in. He and Morris even travelled to London to see Vakalis compete and ultimately placed 29th. Thorn was thrilled. “I don’t think we’ll ever get another chance to be friends with someone in the Olympics and to have someone run off the track and come over to the stands and give us a hug. That was an absolutely amazing moment in my life that I will remember until the day I die.”
Vakalis remembers a similar moment, where she ran past Thorn, Morris, and her best friend waving to her from the stands. She calls it “a moment of wonder” for which “there was no protocol.”
Two months later, Vakalis is one of a handful of graduate students who make their academic home in an office in the Galbraith building. Since returning from London, she’s joined the Nordic skiing and mountain biking teams, two sports she happily crows she has no prior experience in. She’s also thrilled to be back in school, working on making buildings and cities greener. “It’s just so much fun. There’s probably not many points where society condones you spending all your time doing something that you’ve dreamed up and that applies to high level sport as well.”
I asked Vakalis if there was anything else she thought people ought to know about her. Canada’s pentathlete paused, made a joke about telling people to read books, and then started talking about Toronto.
“By and large, the people here, the people I train with here at U of T, on the cross-country team, on the mountain biking team, on the Nordic team, on the swim team, and the people I get to interact with now in my courses — there’s this feeling of … things do matter and we can make a difference, and it’s so palpable.”